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History of Piracy

Updated on April 17, 2011

Legend has considerably colored the subject of piracy. It was an ugly business, but those engaged in it were not completely lawless cutthroats. Rules of order were necessary to survive. Many of these rules conflict with popular beliefs about pirates, for they were extremely democratic and aimed at preventing one man or group from becoming dictatorial.

This stern independence ultimately helped defeat the pirates under an increasingly coordinated attack by the navies of the world.

Piracy is as old as maritime commerce. The seafaring Phoenicians raided cargo ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates cut off Rome's grain supply and periodically threatened the city with famine, until Pompey destroyed their bases in 67 B.C. Between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D., Vikings plundered ships and terrorized coastal cities in northern Europe. Moslem (Muslim) pirates from northern Africa's Barbary coast long menaced ships of Christian nations in the Mediterranean. These pirates, called corsairs, were active until 1816. Madagascar was for centuries a haven for pirates in the Indian Ocean.

Spanish ships loaded with gold from Mexico and South America attracted pirates to the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries. These sea rovers, called buccaneers, had their headquarters on the island of Tortuga, off the coast of Hispaniola. The most famous buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan, terrorized Spanish cities in the New World and preyed on Spanish shipping, often with the silent approval of England.

Among the more famous pirates of the colonial period were Captain Jack Avery, Calico Jack Rackham, and Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Anne Bonney and Mary Read were famous women pirates. Captain Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most successful sea rovers, supposedly captured 400 ships in three years. Captain Kidd probably was a privateer rather than a pirate.

During the 19th century the decline of Spanish authority in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea encouraged piracy by Jean Laffite and others. Laffite operated from the Mississippi delta, just south of New Orleans. Piracy declined slowly in the Caribbean. One of the last major expeditions against Caribbean pirates was led by the U.S. Navy officer David Porter from 1823 to 1825. Acts of piracy still occur occasionally in the China Sea and a few other areas, but modern navies, advanced communications, and the airplane have made pirate raids almost impossible.


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    • ExpandYourMind profile image

      ExpandYourMind 6 years ago from Midwest USA

      Good overview of this industry.

    • arthurchappell profile image

      arthurchappell 6 years ago from Manchester, England

      Interesting summary of one of my favourite subjects, Aaar.