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Pirates and galleons

A 17th-century pirate captain armed with a flintlock pistolA pirate is someone who takes over a ship that does not belong to them. Pirates often sailed in stolen ships across the world’s oceans, stealing other ships’ cargo, then burning or sinking the ships after murdering the crew and captain. There have been pirates since ancient times, but the "Golden Age of Piracy" started in the early 16th century. It was sparked when the Spanish started shipping large amounts of treasure from the Americas back to Spain. Britain, France and the Netherlands, all hostile to Spain, hired pirates called privateers to steal and plunder the Spanish ships. Pirates are still in action today, especially in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia.



Privateers attack a Spanish galleon.

Golden Age of Piracy

After Christopher Columbus, in the service of Spain, landed in the Americas in 1492, Spain claimed much of Central and South America as its own. The coastal areas of the new Spanish colonies became known as the Spanish Main. The Spanish began to mine huge quantities of silver from Potosí in Bolivia—and shipped the treasure back to Spain. The sea journey was threatened by privateers, men employed to steal Spain’s treasure by enemy governments. And so the “Golden Age of Piracy” in the Caribbean Sea began. 


Spanish galleons

Pirates probably didn't bury their treasure—they were too busy spending it. Captain William Kidd (1645–1701) was the only pirate known to have buried treasure, perhaps in the area of Long Island in modern-day New York state. No one has ever found it.

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