In an honest Service, there is thin Commons, low Wages, and hard Labour; in this, Plenty and Satiety, Pleasure and Ease, Liberty and Power; and who would not balance Creditor on this Side, when all the Hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sower Look or two at choaking. No, a merry Life and a short one shall be my Motto—Pirate Captain Bartholomew Roberts
The Caribbean had become a center of European trade and colonization after Columbus’ discovery of the New World for Spain in 1492. In the 1493 Treaty of Tordesillas the non-European world had been divided between the Spanish and the Portuguese along a north-south line 270 leagues west of the Cape Verde. This gave Spain control of the Americas, a position the Spaniards later reinforced with an equally unenforceable papal bull. On the Spanish Main, the key early settlements were Cartagena in present-day Colombia, Porto Bello and Panama City on the Isthmus of Panama, Santiago on the southeastern coast of Cuba, and Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. 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.
To combat this constant danger, in the 1560s the Spanish adopted a convoy system. A treasure fleet or flota would sail annually from Seville (and later from Cádiz) in Spain, carrying passengers, troops, and European manufactured goods to the Spanish colonies of the New World. This cargo, though profitable, was really just a form of ballast for the fleet as its true purpose was to transport the year’s worth of silver to Europe. The first stage in the journey was the transport of all that silver from the mines in Peru and New Spain in a mule convoy called the Silver Train to a major Spanish port, usually on the Isthmus of Panama or from Veracruz in Mexico. The flota would meet up with the Silver Train, offload its cargo of manufactured goods to waiting colonial merchants and then transfer the precious cargo of gold and silver (in bullion or coin form) into its holds. This made the returning Spanish treasure fleet a tempting target, although pirates were more likely to shadow the fleet to attack stragglers than try and seize the well-guarded main vessels. The classic route for the treasure fleet in the Caribbean was through the Lesser Antilles to the ports along the Spanish Main on the coast of Central America and Mexico, then northwards into the Yucatán Channel to catch the westerly winds back to Europe.
The Dutch United Provinces of the Netherlands and England, both defenders of Protestantism, were defiantly opposed to Catholic Spain (the greatest power of Christendom in the sixteenth century) by the 1560s, while the French government was seeking to expand its colonial holdings in the New World now that Spain had proven they could be extremely profitable. It was the French who had established the first non-Spanish settlement in the Caribbean when they had founded Fort Caroline near what is now Jacksonville, Florida in 1564, although the settlement was soon wiped out by a Spanish attack from the larger colony of Saint Augustine. Aided by their governments, English, French and Dutch traders and colonists utterly ignored the unenforceable line drawn by the Treaty of Tordesillas to invade Spanish colonial territory even in times of peace between their nations in Europe, which gave rise to the famed sixteenth century phrase: “No peace beyond the line.”
The Spanish, despite being the wealthiest state in Christendom at the time, could not afford a sufficient military presence to control such a vast area of ocean or enforce their exclusionary, mercantilist trading laws which allowed only Spanish merchants to trade with the colonists of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. This allowed for constant smuggling to break the Spanish trading laws and new attempts at Caribbean colonization in peacetime by England, France and the Netherlands. Whenever a war was declared in Europe between the Great Powers the result was always widespread piracy and privateering throughout the Caribbean.
The Anglo-Spanish War in 1585–1604 was partly due to trade disputes in the New World. A focus on extracting mineral and agricultural wealth from the New World rather than building productive, self-sustaining settlements in its colonies; inflation fueled in part by the massive shipments of silver and gold to Western Europe; endless rounds of expensive wars in Europe; an aristocracy that belittled commercial opportunities as beneath them; and an inefficient system of tolls and tariffs that hampered industry all contributed to Spain’s decline of power during the 17th century. However, very profitable trade continued between its colonies and Spain's overseas empire continued to expand until the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, in the Caribbean the arrival of European diseases with Columbus had reduced the local Indian populations; the native population of New Spain fell as much as 90% from its original numbers in the 1500s. This loss of native population led Spain to increasingly rely on African slave labor to run Spanish America's colonies, plantations and mines and the trans-Atlantic slave trade offered new sources of profit for English, Dutch and French traders who wanted to violate the Spanish mercantilist laws—and did so, with impunity. But the relative emptiness of the Caribbean also made it an inviting place for England, France and the Netherlands to set up colonies of their own, especially as gold and silver became less important as commodities to be seized and were replaced by tobacco and sugar as cash crops that could make men very rich.
