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Pirate History

Updated on May 2, 2011

Pirates were international outlaws. They could be tracked down by any nation, and their bases attacked without a declaration of war. Pirates could be brought to trial in the courts of any nation, for under international law, piracy was a crime against mankind, which was usually punishable by death or life imprisonment.

Crimes committed in the waters of an individual nation, or on its ships, may be piracy under its own laws. A privateer, on the other hand, operates a privately owned armed vessel and carries a permit (letters of marque) to commit acts at sea against anyone deemed an enemy of the licensing government.

Contrary to tradition, however, there is no record of anyone walking the plank.

The captain was the supreme authority, provided he could maintain his position with the crew. Punishment was harsh. For striking another crew member the offending pirate would receive 39 lashes. Stealing from the company was punishable by death. A man caught deserting would be marooned on an island with one bottle of water, some powder, a rifle or pistol, and some shot. To engage in piracy with any security, a safe base, for example a rocky coast with many hidden inlets and coves, was of great value. Pirate ships generally had a shallow draft so they could sail in waters where warships could not go. Still, piracy was filled with danger, and the men endeavored to make life as enjoyable as possible. Few pirates buried their treasure. Most of them spent it as fast as possible. Between expeditions, revelry was the order of the day—and the night.

Greece and Rome

The early Greeks practiced piracy on a large scale and took pride in selling their booty in the marketplace, although brigandage on land carried severe punishment. Trade and travel in the Aegean were always hazardous until Athens became a naval power and was for a time able to clear the sea lanes. However, the decline of Athenian power, together with the spread of population in the Mediterranean and wars between the rival Greek city-states favored both piracy and privateering.

Under Rome the Mediterranean, though known as Mare Nostrum, was infested with pirates. They became so formidable that, in the case of the Cilician pirates, there were quasi-nations of them, having fortified towns and strongholds along the coast. It was a band of Cilician pirates who captured and held young Julius Caesar for ransom in 78 B.C. and against whom Pompey the Great found it necessary to send a fleet of 270 ships in 67 B.C. before he could subdue them. With the creation of an efficient patrol fleet by Augustus Caesar, the Roman Empire was able to provide good protection to shipping, at least in the Mediterranean, for some 250 years. But piracy sprang up again and gained strength with the decline of the Roman and Byzantine empires.

The Corsairs

During the Middle Ages, the Barbary corsairs of Muslim North Africa began to raid European shorelines and attack shipping. These privateers, whom the Europeans considered pirates, combined religious hatred with a desire for plunder and slave profits. During the Crusades, they sold many Christian pilgrims into captivity. They exacted tribute as protection against attack, and their power was felt by the United States as late as the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, who in 1801 sent ships to North Africa to protect American commerce. Between the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, piracy and privateering, abetted by Turkish control of the Mediterranean, went virtually unchecked. It was due to this interruption of snipping, as much as anything else, that Columbus sought a westward route to India.

The most renowned of the Barbary corsairs were the Barbarossa brothers. Fierce fighters and adroit naval strategists, they exacted tribute from many governments, including those of England and France. One brother, Horush, held Algiers and other North African ports until killed by the Spaniards in 1518. The other brother, Khair ed-Din, became head of the Turkish fleet, raiding the southern shores of Italy. In the great Battle of Lepanto when the Christian nations decisively defeated Ottoman sea power, the Turkish Navy consisted largely of corsairs who employed Christian captives in their galleys. That battle marked the end of any great galaxy of sea rovers in the Mediterranean, leaving only smaller groups to continue their nuisance raids through the next 300 years.

Northwest Europe

During this period Moorish raids up the European coast into the English Channel began. But piracy already existed there. In the 8th, 9th, and 10th centuries, the Vikings had been active as sea rovers, combining raiding with exploration. Breton, Welsh, and English pirates ranged into the North and Baltic seas; they also struck at shipping using the Elbe and Rhine rivers. The damage they inflicted was so great that it was one reason for the formation of the Hanseatic League, a protective association begun by the merchants of Liibeck and Hamburg, and destined to dominate trade on the Continent from the 13th to the 16th centuries. Although they were detested as pirates by peaceful peoples, the Vikings, Welsh, and others regarded their brigandage as an honorable occupation. But, as with the early Greeks, punishment was severe for plundering within their separate groups.

The Far East

From the earliest times, various types of sea rovers ravaged the seas from India to Japan. Eastern pirates were extremely numerous, and great colonies of them lived off booty and slavery. China was the country of wealth and the object of sea pillage; the Japanese were the chief pirates. Their stronghold until the 17th century was the island of Formosa. European pirates then reached the China seas and, finally, Chinese pirates appeared there. The greatest of them was Koxinga (Cheng Ch'eng-kung, 1623-1663), who joined the Mings in an attempt to regain China from the Manchus. In 1662 he mustered a fleet of 600 vessels to attack and defeat the Dutch on Formosa.

The English Privateers

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England, without a declared war, challenged the naval power of Spain and licensed her "sea dogs," Sir Francis Drake, Sir John Hawkins, and others to attack Spanish shipping. Their spoils helped fill Elizabeth's treasury and build the English fleet which in 1588 destroyed the Armada, thus speeding the decline of Spain as a world power. In the following century, England made use of freebooters called buccaneers, who raided the Spanish Main. The result of the activities of such buccaneers as Sir Henry Morgan was that much of the West Indies became British. The English tried to hire another buccaneer, Jean Laffite during the War of 1812, but his decision to side with the Americans at the Battle of New Orleans (1814) was a potent factor in the English defeat. Piracy, buccaneering, and privateering were, indeed, a business that profited not only the seafarer, but many private business interests and the exchequers of some governments. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, when rum-running or smuggling of silk and slaves brought easy wealth, privateering often declined into pure piracy.


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    • Seeker7 profile image

      Helen Murphy Howell 

      7 years ago from Fife, Scotland

      Great hub and fascinating account of days gone by on the high seas. I think the most interesting point for me about pirates and indeed other bands of 'outlaws' was there strict codes. I often think that they were more disciplined than the regular navy and other military outfits.


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