Did Piracy in the Americas give Britain an Advantage in the Atlantic during the Formation of the British Empire?
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In the early modern period, with the opportunities arising from the expansion of Europe, particularly in the Americas, pirates ‘disrupted trade in strategic zones of capital accumulation - the West Indies, North America, and West Africa – at a time when the recently stabilized and expanding Atlantic economy was the source of enormous profits and renewed imperial power’. The era of piracy in the Caribbean began in the 16th century, and did not decline until over 150 years later, when the navies of the nations of Western Europe and North America with colonial interest in the Americas began to systematically combat the threat of pirates. With the Age of Exploration beginning with Christopher Columbus, large-scale exploration, conquest, and colonization of the native peoples of Asia, Africa and especially the Americas followed as the developed European nation-states battled for supremacy of their home continent. Spain took the lead in this starting with Columbus, followed by Portugal; France, England and the Netherlands became involved later. Until 1800 these five European countries all ruled overseas empires. Eventually, England, or later Britain, would win out over the others, which weakened over time, and by the middle of the 19th century the British Empire was not only the largest empire the world had ever seen, it was also the only functioning and flourishing empire in existence. Naturally, owing to the way that the British Empire has affected the course of global history, the question of how a country as small as Britain was able to conquer and rule over, at its peak, a quarter of the globe, is a popular one amongst scholars. In Empire, Niall Ferguson treats specifically the question of how it was Britain that came to be the dominant European empire-builder, and he puts forward that the British Empire owes its roots to a ‘maelstrom of seaborne violence and theft’, a mere conscious act of imitation. Ferguson is referring to the activities of pirates and privateers in the Caribbean in the years after the voyages of Columbus that went on for centuries. The British famously partook in such activities, as did the other European nation-states who constantly fought in Europe and across the globe for supremacy. The question that must be asked is whether the raids that began on the Spanish and involved all of the European empire-builders at a time could have immediately, or set in motion the events that eventually handed the decisive advantage to the British. That is the core hypothesis presented here. Consequently, the question is asked; can it be possible that the British gained their decisive advantage in the Americas, and then globally, by being the best pirates?