As Spain’s military might in Europe weakened, the Spanish trading laws in the New World were violated with greater frequency by the merchants of other nations. The Spanish port on the island of Trinidad off the northern coast of South America, permanently settled only in 1592, became a major point of contact between all the nations with a presence in the Caribbean.
At the same time, England and France were powers on the rise in seventeenth century Europe as they mastered their own internal religious schisms between Catholic and Protestant and the resulting societal peace allowed their economies to rapidly expand. England especially began to turn its people’s maritime skills into the basis of commercial prosperity. English and French kings of the early seventeenth century—James I (r. 1603-1625) and Henry IV (r. 1598-1610), respectively, each sought more peaceful relations with Habsburg Spain in an attempt to decrease the financial costs of the ongoing wars. Although the onset of peace in 1604 reduced the opportunities for both piracy and privateering against Spain’s colonies, neither monarch discouraged his nation from trying to plant new colonies in the New World and break the Spanish monopoly on the Western Hemisphere. The reputed riches, pleasant climate and the general emptiness of the Americas all beckoned to those eager to make their fortunes and a large assortment of Frenchmen and Englishmen began new colonial ventures during the early seventeenth century, both in North America, which lay basically empty of European settlement north of Mexico, and in the Caribbean, where Spain remained the dominant power until late in the century.
As for the Dutch Netherlands, after decades of rebellion against Spain fueled by both Dutch nationalism and their staunch Protestantism, independence had been gained in all but name (and that too would eventually come with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648). The Netherlands had become Europe’s economic powerhouse. With new, innovative ship designs like the fluyt (a cargo vessel able to be operated with a small crew and enter relatively inaccessible ports) rolling out of the ship yards in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, new capitalist economic arrangements like the joint-stock company taking root and the military reprieve provided by the Twelve Year Truce with the Spanish (1609-1621), Dutch commercial interests were expanding explosively across the globe, but particularly in the New World and East Asia. However, in the early seventeenth century, the most powerful Dutch companies, like the Dutch East India Company, were most interested in developing operations in the East Indies (Indonesia) and Japan, and left the West Indies to smaller, more independent Dutch operators.
By 1600, Porto Bello had replaced Nombre de Dios (where Sir Francis Drake had first struck at the Spanish) as the Isthmus of Panama’s Caribbean port for the Spanish Silver Train and the annual treasure fleet. Veracruz, the major port city in Mexico, continued to serve the vast interior of New Spain as its window on the Caribbean. By the seventeenth century, the majority of the towns along the Spanish Main and in Central America had become self-sustaining. The smaller towns of the Main grew tobacco and also welcomed foreign smugglers who avoided the Spanish mercantilist laws. The underpopulated inland regions of Hispaniola were another area where tobacco smugglers in particular were welcome to ply their trade.
The Spanish-ruled island of Trinidad was already a wide-open port open to the ships and seamen of every nation in the region at the start of the seventeenth century, and was a particular favorite for smugglers who dealt in tobacco and European manufactured goods. Local Caribbean smugglers sold their tobacco or sugar for decent prices and then bought manufactured goods from the trans-Atlantic traders in large quantities to be dispersed among the colonists of the West Indies and the Spanish Main who were eager for a little touch of home. The Spanish governor of Trinidad, who lacked both strong harbor fortifications and possessed only a laughably small garrison of Spanish troops, could do little but take lucrative bribes from English, French and Dutch smugglers and look the other way—or risk being overthrown and replaced by his own people with a more pliable administrator.
After the destruction of Fort Caroline by the Spanish, the French made no further colonization attempts in the Caribbean for several decades as France was convulsed by its own Catholic-Protestant religious divide during the late sixteenth century Wars of Religion. However, old French privateering anchorages with small “tent camp” towns could be found during the early seventeenth century in the Bahamas. These settlements provided little more than a place for ships and their crews to take on some fresh water and food and perhaps have a dalliance with the local camp followers, all of which would have been quite expensive.
