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Ancient Piracy

One of the oldest documents (inscription on a clay tablet) describing pirates dates back to Pharo Echnaton (1350 BC). The report mentions notorious free lance Mediterranean shipping attacks in North Africa.

Greek merchants who were trading with ports in Phoenicia and Anatolia occasionally allude casually to piracy, a classic by-product of such trading activity. There is epigraphic evidence for piracy as well: in the 340s Athens honored Cleomis, tyrant of Methymna on Lesbos, for ransoming a number of Athenians captured by pirates

The Aethiopica one of the ancient Greek novels by Heliodorus of Emesa (3rd century AD) tells the story of an Ethiopian princess and a Thessalian prince who undergo a series of perils (battles, voyages, piracy , abductions, robbery, and torture) before their eventual happy marriage in the heroine's homeland.

Polycrates (Greek tyrant) seized control of the city of Samos during a celebration of a festival of Hera outside the city walls. After eliminating his two brothers, who had at first shared his power, he established despotism, and ships from his 100-vessel fleet committed acts of piracy that made him notorious throughout Greece.


Roman Times

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 centers 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 harbor 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 harboring 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 ( according to Plutarch).

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" (Plutarch).

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 cites. 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 (Plutarch). 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 harbor 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 th oats in an apparent act of mercy (Plutarch).

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 traveled 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 quic kly, 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 (except for the English Channel) confined to Mediterranean Sea. However, in early Middle Ages the most notorious pirates operated in the North.


Middle Ages

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.


Golden Years of Piracy

Starting in XVI century piracy was gaining in popularity. Thanks to the progress of technology better, bigger and faster ships were built. Colonial expansion was beginning with all the shipping it created carrying gold and other goods. Competing interests and ambitions of colonial powers made it easy for ambitious sailors to always find a way to legalize the most cruel acts of piracy. English privateers could for instance attack and rob, with impunity, Spanish shipping. On the other hand North African pirates had a license to rob English ships and Madagascar pirates of the XVIII century represented French king’s interests. The continually, since ancient times, notorious was so called Barbary Coast , name formerly applied to the coast of North Africa from the western border of Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. From the 1500s to the 1800s the coast was occupied by independent Islamic states under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1500s, these states became centers for pirates.

Barbery pirates were any of the Muslim pirates operating from the coast of North Africa. Captains, who formed a class in Algiers and Tunis, commanded cruisers outfitted by wealthy backers, who then received 10 percent of the value of the prizes. The pirates used galleys until the 17th century, when Simon Danser, a Flemish renegade, taught them the advantage of using sailing ships. North African piracy had very ancient origins as we described above. It gained a political significance during the 16th century, many of the Muslim pirates operating from the coast of North Africa, at their most powerful during the 17th century but still active until the 19th century. Most notable leader of North Africa was Barbarossa, who united Algeria and Tunisia as military states under the Ottoman sultanate and maintained his revenues by piracy. With the arrival of powerful Moorish bands in Rabat and Tétouan (1609), Morocco became a new center for the pirates and for the 'Alawi sultans, who quickly gained control of the two re ublics and encouraged piracy as a valuable source of revenue...

During the 17th century, the Algerian and Tunisian pirates joined forces, and by 1650 more than 30,000 of their captives were imprisoned in Algiers alone. Piratical practices were the cause of several wars between Tripolitania and the United States in the 19th century. The British made two attempts to suppress Algerian piracy after 1815, and the French finally ended it in 1830.

After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the United States agreed to pay money for immunity from attack, but it later attacked several Barbary states and helped end the Piracy. During the remainder of the 1800s and in the early 1900s, European nations gained sovereignty over the Barbary Coast.

Another category of pirates (at least by name only) has emerged. They were so called Buccaneers hired by their governments to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Buccaneer title was applied to English, Dutch, and French seafaring adventurers of the 17th century. Buccaneers and they were usually distinguished from privateers, who had official government commissions; buccaneers rarely had valid commissions. They are also distinguished from pirates, who attacked ships of all nations

The buccaneers were pirates who, during the 16th and 17th centuries, preyed mainly on Spanish commerce with the Spanish American colonies. Piracy decreased with the development of the steam engine and the growth of the British and American navies in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries and were outlawed in the 18th century. At first the headquarters of the buccaneers was on the island of Tortuga, off the northwestern coast of Hispaniola (now Haiti). The buccaneers later used Jamaica as a base of operations. They captured Panama in 1671.

