The history of piracy dates back more than 3000 years. The Greek historian Plutarch, wrote around 100 A.D., gave his definition of piracy. He described pirates as those who attack without legal authority. Piracy was described for the first time, among others, in Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey.
Norse riders of the 9th and 11th century AD were not considered pirates but rather, were called “Danes” or “Vikings”. Another popular meaning of the word in medieval England was “sea thieves”. The meaning of the word pirate most closely tied to the contemporary was established in the XVIII century AD. This definition dubbed pirates “outlaws” whom even persons who were not soldiers could kill. The first application of international law actually involved anti-pirate legislation. This is due to the fact that most pirate acts were committed outside the borders of any country.
Sometimes governments gave rights to the pirates to represent them in their wars. The most popular form was to give a license to a private sailor to attack enemy shipping on behalf of a specific king – Privateer. Very often a privateer when caught by the enemy was tried as an outlaw notwithstanding the license. Below we tried to outline a selective history of piracy, selective and arbitrary because there is so much that can be said about piracy and it is impossible to tell all. We hope that even this brief introduction will show the spirit and truth about the piracy the way we see it.
One of the oldest documents (inscription on a clay tablet) describing pirates dates back to Pharo Echnaton (1350 BC).
The most notorious of the Medieval prates were Vikings . Vikings was the name of the Nordic people—Danes, Swedes, Norwegians—who explored abroad during a period of dynamic Scandinavian expansion from about AD 800 to 1100.
The first recorded Viking raid was a seaborne assault in 793 by Vikings on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, off the northeast coast of England. Growing evidence indicates that considerable overseas Viking migration occurred long before then. Vikings went deep into the Russian hinterland, founding city-states and opening the way to Constantinople (Istanbul). Vikings also fought the Carolingian Empire until in 911 they accepted by treaty the area of Normandy in northern France and settled there.
In the 11th century Vikings briefly established a Scandinavian empire of the North Sea, composed of England, Denmark, and Norway. On the other hand piracy was also the problem in the Far East.
With the decline of central authority in China toward the end of the 13th century, piracy began to increase along the China coast. Using ships large enough to carry 300 men, the pirates would land and sometimes plunder whole villages. For instance during the 1550s corsair fleets looted the Shanghai-Ning-po region almost annually, sometimes sending raiding parties far inland to terrorize cities and villages throughout the whole Yangtze Delta. Although coastal raiding was not totally suppressed, it was brought under control in the 1560s As we already said in the Far East operated wako pirates, in Japan’s civil wars during the early part of this period. any of the groups of marauders who raided the Korean and Chinese coasts between the 13th and 16th centuries. When denied trading privileges, the Japanese were quick to resort to violence to ensure their profits. By the 14th century, piracy had reached serious proportions in Korean waters. It gradually declined after 1443, when the Koreans made a treaty with various Japanese feudal leaders, permitting the entry of 50 Japanese trade ships a year, a number that was gradually increased.
Originally mainly Japanese, in later times the pirates were of mixed origin; by the early 16th century, the majority of them were probably Chinese. Basing themselves on islands off the Chinese coast, the pirates eventually made their main headquarters on the island of Taiwan, where they remained for over a century.
The mere mention of the words “pirate” or “privateer” conjures up images of daring swashbucklers, bloodthirsty scoundrels and wicked rogues of the sea. As a nation, we have been reared on the media’s portrayal of pirates as either improbably romantic and dashing heroes or incorrigible villains. There has been no in-between. While it is true that there were several pirates and privateers that more than lived up to this reputation for evil, it is also true that as a nation we owe a great deal of our history to those very same pirates. In fact, the vast majority of historical pirates were nowhere close to the levels of villainy that have been attributed to them. During the so-called “Golden Age” of piracy, in the mid to late 18th century and early 19th century, the deeds of many pirates and privateers would prove to be invaluable to the development of the United States as an emerging world power. To understand the ramifications of this statement, one must first understand exactly what it is to be a pirate. Webster’s dictionary defines piracy simply as “an act of robbery on the high seas; also: an act resembling such robbery.” A pirate is someone who conducts such acts. There is another term that is often confused in its relation to that definition. Whereas a pirate commits such acts for personal gain, a privateer commits them ostensibly for the good of a patron nation. As Admiral Ernest Eller points out, “Privateering, on the other hand, was a distinguished practice whereby a sovereign power granted its commission and recognition to private armed vessels to prey on enemy shipping.
Other terms that are often confused and misused as they regard to piracy are common in the English language. Pirates, corsairs and buccaneers are commonly lumped together as one and the same, although they mean different things. Corsairs were pirates who operated exclusively in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, while buccaneers, or “boucaniers” were actually runaway sailors and deserters who made their way to the waters of the Caribbean Sea, where they kept themselves alive by roasting stolen cattle on makeshift grills called “boucans” by the French. Considering how much confusion we experience merely in using the proper names for pirates, it is easy to see that most people actually know very little about the truth of pirates and privateers.