In the early seventeenth century, Dutch merchant ships were commonly seen plying Caribbean waters, but no true Dutch-owned ports (the Dutch called their colonies “factories”) yet existed. The Dutch spent most of their time trading in smuggled goods with the smaller Spanish colonies. Trinidad was the unofficial home port for Dutch traders and privateers in the New World early in the seventeenth century before they established their own colonies in the 1620’s and 1630’s. As usual, Trinidad’s ineffective Spanish governor was helpless to stop the Dutch from using his port and instead he usually accepted their lucrative bribes.
Even as the Dutch Netherlands were forced to renew their struggle against Spain for independence as part of the Thirty Years’ War (the entire rebellion against the Spanish Habsburgs was called the Eighty Years’ War in Holland), Holland had become the world’s leader in mercantile shipping and commercial capitalism and Dutch companies finally turned their attention to the West Indies in the seventeenth century. The renewed war with Spain with the end of the truce offered many opportunities for the successful Dutch joint-stock companies to finance military expeditions against the Spanish Empire. The old English and French privateering anchorages from the sixteenth century in the Caribbean now swarmed anew with Dutch warships.
In England, a new round of colonial ventures in the New World was fueled by declining economic opportunities at home and growing religious intolerance for more radical Protestants (like the Puritans) who rejected the compromise Protestant theology of the established Church of England. After the demise of the Saint Lucia and Grenada colonies soon after their establishment, and the near-extinction of the English settlement of Jamestown in Virginia, new and stronger colonies were established by the English in the first half of the seventeenth century, at Plymouth, Boston, Barbados, the West Indian islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis and Providence Island. These colonies would all persevere to become centers of English civilization in the New World.
For France, now ruled by the Bourbon King Louis XIII (r. 1610-1642) and his able minister Cardinal Richelieu, religious civil war had been reignited between French Catholics and Protestants (called Huguenots). Throughout the 1620’s, French Huguenots fled France and founded colonies in the New World much like their English counterparts. Then, in 1636, to decrease the power of the Habsburg dynasty who ruled Spain and the Holy Roman Empire on France’s eastern border, France entered the cataclysm in Germany—on the Protestants’ side.
The English colonies on Saint Kitts and Nevis, founded in 1623, would prove to become wealthy sugar-growing settlements in time. Another new English venture on Providence Island off the malaria ridden Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua, deep in the heart of the Spanish Empire, had become the premier base for English privateers and other pirates raiding the Spanish Main.
On the shared Anglo-French island of Saint Christophe (called “Saint Kitts” by the English) the French had the upper hand. The French settlers on Saint Christophe were mostly Catholics, while the unsanctioned but growing French colonial presence in northwest Hispaniola (the future nation of Haiti) was largely made up of French Protestants who had settled there without Spain’s permission to escape Catholic persecution back home. France cared little what happened to the troublesome Huguenots, even if their life got flipped turned upside down, but the colonization of western Hispaniola allowed the French to both rid themselves of their religious minority and strike a blow against Spain—an excellent bargain, from the French Crown’s point of view. The ambitious Huguenots had also claimed the island of Tortuga off the northwest coast of Hispaniola and had established the settlement of Petit Goave on the island itself. Tortuga in particular was to become a pirate and privateer haven and was beloved of smugglers of all nationalities—after all, even the creation of the settlement had been illegal!
Dutch colonies in the Caribbean remained rare until the second third of the seventeenth century. Along with the traditional privateering anchorages in the Bahamas and Florida, the Dutch West India Company settled a “factory” (commercial town) at New Amsterdam on the North American mainland in 1626 and at Curacao in 1634, an island positioned right in the center of the Caribbean off the northern coast of Venezuela that was perfectly positioned to become a major maritime crossroads.
