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Piracy is an act by individuals engaged in the commission of crimes on the high seas, or crimes upon coastal settlements via the sea. Piracy has occurred since antiquity, but flourished in a "golden age" in the mid-17th to early 18th centuries in the Caribbean Sea. Today most pirates operate in the southwestern Pacific and Indian Oceans and represent a major problem for the conduct of international trade.


Piracy is defined by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) as: "an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the attempt to or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act,"[1] while the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) defines it as: "illegal acts of violence or detention acts committed on the high seas, or outside the jurisdiction of a coastal state, for private ends by private ship against another private ship," which is in concordance with Article 101 of the United Nations (UN) Law of the Sea.[2] The distinction is subtle but important, as the UN law allows many piratical acts which occur within national waters to be classed as armed robbery, rather than piracy.


The name originally derived from the Greek words πεῖρα (peíra; "experience") and πειράομαι (peiráomai; "I'm working" or "I attempt"), which implicitly means they would "try their luck", and hence the word πειρατής (peiratís; “pirate”).

Several other words have been used to describe pirates. Dutch settlers in the Caribbean during the mid-16th century used the word vrijbuit to describe one who plunders, and from where the English word "freebooter" is derived[3]. The familiar "buccaneer" was used during piracy's "golden age"; the French coined the word boucanier from a native Tupi word boucan to describe someone on the islands who set up a wooden frame to smoke meat[4]. The word "corsair"[5] is French and has originally been used in reference to a "privateer", yet it was applied especially to the Muslim pirates who operated on behalf of the Barbary States of North Africa.


Ancient times

The earliest references to piracy are dated to the so-called Sea Peoples of 1278-1176 B.C[6]. Their actual identity still unknown today, they raided and plundered coastal areas throughout much of the Mediterranean. An Egyptian record (Tanis Stele II) has them making an attempt to take the fertile Nile river delta area, but are soundly defeated in battle, with some of the prisoners incorporated into the Egyptian army[7].

Among these seafaring ancient peoples were the Cilicians, who have been described to be "about the most bloodthirsty people in the world" by the Roman biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea (46 - c.120 A.D.)[8]. These people would routinely take trading vessels within the Aegean sea and enslave the crews; the slaves in turn would more often than not be sold to the Romans, who needed them to work their plantations. For a time Rome tolerated the practice due to the need for slaves as well as being preoccupied several times by war with Mithridates IV of Pontus, with the Cilicians taking full advantage of it. But the response of Julius Caesar to his kidnappers - he not only mocked his captors, but had them captured and crucified soon after he was freed - and several campaigns - with one famously led by Vatia and Pompey - helped put an end to piracy there by 63 B.C.[9]

Middle Ages

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, piracy began a rise as Vikings swept out of Scandinavia, raiding the countries of northern Europe. In the years they operated (late 8th century - 11th centuries), they sailed to Britain, Russia, Italy, Africa and America, plundering coastal cities and villages, and advertising their presence with the head of a dragon mounted to the prows of their longboats. Later they would be more settled, engaging in trade relations and discovering Iceland, Greenland, and North America.

In the late Middle Ages, the seas of Northern Europe had pirates from all countries robbing ships and coastal towns, and often on the orders of their rulers. These were the first privateers, in which a privately-owned ship was given a commission to engage in warfare against the enemy. Yet raids by pirates continued to the point where leading merchants and ship owners created a trade and political alliance for mutual protection called the Hanseatic League in the 14th century, which largely contributed to eradicate piracy in that area.

Barbary pirates were subjects of the Muslim areas of North Africa, which was under the protection of the Ottoman Empire. Looting Christian ships in the Mediterranean, the Muslims considered it a religious war; to the contrary European countries considered them ordinary pirates. The fast galleys they used with their numerous crews easily overpowered opposing ships, and in addition to the loot onboard they sold their crews into slavery or held them for ransom; among them were former Christian pirates, who after the various European wars were left without work and shifted to the ranks of North African corsairs, attacking the ships of their former commanders.

Their most famous leader was Hajredin Barbarossa, (1475 - 1546) a Turkish naval commander and nobleman. He would command the Turkish fleet, became the ruler of Algeria, organize the Berber fleets into what would become the Barbary pirates, and then rise to be the admiral of the Ottoman Empire.

Golden Age

After the discovery of America in 1492 by Columbus, Spain and Portugal began to create colonies in Central and South America. The Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) stipulated that Spain was to be given the lion's share of the New World, which meant that her ships would be filled to the brim with gold and silver stolen from the Aztec and Inca empires. Due to the sharp increase of Spanish wealth other European countries began to form colonies in the Caribbean, taking advantage of the natural resources of the New World. The late 16th and early 17th century, parts of the Caribbean became colonies of England, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark, and in one fashion or another these countries were at war with each other or with Spain, and Spanish vessels were extremely tempting targets. In 1521 two ships carrying a large amount of Hernando Cortez' treasure was seized[10], and by the end of that century Englishmen John Hawkins and Francis Drake had made names for themselves by attacking Spanish colonies to the extent that both men were knighted.

In the first decades of the 17th century, a group of people from Europe (mostly French) settled on the island of Hispaniola. They were called buccaneers, and eager for better profits than that gained from provisioning ships with their smoked meat, they set out to sea to attack Spanish ships. The buccaneers were were successful in the period from 1640 to 1680, having made strongholds on Tortuga Island in 1640 and the town of Port Royal on the island of Jamaica in 1655, and slowly merging with pirates in general. What emerged from these men was the classical period of piracy known as the Golden Age.

