Piracy flourished on the South Carolina coast chiefly in two periods: the early proprietary years (1670–1700) and at the end of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (1716–1720).
Piracy flourished on the South Carolina coast chiefly in two periods: the early proprietary years (1670–1700) and at the end of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (1716–1720). Settled in 1670, Charleston soon became the chief port of Carolina, a region contested by the Spanish, French, and English in the frequent wars of the era. The proprietary government was often weak and sometimes was headed by corrupt officials. Pirates, most of whom began their commerce raiding as legal wartime privateers, thrived in such an uncertain and turbulent setting. The growing trade of Charleston also attracted raids by foreign privateers who were perceived by the local citizens as pirates.
Like merchants in all of the colonies, Charleston’s traders were accustomed to dealing with smugglers and therefore welcomed the cheap goods and specie that the pirates brought. Customs officers were not above taking bribes to smooth illegal trade, and “consorting with pirates” was not an uncommon charge levied against governors by their opponents. When the colony’s notorious reputation for “harbouring and encouraging of Pirates” reached the Privy Council in England in 1684, the provincial assembly was admonished to pass an act to suppress piracy. Open dealing with pirates caused the expulsion of council member John Boone in 1686 and peaked in the 1690s under Governors Seth Sothel and Philip Ludwell.
Throughout the colonial period Spanish and French privateers presented Charleston with a constant threat that reached its zenith during Queen Anne’s War (1701–1713). In August 1706 a combined French and Spanish expedition of privateers and naval vessels raided the environs of Charleston but were driven off by a provincial flotilla led by Colonel William Rhett. At the end of the war many of the thousands of unemployed privateers in the West Indies flocked to the new center of piracy, New Providence Island in the Bahamas. South Carolina had just survived a devastating war with the Yamassee Indians in 1715 that left the colony unable to cope with the pirates swarming along the coast in 1717–1718. Among the most notorious of the pirates sailing off South Carolina were Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Charles Vane, Christopher Moody, Richard Worley, and Anne Bonney, who was from Charleston. Escalating piratical attacks peaked in May 1718 in a raid by Charles Vane and a brazen blockade by Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet. These incidents finally aroused the city to take action, and by the end of the year South Carolinians had rid themselves of the worst of their tormentors.
There had been several individual ships taken off Charleston in the previous year, but in mid-May 1718 Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet brought a four-ship fleet mounting about sixty guns to blockade the port. During the course of a week, numerous ships were plundered of goods and specie, trade came to a standstill, and hostages were ransomed for valuable medicines. This humiliating incident was preceded by Charles Vane’s seizure of several ships off the harbor entrance. When Vane returned later in the summer for a brief blockade of Charleston, Colonel Rhett was sent with armed sloops to capture him. Vane eluded the pursuit, but Rhett found Stede Bonnet’s fleet at Cape Fear, defeated him in a vicious battle, and returned him and his crew to Charleston for execution. Christopher Moody’s audacious taking of prizes in sight of Charleston in October led Governor Robert Johnson to organize another punitive expedition of four armed vessels. On November 5 Johnson’s flotilla clashed with two pirate sloops in a bloody action at the harbor’s mouth in sight of the port. When one of the sloops dashed for open sea, the governor gave chase and ultimately succeeded in taking the prize. The pirate captain, who was killed in the action, turned out to be Richard Worley. The battles fought by Rhett and Governor Johnson and the subsequent mass executions of pirates virtually ended the presence of pirates on the South Carolina coast.
Piracy in the province slowly died out in the 1720s. Among the few pirates who briefly appeared in that decade were George Lowther and Edward Low. Lowther attempted to take an armed merchantman off Charleston in 1722 but was defeated and driven off. The following year Edward Low ravaged five vessels off the harbor and escaped, but the Royal Navy soon captured him. Although an occasional rumor of a pirate sighting would reach Charleston, the “Golden Age of Piracy” was over.
Coker, P. C., III. Charleston’s Maritime Heritage, 1670–1865: An Illustrated History. Charleston, S.C.: Coker Craft, 1987.
Hughson, Shirley Carter. The Carolina Pirates and Colonial Commerce, 1670–1740. 1894. Reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Company, 1973.
McCrady, Edward. The History of South Carolina under the Proprietary Government, 1670–1719. New York: Macmillan, 1897.
Sherman, Richard P. Robert Johnson: Proprietary & Royal Governor of South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1966.