But disasters in the Old World bred new opportunities in the New World. The Spanish Empire’s colonies were badly neglected from the middle of the seventeenth century because of Spain’s many woes. Freebooters and privateers, experienced after decades of European warfare, pillaged and plundered the almost defenseless Spanish settlements with ease and with little interference from the European governments back home who were too worried about their own European problems to turn much attention to their New World colonies. The non-Spanish colonies were growing and expanding across the Caribbean, fueled by a great increase in immigration as people fled from the chaos and lack of economic opportunity in Europe. While most of these new immigrants settled into the West Indies’ expanding plantation economy, others took to the life of the buccaneer. Meanwhile, the canny Dutch, at last truly independent of Spain when the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia ended their own Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) with the Habsburgs, made a fortune carrying the European trade goods needed by these new colonies. Peaceful trading was not as profitable as privateering, but it was a far safer business.
By the later half of the seventeenth century, Barbados had become the unofficial capital of the English West Indies before this position was claimed by Jamaica later in the century. Barbados was a merchant’s dream port in this period. European goods were freely available, the island’s sugar crop sold for premium prices, and the island’s English governor rarely sought to enforce any type of mercantilist regulations. The English colonies at Saint Kitts and Nevis were economically strong and now well-populated as the demand for sugar in Europe increasingly drove their plantation-based economies. The English had also expanded their dominion in the Caribbean and settled several new islands, including Bermuda in 1612, Antigua and Montserrat in 1632, and Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 1648, though these settlements began like all the others as relatively tiny communities that were not economically self-sufficient.
The French also founded major new colonies on the sugar-growing islands of Guadeloupe in 1634 and Martinique in 1635 in the Lesser Antilles. However, the heart of French activity in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century always remained Tortuga, the well-fortified island haven off the coast of Hispaniola for privateers, buccaneers and outright pirates. The main French colony on the rest Hispaniola remained the settlement of Petit Goave, which was the French toehold that would develop into Haiti. French privateers still used the tent city anchorages in the Florida Keys to plunder the Spaniards’ shipping in the Florida Channel, as well as to raid the shipping that plied the sealanes off the northern coast of Cuba.
For the Dutch in the seventeenth-century Caribbean, the island of Curacao was the equivalent of England’s port at Barbados. This large, rich, well-defended free port, open to the ships of all the European states, offered good prices for sugar that was re-exported to Europe and also sold large quantities of manufactured goods in return to the colonists of every nation in the New World. A second Dutch-controlled free port had also developed on the island of Saint Eustatius which was settled in 1636.The constant back-and-forth warfare between the Dutch and the English for possession of it in the 1660’s later damaged the island’s economy and desirability as a port. The Dutch also had set up a settlement on the island of Saint Martin which became another haven for Dutch sugar planters and their African slave labor. In 1648, the Dutch agreed to divide the prosperous island in half with the French.
The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries are often considered the "Golden Age of Piracy" in the Caribbean. The military power of the Spanish Empire in the New World started to decline when King Philip IV of Spain was succeeded by King Charles II (r. 1665-1700), who in 1665 became the last Habsburg king of Spain at the age of four. While Spanish America in the late seventeenth century had little military protection as Spain entered a phase of decline as a Great Power, it also suffered less from the Spanish Crown's mercantilist policies with its economy. This lack of interference, combined with a surge in output from the silver mines due to increased availability of slave labor (the demand for sugar increased the number of slaves brought to the Caribbean) began a resurgence in the fortunes of Spanish America.
England, France and the Dutch Netherlands had all become New World colonial powerhouses in their own right by 1660. Worried by Holland’s intense commercial success since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, England launched a trade war with the Dutch. The English Parliament passed the first of its own mercantilist Navigation Acts (1651) and the Staple Act (1663) that required that English colonial goods be carried only in English ships and legislated limits on trade between the English colonies and foreigners. These laws were aimed at ruining the Dutch merchants whose livelihoods depended on free trade. This trade war would lead to three outright Anglo-Dutch Wars over the course of the next twenty-five years. Meanwhile, King Louis XIV of France (r. 1642-1715) had finally assumed his majority with the death of his regent mother Queen Anne of Austria’s chief minister, Cardinal Mazarin, in 1661. The “Sun King’s” aggressive foreign policy was aimed at expanding France’s eastern border with the Holy Roman Empire and led to constant warfare against shifting alliances that included England, Holland, the various German states and Spain. In short, Europe was consumed in the final decades of the seventeenth century by nearly constant dynastic intrigue and warfare—an opportune time for pirates and privateers to engage in their bloody trade.
