The coastline of North Carolina has been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” due to the great number of ships that have wrecked in its waters. The barrier islands that stretch along the coast, constantly changing tides, and drifting sands made passing the inlets almost impossible for men and ships unfamiliar with the area. The treacherous shores, inlets, and coves attracted pirates and smugglers with the security of isolation. They used the barrier islands as a central base of operations to intercept British and Spanish ships laden with gold, silver and other riches.
Privateers or Pirates = big business. The golden age of piracy ran from the late 1600’s to the early 1700’s. Some of the first privateers are well known historical figures: Sir Francis Drake, Christopher Columbus, and Sir Walter Raleigh. A privateer was differentiated from a pirate by a note called a “Letter of Marque” from a reigning monarch specifically granting authorization to capture and confiscate another nation’s merchant ships. Privateers operated independently, apart from the navy, but were an accepted part of naval warfare from the 1500’s to the 1800’s. Private investors paid for privateering in hopes of profiting from stolen goods, while governments appreciated the damage they did to enemy commerce.
Pirates often started out as privateers, eventually becoming independent business men with their own code of ethics or “pirate’s code”. Their eye was always on the prize, ships laden with treasure. Aside from Hollywood movies, the objective was to capture ships and not sink them. An intact ship and the treasure it contained was the reward and the crew members remaining alive through the conflict were trained seamen easily converted to pirates. What other options did they have?