Lest anyone think that all our conceptions are wrong, it must be pointed out that many pirates were indeed very wicked men. In fact, the city of Port Royal, Jamaica was pronounced to be “the wickedest city on Earth.” It had become known across the world as a den and haven for pirates. They off-loaded their ill-gotten gains there, and spent many nights in a state of drunken debauchery over the years, until the sea swallowed the entire city in the aftermath of an underwater earthquake. The modern United States Marines were given a ceremonial sword to thank them for their defeat of the Barbary pirates. It is a symbol they still wear today, representing their triumph over those particularly evil men. The reputation of piracy is not undeserved. But it must be tempered with the knowledge that, as is so in many other cases, the reputation of some does not represent the facts of all.
The vast majority of pirates, although they could not be described as kind, were more than fair in their treatment of their crew and their captives. In fact, most pirate crews operated under a code of rules and laws referred to as “articles” that were remarkably democratic. Since most pirates came from mutinous crews of naval warships and merchant vessels, they had no desire to return to the often-tyrannical rule of a ship’s captain. Instead, most pirate captains achieved their command by vote. Even though punishments were gruesome and nearly always fatal, they were meted out with a very strict eye for fairness and discipline. Torture was rarely used by any but the most vicious of pirates, because it was simply pointless. Nobody ever really walked the plank.
The economic benefit of pirates to the colonial outposts of the European world was substantial as well. In fact, the colonial government of North Carolina enjoyed a string of beneficial arrangements with pirates. “It is true that as long as the pirates preyed on Spanish ships, and were free in spending Spanish gold and silver in Charleston, they were welcomed here, at least by those who were beneficiaries.” One of the earliest pirates to enjoy such an arrangement was perhaps the most famous of them all. Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, was known to have special considerations with the governor of North Carolina allowing him safe passage into Carolinian harbours provided he left English shipping alone. Despite this, he was eventually hunted down and killed by a British Navy lieutenant named Robert Maynard.
As the American Revolutionary War raged, the role of privateers could not be underestimated. In fact, strictly speaking, one of the first acts of American defiance was an act of piracy. The Boston Tea Party could technically be defined as piracy. During the whole of the Revolutionary War from the years 1776 to 1782, the total number of privateering ships outnumbered the ships of the Continental Navy by a factor of eleven to one. The Continental Congress even issued a proclamation authorizing large-scale privateering against English ships.
You may, by Force of arms, attack, subdue, and take all Ships and other Vessels belonging to Subjects of the King of Great-Britain, on the High Seas, or between High-water and Low-water Marks, except… Friends to the American Cause, which you shall suffer to pass unmolested, the Commanders thereof permitting a peaceable Search, and giving satisfactory information of the Contents of Ladings, and Definitions of the Voyages.
One of the most famous privateers of the Revolutionary War was a former sailor in the Continental Navy named Joshua Barney. While in command of his slooop Pomona, he sunk or captured many English raiders and ships of war, attaining a fair amount of personal wealth while doing so. It is this personal wealth that often made the deciding factor between joining the Navy and becoming a privateer. Privateers “combined patriotism with the hope of profit.”
The influence of privateers and pirates on the developing United States did not stop at the War of Independence. Twenty-eight years later, during the War of 1812, one of the most significant battles of that conflict was decided by the deeds of well-known pirate and his band. Jean Lafitte had been extremely active and successful in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, near New Orleans. He had been conducting raids against Spanish and French shipping in the Caribbean for years, and had become quite wealthy doing it. He had over 100 pirates under his command, headquartered in the self-styled Kingdom of Barataria, hidden away on some forgotten islands off the coast of Louisiana. After he had stolen goods from the Spanish and French, he sold them to the Americans in makeshift black markets. He was actually considered a local hero by the populace, as Remini points out. “Through this efficient operation the people of the city had a steady and relatively inexpensive supply of dry goods, wine, all sorts of manufactured items, and iron.” He was also a fervent patriot.
When the British became intent on capturing the city of New Orleans in 1812, they first approached Lafitte and tried to bribe him to aid their cause. Instead, Lafitte went straight to the governor of Louisiana to inform him of the British plan. Indeed, he offered his assistance to the American cause by saying “…I am the stray sheep, wishing to return to the sheepfold.” Governor Claiborne did not believe him and had him jailed, along with over eighty of his Baratarian pirates. When Andrew Jackson came to lead the defense of the city, he released Lafitte and accepted his offer of assistance.
