History of Piracy

U.S. naval officer Stephen Decatur boarding a Tripolitan gunboat during the First Barbary War, 1804

Piracy is an act of criminal violence or robbery by boat or ship-borne attackers upon a coastal area or another ship, typically intending to steal cargo and other precious items and properties. Those who conduct piracy acts are called pirates, while the vessels/ships/boats that pirates employ/use are called pirate ships.

Piracy has unsurprisingly existed for as long as the oceans have been used for commerce and trade. Let’s explore the history of piracy in detail.

Piracy in Antiquity

The oldest recorded instances of piracy are the Sea Peoples’ ventures who threatened the boats sailing in the Mediterranean and Aegean waters in the 14th century BCE. In classical antiquity, the Illyrians, Phoenicians, and Tyrrhenians were arguably recognized as pirates. In the pre-classical era, the Greeks condoned piracy as a viable profession; it was popular and “regarded as an entirely honorable making a living.”

References are made to its absolutely regular occurrence in many tales, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and abducting girls and kids into slavery was common. By the age of Classical Greece, piracy was considered a “disgrace” to have as a profession.

In the 3rd century BCE, pirate raids on Olympus in Lycia brought impoverishment. Among a few of the most popular ancient pirateering peoples were the Illyrians, who populated the western Balkan region. Constantly invading the Adriatic Sea, the Illyrians caused many battles with the Roman Republic. It was not until 229 BCE, when the Romans finally destroyed the Illyrian fleets, that their threat was ended.

During the 1st century BCE, there were pirate states along the Anatolian shore, endangering the Roman Empire’s trade in the eastern Mediterranean. On one excursion across the Aegean Sea in 75 BCE, Julius Caesar was abducted and temporarily held by Cilician pirates and held prisoner in the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa.

The Senate finally invested the general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus with skills to deal with piracy in 67 BCE (the Lex Gabinia). Pompey, after three months of naval warfare, managed to overcome the threat.

Middle Ages- Europe

A fleet of Vikings, painted mid-12th century

The most far-reaching and widely known pirates in medieval Europe were the Vikings, sea fighters from Scandinavia who looted and raided mainly between the 8th and 12th centuries CE, during the Viking Age in the Early Middle Ages. They raided the rivers, coasts, and inland cities of all Western Europe as far as Seville, which the Norse invaded in 844. Vikings also attacked North Africa and Italy’s shores and pillaged all the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Some daring Vikings ascending the rivers of Eastern Europe as far as Persia and the Black Sea. The lack of centralized powers in Europe during the Middle Ages allowed pirates to attack ships and waterfront areas all over the mainland.

In the second half of the Middle Ages, the Frisian pirates known as Arumer Zwarte Hoop, led by Wijerd Jelckama and Pier Gerlofs Donia, fought against the army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V with surprising success.

Toward the 10th century’s dawn, Moorish pirate havens were built along the northern Italy and southern France coast.

Mosaic of a Roman trireme in Tunisia

In 846, Moor invaders sacked the extra muros Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome. In 911 CE, the bishop of Narbonne failed to return to France from Rome because the Moors from Fraxinet commanded all the passes in the Alps. Moor robbers operated out of the Balearic Islands in the 10th century. From 824CE to 961CE Arab pirates in the Emirate of Crete invaded the entire Mediterranean. In the 14th century, Moor pirates’ attacks forced the Venetian Duke of Crete to ask Venice to keep its fleet on permanent guard.

Middle Age – Southeast Asia

In thalassocracy Austronesian societies in Island Southeast Asia, maritime raids for resources and slaves have ancient origins. It was connected with prowess and prestige and often recorded in tattoos. Early European cultures recorded reciprocal raiding traditions as being prevalent throughout Island Southeast Asia.

With the advent of Islam and the British and Portuguese colonial era, slaves became a precious resource for trading with Arab, European, and Chinese slavers. The volume of slave raids and piracy increased significantly. Many native peoples engaged in sea raiding. They include the Balanguingui and Iranun slavers of Sulu, the Bugis sailors of South Sulawesi, the Iban headhunters of Borneo, and the Malays of western Southeast Asia. Foreign seafarers also practiced piracy on a smaller scale, including Japanese, Chinese, and European traders, outlaws, and renegades.

1890 illustration by Rafael Monleón of a late 18th-century Iranun lanong warship. The Malay word for “pirate”, lanun, originates from an exonym of the Iranun people

The volume of raids and piracy were often dependent on the ebb and flow of monsoons and trade, with the pirate season (known as the “Pirate Wind”) starting from July to September.

Slave raids were especially economically important to the Muslim Sultanates (due to religious reasons, slavery was promoted heavily in Islam) in the Sulu Sea: the Sultanate of Maguindanao, the Sultanate of Sulu, and the ruthless Confederation of Sultanates in Lanao (the present Moro people). It is estimated that from 1770 to 1900, around 240,000 to 400,000 people were enslaved by Banguingui and Iranun slavers.

The pirates took these slaves from piracy on passing ships and coastal raids on towns as far as Java, the Malacca Strait, the southern coast of medieval China, and the islands beyond the famous Makassar Strait.

Piracy in the Caribbean

The famous era of piracy in the Caribbean lasted from 1650CE until the mid-1720s. By 1650, England, France, and the United Provinces started to develop their colonial empires. This involved substantial seaborne trade and a general economic improvement: there was money to be made—or stolen—and much of it moved by ship.

Puerto del Príncipe being sacked in 1668 by Henry Morgan

French buccaneers were built on northern Hispaniola as early as 1625CE but lived at first mostly as hunter-gatherers rather than robbers; their transition to full-time piracy was slow and motivated in part by ruthless Spanish efforts to wipe out both the buccaneers and the animals on which they survived on. The buccaneers’ migration from Hispaniola’s region to the more defensible offshore island of Tortuga limited their resources and expedited their piratical raids. According to Alexandre Exquemelin, a historian and buccaneer who remains a significant source on this era, the Tortuga buccaneer Pierre Le Grand strongly pioneered the settlers’ aggression on galleons making the return voyage to Spain.

Piracy in the Ming dynasty

Pirates in the Ming period tended to come from populations on the geographic boundary of the state. They were largely recruited from the lower classes of society, including poor fishers, and many were fleeing from binding labor on state-building projects organized by the autocratic dynasty. These lower-class men, and also women, may have escaped taxation or conscription by the state in search of better wealth and opportunities and willingly joined local pirate bands.

Piracy in India

Beginning in the 14th century, theSouthern Peninsular region of India (also called Deccan) was split into two entities: on the west side stood the invading Muslim Bahmani Sultanate, and on the other stood the region Hindu kings rallied around the vast Vijayanagara Empire. Constant wars demanded regular resupplies of fresh horses, which were imported through sea routes from Africa and Persia. This trade was subjected to numerous raids by thriving pirate bands based in Western India’s coastal cities.

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