The term buccaneer comes from the French boucan, a grill for the smoking of viande boucanée, or dried meat, for use in ships at sea. The F English, French, or Dutch sea adventurer, who haunted chiefly the Caribbean and the Pacific seaboard of South America, preying on Spanish settlements and shipping during the second half of the 17th century. The early buccaneers were usually escaped servants, former soldiers, and wood cutters mainly from Mexico. The historical importance of the buccaneers lies chiefly in the influence that they had on the founding of the abortive Scottish colony at Darién, on the Isthmus of Panama (1698). On the foundation of the South Sea Company and also in the way in which they inspired later and more serious voyages of exploration in the Pacific by the publicity that their writings enjoyed. Their stories also influenced such important authors as Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The buccaneers were largely inspired by the example of 16th-century seamen, such as Sir Francis Drake, but they are to be distinguished from genuine privateers because the commissions that they held were seldom valid. They are also to be distinguished from the outlawed pirates of the 18th century, although many of the buccaneers' actions can be called piratical. The earliest buccaneers went under assumed names, such as L'Olonnais (Jean-David Nau) or Rock Brasiliano, a Dutchman who had lived in Brazil. With the appearance of Henry Morgan, an outstanding leader, they began to organize themselves into powerful bands that captured Portobelo in 1668 and Panama in 1671. As the Treaty of Madrid (1670) had only recently been signed to compose Anglo-Spanish differences in those parts, the news of his success at Panama was not officially welcome. Morgan was brought back to England under arrest, but, on the renewal of trouble with Spain, he was knighted and sent out as deputy governor of Jamaica. He and his superiors attempted to suppress buccaneering, a task impossible without adequate naval patrols. The last great buccaneering enterprise was the unsuccessful attack on Panama in about 1685 by a force of about 3,000 men led by Edward Davis, John Eaton, Charles Swan, and others. On the outbreak of the War of the Grand Alliance in 1689, these freebooters became legitimate privateers in the service of their respective nations, and buccaneering came to an end.

Quite a few pirates were operating during the Elizabethan years when England and Spain fought over world domination. One of the famous pirates was Sir Francis Drake who circumnavigated the Earth, during which Spanish shipping was looted, Spanish California plundered even though England was not officially at war with Spain. When Drake and another pirate John Hawkins were almost captured during the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa in September the English cried foul treachery but the Spanish dismissed the action as sensible tactics when dealing with pirates.

During XVII and XVIII centuries piracy has peaked and many infamous pirates were operating at that time (Blackbeard, Morgan, Lafitte to mention only few) and this is the era we concentrate on in our Web page.

The less known but also very active were pirates of the Far East. Pinyin Zheng Zhilong (XVII century), was a Chinese pirate leader who achieved great power in the transitional period between the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties. As a boy, Cheng found employment with the Europeans in the Portuguese settlement at Macau, where he was baptized and given the Christian name of Nicholas Gaspard. After leaving Macau, he joined a pirate band that preyed on Dutch and Chinese trade. In 1628 he was induced by the government to help defend the coast against both the Dutch and the pirates . He soon acquired great wealth and power

Another notorious pirate Cheng Ch'eng-kung (also known as Koxinga), controlled the island of Formosa (Taiwan), and refused to surrender to official forces for long period of time.

By the end of the 17th century, with the growth of a strong central power in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) and in China under the Ch'ing dynasty, most of the piracy was eliminated

Also, the increased size of merchant vessels, communications technology and naval patrolling of most ocean highways, the regular administration of most islands and land areas of the world, and the general recognition by governments of piracy as an international offense resulted in a great decline in piracy in the 19th and 20th centuries. Piracy has, however, occurred in the 20th century in traditional places like the South China Sea, and the practice of hijacking ships or airplanes has developed into a new form of piracy.


Contemporary Pirates

British couple was attacked, in Summer 1996, while sailing around Corfu Island (Greece) with assault rifles and grenades, months earlier armed men attacked tanker Succi when she was only few hours from Singapore. The pirates tied up the crew and put it in a life boat and sailed off. The crew was rescued but the tanker disappeared.

According to London based International Maritime Bureau, there were 224 incidents of piracy and armed robbery of ships.

According to Time Magazine article: A Plague of Pirates (Time Magazine, August 18, 1997) modern pirates operate differently depending on geographic location. Arabian Sea pirates use the most modern weapons while West Africans use knives and dugout canoes.

Brazilian pirates take advantage of the fact that Brazil does not have the Coast Guard. In the Far East piracy is controlled by organized crime and pirates kidnap the whole ships and cargo.

South China Sea is almost as dangerous place, as it was in the ancient times. Chinese pirates are perhaps the most blatant.