Example of a "Jolly Roger" flag flown by Emanuel Wynne

Although the European powers in the late 17th century established greater control over the Caribbean, pirates continue acting as well as expanding into the west coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean. The end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 left many sailors jobless, and of these a percentage have joined pirate crews. Although pirates had frequently used their own national flags to identify themselves when going into battle - sometimes with another nation's flag as an identity mask, or none at all - it was during this period that black or red flags were flown from their ships as symbols: the black version demanded a surrender if the crew wanted to live, the red flag stated no quarter will be given. On each of the flags would be variants of symbols of death, with the skull-and-crossbones symbol the most widespread. All these flags were referred to as the "Jolly Roger", and the ship which flew it struck fear in the crews of its intended prey; they would usually surrender without a fight. The Jolly Roger was reportedly sighted for the first time in 1700 on the mast of the pirate Emanuel Wynne, with the added hourglass symbol added to show his prey that time was running out.

Pirates during this period were surprisingly democratic. In contrast to the contemporary corporate social order from the countries they had been born to, the pirates chose their captain and their officers themselves, shared the prey in equal parts among themselves, and set up a different system of punishment than on naval or merchant ships. They limited the authority of the captain, who had absolute authority only in battle, while otherwise governed by the majority. Apart from a larger share of the spoils the captain enjoyed hardly any privileges: no better food, no officer's larder, no special accommodations. Moreover, what the majority could do in electing a captain also had the power to depose one; it was not uncommon for captains to be deposed, for example, because of cowardice, cruelty, refusal to capture and loot certain ships, as in the case of Charles Vane in 1718, or if he was "too gentlemanly" as Edward England found out in 1721. A captain rarely stayed in his position for more than three or four years.

A further restriction of the captain's power was guaranteed by the crew's council, who was elected to represent and protect the interests of the crew. The council, an assembly in which all the men of a ship had a right to speak, represented the supreme authority. In the case of differences of opinion on the further course of action, especially after the absence of prey, this often led to conflicts and the breakup of the pirate community.

Bartholomew Roberts, also known as Black Bart and possibly the most successful pirate of his time, had to have a well-disciplined crew, despite the council's democracy. He posted the following regulations on his ship:

  • "Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted."
  • "Every man shall be called fairly in turn by the list on board of prizes, because over and above their proper share, they are allowed a shift of clothes. But if they defraud the company to the value of even one dollar in plate, jewels or money, they shall be marooned. If any man rob another he shall have his nose and ears slit, and be put ashore where he shall be sure to encounter hardships."
  • "None shall game for money either with dice or cards."
  • "The lights and candles should be put out at eight at night, and if any of the crew desire to drink after that hour they shall sit upon the open deck without lights."
  • "Each man shall keep his piece, cutlass and pistols at all times clean and ready for action."
  • "No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man shall be found seducing any of the latter sex and carrying her to sea in disguise he shall suffer death."
  • "He that shall desert the ship or his quarters in time of battle shall be punished by death or marooning."
  • "None shall strike another on board the ship, but every man's quarrel shall be ended on shore by sword or pistol in this manner. At the word of command from the quartermaster, each man being previously placed back to back, shall turn and fire immediately. If any man do not, the quartermaster shall knock the piece out of his hand. If both miss their aim they shall take to their cutlasses, and he that draweth first blood shall be declared the victor."

Modern piracy

Piracy as a perpetual phenomenon of cultural history always occurs when the prerequisites are met: maritime trade reaching a sufficiently high volume; surveillance and control by law enforcement is reduced or restricted; and a part of the population in the area in question sees piracy as a worthwhile alternative to other legitimate employment, especially when such employment is lacking. Today, this is particularly true of emerging economies and individual large ports with few efficient authorities, as well as areas at sea, where important international maritime routes run along coastlines where the capacities of the local authorities are overwhelmed. Relatively high risks for shipping exist in the area around Indonesia and in the Strait of Malacca, in the areas off western and eastern Africa, including the Gulf of Aden. Sporadic incidents of piracy have occurred in the Caribbean and off India. Off Somalia, more and more abductions of ship and crew are taking place, resulting in ransom attempts against the shipping companies whose crews were kidnapped.

In 1992 the escalating number of piracy incidents led to the establishment of a Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, tasked with "raising awareness of piracy hotspots, detailing specific attacks and their consequences, and investigating incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea and in port. Another role entails working with national governments on a range of initiatives to reduce and ultimately eradicate attacks against ships."[11] In the first six months of 2007, there were 126 pirate attacks, with 13 vessels hijacked, 152 crew members taken hostage, 41 kidnapped and 3 killed.[12] At present, Somalian pirates have hijacked a considerable number of vessels off the East African cost and Arabian peninsula, but this number is falling now that various nations, including the US and China, have deployed warships to the area.


  1. Johnson, Derek S. and Pladdet, Erika Maritime Piracy in Asia International Institute for Asian Studies Accessed July 13, 2007
  2. Johnson et al, op cit
  3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/freebooter
  4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/buccaneer
  5. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/corsair
  6. http://www.ancient.eu/Sea_Peoples/
  7. http://www.minoanatlantis.com/Origin_Sea_Peoples.php
  8. http://www.livius.org/sources/content/plutarch/plutarchs-caesar/caesar-and-the-pirates/
  9. http://www.livius.org/articles/people/cilician-pirates/?
  10. https://books.google.com/books?id=ALG4cH7lRGEC&pg=PA27&lpg=PA27&dq=1521+ship+capture+pirates&source=bl&ots=QEPD8CZUy7&sig=3snTd_-BVw8EZbqZMtz5i7ugUrA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj00bSsrabUAhXFeSYKHXA3ByoQ6AEIJDAA#v=onepage&q=1521%20ship%20capture%20pirates&f=false
  11. Overview IMB Piracy Reporting Centre Accessed July 13, 2007
  12. IMB report cites spike in piracy dated July 12, 2007 International Maritime Bureau Accessed July 13, 2007