June 1720, Manuscript, 24 pages in a neat and flowing hand, signed Richard West.
A Highly Important Document in The Attorney General’s Hand allowing Pirates to be tried and executed on foreign lands, particularly the Americas.
The law required anyone accused of piracy to be brought to London and tried by the Admiralty Courts. This proved impractical, expensive and other than a few cases, i.e. Captain Quelch, the practise of appearing for trial in London was adhered to until this important document was produced and the act was passed.
This document was created by Richard West to address the problems with earlier acts in the late 17th century that allowed pirates to escape prosecution due to various legal loopholes.
In 1684, most colonial trials came to a halt when the English government decided that the colonies did not have jurisdiction to try any piracy cases.
The 1536 statute obligated colonial officials to ship accused pirates and witnesses to England to attend trial. Since a great deal of piracy took place in and around England’s distant colonies, the Offenses at Sea Act left a serious impediment to effectively dealing with sea bandits. As a later law read: ‘[I]t hath been found by Experience, that Persons committing Piracies, Robberies and Felonies on the Seas, in or near the East and West Indies, and in Places very remote, cannot be brought to condign Punishment without great Trouble and Charges in sending them into England to be tried within the Realm, as the said Statute directs, insomuch that many idle and profligate Persons have been thereby encouraged to turn Pirates, and betake themselves to that sort of wicked Life, trusting that they shall not, or at least cannot easily, be questioned for such their Piracies and Robberies, by reason of the great Trouble and Expence that will necessarily fall upon such as shall attempt to apprehend and prosecute them for the same’. . . .Colonial governments were interested in prosecuting pirates. But not if they had to foot the bill. Consequently, when they captured pirates, they often just let them go. The problem that this criminal “catch and release” policy created intensified in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when a new wave of pirates took to the sea.
The creation of regular colonial courts with the authority to try pirates proved to be a tremendous boon to the government’s assault on sea robbers. Parliament originally designed the 1700 Act to expire in only seven years. But owing to the great effect it had in permitting the more regular prosecution of pirates, Parliament renewed it several times following the War of the Spanish Succession and made the law permanent in 1720 (this document). The Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy stuck two additional thorns in the side of pirates. First, it treated active pirate sympathizers as accessories to piracy and stipulated the same punishments for them—death and property forfeiture—as for actual pirates.According to the Act: ‘And whereas several evil-disposed Persons, in the Plantations and elsewhere, have contributed very much towards the Increase and Encouragement of Pirates .Be it enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, who shall either on the Land, or upon the Seas, knowingly or wittingly set forth any Pirate, or aid and assist, or maintain, procure, command, counsel or devise any Person or Persons whatsoever, to do or commit any Piracies or Robberies upon the Seas . .[or shall] receive, entertain or conceal any such Pirate or Robber, or receive or take into his Custody any Ship, Vessel, Goods or Chattels, which have been by any such Pirate or Robber piratically and feloniously taken . .are hereby likewise declared . to be accessary to such Piracy and Robbery and shall and may be adjudged as the Principals of such Piracies and Robberies’ .
Provenance: Sir Thomas Phillips collection, ms 31912