In the Caribbean, this political environment led colonial governors to new threats from every direction. The Dutch sugar island of Saint Eustatius changed ownership ten times between 1664 and 1674 as the English and Dutch dueled for supremacy. Consumed with the various wars in Europe, the mother countries provided few further military reinforcements to their colonies, so the colonial governors of the Caribbean increasingly made use of buccaneers as mercenaries and privateers to guard their colonies or carry the fight to their mother country’s current enemy. Surprisingly (or not), these undisciplined and greedy dogs of war often proved difficult for their sponsors to control.
By the late seventeenth century, the great Spanish towns of the Caribbean had begun to prosper and Spain also began to make a slow, fitful recovery, but remained poorly defended militarily because of Spain’s problems and so were sometimes easy prey for pirates and privateers. The English presence continued to expand in the Caribbean as England itself was rising toward great power status in Europe. Captured from Spain in 1655, the island of Jamaica had been taken over by England and its chief settlement of Port Royal had become a new English buccaneer haven in the midst of the Spanish Empire. Jamaica was slowly transformed, along with Saint Kitts, into the heart of the English presence in the Caribbean. At the same time the French Lesser Antilles colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique remained the main centers of French power in the Caribbean, as well as among the richest French possessions because of their increasingly profitable sugar plantations. The French also maintained privateering strongholds around western Hispaniola, at their traditional pirate port of Tortuga, and their Hispaniolan capital of Petit Goave. The French further expanded their settlements on the western half of Hispaniola and founded Leogane and Port-de-Paix, even as sugar plantations became the primary industry for the French colonies of the Caribbean.
At the start of the eighteenth century, Europe remained riven by warfare and constant diplomatic intrigue. France was still the dominant power but now had to contend with a new rival Great Britain after 1707) which emerged as a great power at sea and land during the War of Spanish Succession. But the depredations of the pirates and buccaneers in the Americas in the latter half of the seventeenth century and of similar mercenaries in Germany during the Thirty Years War had taught the rulers and military leaders of Europe that those who fought for profit rather than for King and Country could often ruin the local economy of the region they plundered, in this case the entire Caribbean. At the same time, the constant warfare had led the Great Powers to develop larger standing armies and bigger navies to meet the demands of global colonial warfare. By 1700 the European states had enough troops and ships at their disposal to begin better protecting the important colonies in the West Indies and in the Americas without relying on the aid of privateers. This spelled the doom of privateering and the easy (and nicely legal) life it provided for the buccaneer. Though Spain remained a weak power for the rest of the colonial period, pirates in large numbers generally disappeared after 1720, chased from the seas by a new English Royal Navy squadron based at Port Royal, Jamaica and a smaller group of Spanish privateers sailing from the Spanish Main known as the Costa Garda (Coast Guard in English). With regular military forces now on-station in the West Indies, letters of marque were harder and harder to obtain.
Economically, the late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century was a time of growing wealth and trade for all the nations of the Caribbean. Although some piracy would always remain until the mid-eighteenth century, the path to wealth in the Caribbean in the future lay through peaceful trade, the growing of tobacco, rice and sugar and smuggling to avoid the British Navigation Acts and Spanish mercantilist laws. By the eighteenth century the Bahamas had become the new colonial frontier for the English. The port of Nassau became one of the last pirate havens. A small English colony had even sprung up in former Spanish territory at Belize in Honduras that had been founded by an English pirate in 1638. The French’s colonial empire in the Caribbean had not grown substantially by the start of the eighteenth century. The sugar islands of Guadaloupe and Martinique remained the twin economic capitals of the French Lesser Antilles, and were now equal in population and prosperity to the largest of the English's Caribbean colonies. Tortuga had begun to decline in importance, but France's Hispaniolan settlements were becoming major importers of African slaves as French sugar plantations spread across the western coast of that island, forming the nucleus of the modern nation of Haiti.
