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Roger Weller, geology instructor

Valuable Materials
by Mark Tillman
Physical Geology
Spring 2007

Pirates' Booty!

  For hundreds of years Pirates have been a threat to the innocents of the world. Continuously plundering, pillaging, pilfering; endlessly rummaging, ransacking raping; mercilessly killing, kissing, and kidnapping their victims. All of this for the sake of literally tons of the worlds most precious gems and minerals.


·       Gold

·       Silver

·       Emeralds

·       Pearls

·       Rubies

·       Sapphires

·       Diamonds


Piracy in the Atlantic involved the shipments of valuable minerals from Mexico, South America, and North America. “The most precious prizes were chests of gold, silver and jewels. Coins were especially popular because pirate crews could share them out easily. Coins were far more likely to be made of silver than gold, because ten times as much silver was mined in America, but wealthy passengers were sometimes robbed of gold doubloons they brought with them from Spain.


            Emeralds and pearls were the most common jewels that were mined in America and provided rich plunder. However, pirates did not only seize precious cargoes like these. They also wanted things they could use, such as food, barrels of wine and brandy, sails, anchors and other spare equipment for their ship, and essential tools such as those belonging to the ship's carpenter and surgeon.”1


GOLD: is the first and most well known mineral of piracy. This is due primarily to the exposure it has received through books and movies. However, gold as a mineral of piracy cannot discussed without first establishing a history of gold. This history like most history begins in Africa, more specifically in Egypt. Egypt was the first recorded nation to use gold for the purpose of adornment and royal decoration. For a pirate of the fifteen and sixteenth centauries gold is most commonly found in the form of coins known as doubloons, which came form Spain. However gold could also be found in the form of necklaces, rings, and medallions, as well as in its raw unformed state. Starting in the sixteenth century the Spanish began to send the gold, which had been mined in New Spain (Mexico) back to Europe via the rout of the Spanish Main. This resulted in pirates hijacking and plundering the ships for the gold and other valuable items. Despite all of the attention paid to gold it was quite a rare find for a marauding pirate crew. On these rare occasions however there have been stories of pirates attacking a ship loaded with thousands of pounds of gold.



SILVER: Being far more common than gold, is essentially the real mineral of piracy. Although gold is widely popularized by various forms of media as the primary mineral involved in piracy it was extremely rare. The famous stories of sunken pirate treasure are also changed dramatically due to this fact, because silver deteriorates rapidly in seawater and would have little value (except for a museum) if ever found.  “In the sixteenth century, the Spanish were mining staggering amounts of silver bullion from the mines of Zacatecas in New Spain (Mexico) and Potosí in Peru (actually now located in Bolivia). The huge Spanish silver shipments from the New World to the Old attracted pirates and privateers, both in the Caribbean and across the Atlantic, all along the route from the Caribbean to Seville.”2 This is the story of nearly all of the valuable minerals found in the new world. They would be stolen from the Native’s lands and then stolen from the pirates.



EMERALDS: Not unlike gold the history of emeralds starts in Egypt, in the famous  “Cleopatra’s Mine” which extracted gems for use of adornment and decoration by the royalty of Egypt. In life and in death the great royalty of Egypt was always richly dressed. However the Emeralds that would have been of interest to pirates were those acquired by Spain in the New World. “Fabulous emerald crystals came from what is now Colombia. It took Spain five decades to overpower the Muzo Indians who occupied the mining area. Monarchs and the gem-loving royalty in India, Turkey, and Persia sought the New World treasures once the gems arrived in Europe. The new emerald owners produced spectacular artifacts between 1600 and 1900.”3 These minerals would have been stolen by pirates at some point along their trip back to Spain. However, such a find was the most rare for a pirate ship.


PEARLS: Like the rest of the valued goods, which attracted pirates, were mined heavily in North and South America, and sent back to Europe on ships. “As Europe raced to capitalize on what Columbus had stumbled upon, the major powers of the day concentrated on spheres of influence. Spain focused its efforts in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, the Spanish forced slaves to dive for pearls. The English colonizers along North America's Atlantic coast and French explorers to the north and west, all found native Americans wearing pearls, and they discovered freshwater pearls in the Ohio, Mississippi, and Tennessee River basins. So many gems were exported to Europe that the New World quickly gained the appellation ‘Land of Pearls.’ While North America set a new standard for large freshwater pearls, white saltwater pearls from the coasts of Panama and Venezuela competed with pearls from Bahrain, and black saltwater pearls from the Bay of California (in what is now Mexico) provided an alternative to Tahitian blacks. More pearls arrived in Spain than the country's aristocratic market could absorb. As with the emeralds it was mining in Colombia, Spain found ready buyers for its new pearls across Europe and in India.”4 However pearls were slightly more common and could be found in the form of necklaces, and bracelets, occasionally born by rich passengers. Unfortunately this most expensive of new jewelry frequently cost the owner their life.


While these were indeed the primary minerals involved in piracy, it was rare that a pirate ship would ever acquire a reputable quantity of these items. Instead pirates were more frequently stealing supplies of cotton and tobacco from the merchant ships they encountered. Furthermore the pirates described above were only a handful of those associated with the title. As such there were many more valuable gems and metals than these few listed which had the opportunity of being involved in a high seas battle.  Battles involving many different nationalities and countries all over the world; from the Caribbean, to Singapore, to Madagascar, to world’s end.  




1. April 10, 2007.
2. April 15, 2007.
3. April 15, 2007. Genesis Gems.
4. April 15, 2007. Nova Online: The Perfect Pearl.
p1. April 15, 2007. I Stock Photo.
p2. April 15, 2007.
April 15, 2007.
P4. April 15, 2007.
P5. April 15, 2007.