Lafitte delivered, providing enough ammunition and supplies that the American artillery was able to maintain a constant bombardment of English forces and prevent them from building any type of fortification or barricade. Lafitte even fought personally, leading groups of scouts and raiding parties through the swamps and bayous against the British. Without Lafitte’s aid, it is plain that the United States would have lost control of the city of New Orleans.
In light of all the influence and benefit provided to the fledgling United States during the 18th and 19th centuries on the part of pirates and privateers, it is hard to understand why we condemn them so thoroughly. Again, it should not be overlooked that many pirates were vicious killers and torturers, like the infamous Francois L’Ollonais who forced one of his prisoners to eat the heart he had just cut out of another prisoner. Men like that should be heroes to no one. Men like Jean Lafitte, Joshua Barney and even to an extent the notorious Blackbeard deserve little of history’s condemnation. They were not saints. They were not necessarily role models in their choice of life, either. But they were invaluable to our country, and should be remembered fairly for the roles they played. Without men such as these, our nation might very well not exist.
The piracy threat which came to a head in the decade of the 60’s BC was in part due to Rome’s complacency about the issue. Rather than stamping out small pockets of pirates early on, they allowed piracy to flourish into a large force of marauders. A poor economy and oppressive social conditions also fed the pirate forces as men who were on the verge of bankruptcy discovered more profit as robbers and pillagers. Rome was unwilling to act conclusively toward the reduction of pirate forces because those forces, along with tax companies, provided slaves for the large luxury markets. The pirates did not attack Rome as an enemy, but treated all targets equally, as opportunities for profit.
Vandal and, later, Muslim piracy disrupted the vital sea routes to Africa and the East; on land the impotence of local government made communications dangerous; and ever-heavier taxation crippled trade.
As a result of the weakening of Rhodes, piracy became rampant in the eastern Mediterranean (the young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates). During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.
Although the pirates ranged over much of the navigable Mediterranean, they concentrated their raids on major shipping lanes. Upon these lanes goods were transported between the far western provinces of Spain and Africa, Rome and the rest of Italy, and the eastern provinces including Macedonia, Greece, Syria and Egypt. Preferred area to set base or home port, was on the coast of present day Turkey, in an area known as Cicilia Tracheia. This area afforded great protection for the pirates. The coastline was complicated and full of twists and turns and hidden ports. As Roman influence rose the influence of the native powers, such as Seleucid Syria and Rhodes, declined. These were the people who patrolled coastal waters and controlled pirate populations. As their power was replaced by that of the Romans, their patrols were not, and the pirates grew unchecked. With Rome reluctant to crack down on the pirates Mediterranean cities began to form alliances with the pirates to avoid being plundered and terrorized since they received little protection from Rome. Many port cities provided their services and facilities to the pirates, while others paid tribute as if they were conquered. In effect, these cities became center’s of piracy.
Interestingly there was a Piracy Law during Roman Times. An inscription found at Delphi is a 100BC document that set the rules for dealing with pirates. The law stated that Roman citizens should be able to “conduct, without peril, whatever business they desire,” presumably wherever they desire. A copy of the law was to be sent by messengers of Rhodes to the kings of Cyprus, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene, and Syria informing them that no pirate is to “use the kingdom, land, or territory of any Roman ally as a base of operation. No official or garrison will harbour pirates and should be considered zealous collaborators for the safety of all “.
Another inscription found at Cnidos seems to be either an extension or a lost portion of the Delphi text. The Cnidos text is quite broken in the beginning, but does exhibit certain similarities. This text states that the kings of Syria, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus were to prevent the harbouring of pirates. There was even a fine of 200,000 sestertii for non compliance with the law. This law gave Rome the basis for prosecution of pirates.
According to Roman writer Plutarch in 102BC, Marcus Antonius was given a command to reduce the pirates. It seemed to be more an effort to reduce capture of Romans and provincials by pirates primarily by making a deal with a certain pirate known as Nicomedes . Between the years of 77BC and 75BC, Servilius Roman commander was sent to assist the allies of Roman province Lycia in another attempt by Rome to curtail piratical escapades. However he did not do much to damage the hard core pirates in the area of Cilicia Tracheia because little evidence has been found to support him even entering the waters off that coast (Roman writer Ormerod). In 74BC preparations were made for an all-out assault on the Cilician coast under the command of Marc Antonius. These were abandoned with the coming of the third Mithradatic War.
The number of pirates grew substantially during the wars created by Mithradates. While Mithradates was fighting on land, his navy and the pirates under his influence roamed the sea, plundering and pillaging. During his first war against Rome, Mithradates assisted the pirates by providing materials and expertise to begin coastal raiding . After the conclusion of the conflict, Mithradates’ influence with the pirates declined, but the pirate menace continued. However, Mithradates surfaced twice more, and each time was closely allied with pirate forces. By the third war, the pirates were organized more like regular fleets, and less like bands of robbers. During that time, the pirates captured Iassus, Samos, Clazomenae, and Samothrace. They even plundered the temple at Samothrace and received the equivalent of 1000 talents.
