The Golden Age of Piracy covers the time period around the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth - from about 1690-1730, particularly. Prior to this time, pirates operated under the guise of national interest. With European nations at war with each other, most seamen were privateers who targeted the ships of rival nations and raided their treasures. With letters of mark giving permission for the attacks, they split the proceeds with their governments.
When peace was reached between England, France and Spain, these nations no longer needed such big navies and many seamen found themselves unemployed. The seafaring life was all they knew and they continued to ply their trade of capturing and raiding other ships - however now they did it without the blessing of their governments.
During the Golden Age pirates roamed the Caribbean and other areas including the Eastern seaboard of America and the west coast of Africa. These were high shipping areas and ships laden with riches from Africa and South America often traveled these routes. However, the pirates didn't only raid ships for treasures, they would steal food, water, alcohol, clothing, weapons - in fact anything they needed to live on, including the ships themselves.
Generally, pirates managed to get their loot without actual violence. They used small, fast moving boats and would wait in sheltered bays before sneaking up on passing ships. By firing warning shots with cannons, they would then board their targets' ships with weapons causing the ships to surrender. When they didn't, the pirates would use their weapons and often superior weapons to get their way violently.
Famous pirates who operated during this time include Blackbeard - perhaps the most famous pirate of all time - Bartholomew Roberts and Calico Jack Rackham.
Not nearly as famous are some of the earliest pirates. Phoenicians pirated in the Mediterranean Sea around 2000 b.c. and during the middle ages "corsairs," who were Muslim and Christian seamen, attacked ships of the opposing religion. They frequently took the crew as their loot and sold them into slavery or if from rich families, they ransomed them to their families. However during the Golden Age of Piracy most pirates were American or English.
By about 1830 governments began to work together to stamp out the majority of piracy, with many pirates captured and put to death and others retiring as the amount of gold and other precious cargoes dwindled. This coupled with an anti-piratical policy by the Jamaican government helped to end the Golden Age of Piracy. While piracy has never completely died out, there has never been another period with such widespread piracy as during the golden age.