After 1720, piracy in the classic sense became extremely rare in the Caribbean as European military and naval forces, especially those of the Royal Navy, just became too widespread and active for any pirate to pursue an effective career for long. Pirates who were caught were usually hanged as soon as the British returned to port. Piracy saw a brief resurgence between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and around 1720, as many unemployed seafarers took to piracy as a way to make ends meet when a surplus of sailors after the war led to a decline in wages and working conditions. At the same time, one of the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht that ended the war gave to Great Britain’s Royal African Company and other British slavers a thirty-year asiento, or contract, to furnish African slaves to the Spanish colonies, providing British merchants and smugglers potential inroads into the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America and leading to an economic revival for the whole region. This revived Caribbean trade provided rich new pickings for a wave of piracy. Also contributing to the increase of Caribbean piracy at this time was Spain's breakup of the English logwood settlement at Campeche and the attractions of a freshly sunken silver fleet off the southern Bahamas in 1715.
This early 18th century resurgence of piracy lasted only until the Royal Navy and the Spanish Guardacosta’s presence in the Caribbean were enlarged to deal with the threat. Also crucial to the end of this era of piracy was the loss of the pirates' last Caribbean safe haven at Nassau. It is in this period that the popular Pirates of the Caribbean film series produced by the Walt Disney Company is loosely set.
The famous pirates of the early 18th century were a completely illegal remnant of a golden buccaneering age, and their choices were limited to quick retirement or eventual capture. Contrast this with the earlier example of Henry Morgan, who for his privateering efforts was knighted by the English Crown and appointed the governor of Jamaica.
Privateering would remain a tool of European states, and even of the newborn United States, until the mid-19th century's Declaration of Paris. But letters of marque were given out much more sparingly by governments and were terminated as soon as conflicts ended. The idea of “no peace beyond the Line” was a relic that had no meaning by the more settled late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Blackbeard met his end at the hands of a British fleet specifically sent out to capture him. After an extremely bloody boarding action, the British commanding officer of the fleet, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, killed him with the help of his crew. According to legend, Blackbeard suffered a total of five bullet wounds and twenty slashes with a cutlass before he finally died.
Traditionally buccaneers had a number of peculiarities. Their crews operated as a democracy: the captain was elected by the crew and they could vote to replace him. The captain had to be a leader and a fighter—in combat he was expected to be fighting with his men, not directing operations from a distance.
Spoils were evenly divided into shares; when the officers had a greater number of shares, it was because they took greater risks or had special skills. Often the crews would sail without wages—"on account"—and the spoils would be built up over a course of months before being divided. There was a strong esprit de corps among pirates. This allowed them to win sea battles: they typically outmanned trade vessels by a large ratio. There was also for some time a social insurance system, guaranteeing money or gold for battle wounds at a worked-out scale.
One undemocratic aspect of the buccaneers was that sometimes they would force specialists like carpenters or surgeons to sail with them for some time, though they were released when no longer needed (if they had not volunteered to join by that time). Note also that a typical poor man had few other promising career choices at the time apart from joining the pirates. According to reputation, the pirates' egalitarianism led them to liberate slaves when taking over slave ships. However there are several accounts of pirates selling slaves captured on slave ships, sometimes after they had helped man the pirates' own vessels.
In combat they were considered ferocious and were reputed to be experts with flintlock weapons (invented in 1615), but these were so unreliable that they were not in widespread military use before the 1670s.
He had a long and successful career as a gangster and gambler before turning to piracy and murder. For almost ten years, from 1947 until 1956 he and his gang terrorized the waters between Trinidad and Venezuela. They were responsible for the deaths of many fishermen — the number has sometimes been put as high as 400. Their technique was generally to board fishing boats, murder their crew, and steal the engine which they would later sell in nearby Venezuela after sinking the boat.
Boysie was well-known to everyone in Trinidad and Tobago. He had successfully beaten two charges of murder before he was finally executed after losing his third case - for the murder of his niece. He was held in awe and dread by most of the population and was frequently seen strolling grandly about Port of Spain in the early 1950s wearing bright, stylish clothes. Mothers and nannies would warn their charges: "Behave yourself, man, or Boysie goyn getchu, oui!
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