Roman historian Appian suggests that the oppressive conditions set up by Rome’s constant warfare prompted many to renounce their hopeless lives and join the pirate forces. Thus, pirates gained detailed knowledge of many ports and coastlines, providing a wider range of profitable raids. The pirates had become quite brash by this point, owning garrisons and supply depots manned by “fine crews and expert pilots.”
During the turbulent 70’s, the Romans were engaged in various civil wars. While the Romans were thus employed, pirates grew bolder still, leaving the water they knew so well and venturing onto land, raiding islands and coastal cities. They marched up Roman roads and captured those they encountered. These included the two praetors Sextilius and Bellinus with their lictors and servants on the Appian Way. A ransom was demanded (and delivered) for the return of the daughter of Antonius. This was the very same Antonius who led the first campaign against the pirates (Cicero).
Caesar too, was captured by the pirates near the island of Pharmcusa shortly after escaping from Sulla’s soldiers in 75BC. For some reason, the pirates took a liking to Caesar and instead of executing him for his insolence, they tolerated his posturing. When the pirates set a ransom of 20 talents, Caesar scoffed them and set it at 50, claiming he was worth more. During the month and a half he was detained, Caesar joined the pirates in their revels. He wrote poetry and presented it to the pirates. If they didn’t respond properly, he would chastise them. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered them to be quiet. Indeed, he hardly seemed a prisoner. He even joked that he would come back and kill them all. After his release, Caesar took ships from the harbour of Moletus, and captured those pirates as they lay on the beach. Caesar didn’t agree with Junius, governor of Asia, as to the fate of those pirates and therefore went off and did as he wished. He crucified the lot, although Ormerod says Caesar first slit their throats in an apparent act of mercy.
Men of “wealth and good family,” in the words of Plutarch, joined the pirate forces as “soldiers of fortune” gained a reputation of glory and wealth. Ships with gilded sails, purple draping and silvered oars became the mark of the pirate ship as their standard of living rose.
Plutarch’s Life of Crassus describes an event whereby the pirates managed to help the Romans and profit at the same time. The slave uprise leader Spartacus booked passage for himself and 2,000 of his troops with pirates to the island of Sicily, where he planned to lead a slave revolt. According to Plutarch after being paid, or “receiving gifts” the pirates skipped town and no doubt celebrated their deception.
The supremacy of Rome was threatened by “drunken revels and flute playing” of the pirates (Plutarch). The pirates were so prevalent that trade throughout the Mediterranean was virtually halted. With 1,000 ships in service, the pirates captured or raided 400 cities, including Ostia.
Finally Rome had to do something. Roman commander Pompey was given the task to get rid of pirates. All allies were compelled to submit to his authority. He was given twenty-four proprietors and the authority to raise 120,000 troops, 4,000 cavalry, commission 270 ships, and had 6,000 talents at his disposal. Pompey devised an excellent plan to squash the pirate threat. He set up thirteen districts designed to isolate the various segments of the pirate population. The praetor, or commander, of each district was responsible for the reduction of pirates in his own district. In forty days, according to Appian, Pompey swept through the western blocks and headed to the eastern waters. His name and reputation travelled faster though, and the pirates became terrified. They quickly ceased their pillaging and fled to their garrisons. The thirteen praetors easily able to subdue their regions. Pompey chased the die-hards to their large strongholds of Cragus and Anticragus. Appian reports that most pirates surrendered quickly, lending credence to the slogan “the sea was cleared without a fight”. Pompey completely eliminated the pirate threat in a mere three months time. Clearly the pirates were not a threat to the naval forces of Rome.
Some historians argue that because Romans destroyed Mediterranean kingdoms there was nobody to keep law and order on the seas. Especially after Romans destroyed the powerful fleet of Carthage which kept in check piracy on the shores of North Africa pirates flourished and practically dominated big parts of Mediterranean. They even began to intercept the Roman shipments especially grain from Africa and in one instance destroyed Roman fleet in Ostia. At last in 67 BC Roman dictator Pompey had swept the pirates from the Western Mediterranean and eventually captured their strongholds in Cilicia and hunted them from the waters east of Italy.
Another account of piracy is given first hand by Pliny’s (the elder) whose last assignment was that of commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples, where he was charged with the suppression of piracy.
Pre Roman and Roman pirates were mainly confined to Mediterranean Sea. However, in early Middle Ages the most notorious pirates operated in the North.