Pirates & Piracy
Robbery on the High Seas
In quest of booty, pirates plundered merchant vessels and attacked coastal cities. Owing allegiance to no nation, pirates were bandits interested only in personal gain. Piracy is therefore distinct from privateering, the government-authorized right of a private vessel to prey on enemy commerce in time of war. A privateer carried a letter of marque and reprisal, issued by his government and giving him the right to attack enemy ships. However, during peacetime many privateers turned to piracy.
International law defined pirates as those persons who engaged in robbery or violence on the high seas or attack coastal communities without commission from political authority and without being under the jurisdiction of any state. Such individuals were international outlaws, subject to extermination in battle or, if captured, usually to death by hanging after trial and conviction by any nation which apprehended them.
Causes of Piracy
Men became pirates for a variety of legal, economic, and personal reasons. Many who would have been outlaws in any event took to piracy for easy profits. They saw less chance of capture, a freer existence, and boisterous living.
Some took it up because they became surplus seamen when wars ended, others when economic depressions deprived them of work, still others because they found the life of the common worker or seaman almost unbearably harsh and unrewarding. Some pirates were recruited by shanghaiing. After about 1760 the economic dislocations of the Industrial Revolution threw many men into piracy.
Other factors which nurtured the pirate trade were laws that forbade colonists to trade with foreigners and thus encouraged smuggling, the lack of international law or effective control against piracy, the inability to communicate rapidly on land or sea, and the fact that pirate ships were as seaworthy as any others and their gunnery better than most. The decline of piracy in the 19th century was due to the disappearance of many of these conditions.
Low pay and miserable living conditions aboard naval and merchant vessels caused many legitimate sailors to join the pirates during their heyday. Pirates actively sought recruits. Skilled seamen, doctors, and carpenters were in special demand. When a ship was captured, its crew would be invited to join the pirate ranks. Those that refused the invitation were often killed or marooned. Often a band of desperate men on a merchant vessel would organize a mutiny and seize control of the ship. Once in power they would raise the skull and crossbones, the symbol of a pirate ship, and kill those who refused to join them in piracy.
Pirate expeditions were highly formalized. Captains were elected by the crew, and ship's articles governing life aboard ship were agreed upon. According to the provisions of the agreement the booty was usually divided among the men in equal shares, with the captain receiving a larger share. Additional booty was awarded to men who performed outstanding deeds during battle.
The pirates formulated a primitive form of workmen's compensation. According to one code a pirate who lost his right arm in battle was eligible to receive 600 pieces of eight or 6 slaves as compensation. Loss of an eye was worth 100 pieces of eight or one slave.
In their "democracy" a crew elected the captain. He was chosen for leadership and naval knowledge, not by proving his right by dueling with an opponent. He was supreme commander only in time of battle and retained his office as long as he could produce captured booty, of which his share was usually twice that of a crewman.
Between frays he ate the same food as the rest of the men, and his cabin was always open to anyone who wished to see him. Actually, the quartermaster, elected for his knowledge of sailing and ability to manage, had more power of decision than the captain. It was he who determined what was to be done with prize ships and with the prisoners that were taken.
Crews taken prisoner were often invited to join the pirates or were allowed to sail on after the ship had been robbed of all valuables. Heavy resistance to pirate attack brought harsh treatment. A captured captain was punished if found guilty of brutality to his crew. Prisoners were often set free on land where a passing ship could rescue them, although surgeons and carpenters were immediately pressed into service. Walking the plank was not generally practiced despite tales to the contrary.
Booty was broken out in equal shares. Typically, theft by one crew member from another was punished by marooning on an island. Quarrels were brought before a pirate court, and the quartermaster handed down and carried out the decision, this often being a fair fight on shore between the contestants. Pirates sailed under an agreement of "no prey, no pay," calling this "going on account". They seldom repaired boats, preferring to take another prize than do such work.
The Pirate Flag
For centuries pirates devised their own flags. The use of skull and cross-bones as a symbol of death was age old and not peculiar to pirates, but they used it along with that of a full skeleton or hourglass. The term "Jolly Roger" for the black flag was first used in 1700; its origin, though probably French, is not fully determined. However, use of a red flag seems to have been a common practice when the pirates intended to give no quarter.
Punishment of Pirates
Of the thousands engaged in piracy, only a small percentage were ever brought to justice. Trials were speedy, but full evidence was supposed to be admitted. Pirates were allowed a final statement after sentence, and in these often indulged in bravado. Hangings were public affairs with a carnival atmosphere. Broadsides of the pirate's real and supposed crimes were sold among large crowds gathered at the gallows. Before execution, with the noose around his neck, a pirate was expected to give a blustering speech disdaining death, and crowds were seldom disappointed.
There is little evidence to support the tales of pirate buried treasure. Few real "finds" have ever been reported. Pirate customs lend little support to the popular picture of captains burying their wealth, nor do records support it. Booty, equally divided except for the captain's customary double share, was soon expended and another prize sought. Kidd's "treasure", Laffite's gold-packed cannon mouths, and many other legends are unfounded.
Sunken treasure on the other hand, is another story.
The End of Piracy
By 1820 the United States had made importing slaves an act of piracy and in 1856 the Declaration of Paris outlawed privateering. During World War I, the Allies considered German U-boat operations piratical, but at the Washington Conference of 1921-1922 failed to ratify a convention outlawing submarine attacks without warning merchant vessels.
Modern day instances which lack all the romantic swashbuckling occur in South East Asian seas, where luxury yachts are targeted by machine gun toting bandits and ill-fated attempts on cargo and oil tankers off the coast east coast of Africa, where Somalian Pirates often bite off more than they can chew.