History of Pirates and Piracy

History of Pirates and Piracy

The ancient civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean functioned on commerce and extensive trade between societies such as Phoenicia, Egypt, Greece, Carthage, and Rome. These societies identified raiding and disruptions in their shipping trade by sea-going warriors as "piracy." The aim of these sea raiders was to get whatever valuables were aboard the ship in cargo, sell them at market, and ransom any person of note for a hefty sum. Other captives may have been released or more likely placed into slavery. The Cilician Pirates were very noteworthy in the first century BCE for their successful sea raiding against Roman and other shipping of the time. A young Julius Caesar was held by the Cilician Pirates for such a ransom. Another Roman, Gaius Pompey, won wide acclaim and the title "Maximus" for his defeat of these pirates in 67 BCE. Rome was capable of providing a sufficient commitment of military resources to protecting seagoing commerce, and trade prospered under the Empire.

After the decline of Rome in the fifth century CE, the raiding of ship commerce on the open seas continued quite often under the Barbarian Vandals, once they acquired the Roman fleet in the North African city of Carthage. The Vandals were eventually defeated by the Eastern Roman Empire of Constantinople, providing stability in the Mediterranean. Piracy also included quick raids on coastal areas of the English Channel and Irish Sea, where seagoing warriors could easily and stealthily come upon an unprepared coastal village or monastery and strike. The goals were much the same as the piracy on the high seas—plunder any valuable commodities or precious items (gold, silver, etc.), kidnap for ransom, and enslave. The Irish raiders who took St. Patrick from his home in Roman Britain were identified as pirates. The most noted of these groups during the early Middle Ages was the Vikings or Norsemen, who would sail south from their Scandinavian homeland and raid across Europe, eventually establishing bases from the Black Sea across to Northern France (Normandy) and into England and Ireland.

Fifteenth and sixteenth century pirates hailed from areas of England, Ireland, Scotland, coastal France, and the Netherlands. With increasing trade via the sea, and the vast wealth of precious metals and gems found in the new world all flowing back to Western Europe, a breed of men willing to risk their lives for profit through theft grew.

These seafaring men were adept warriors, willing to engage in a fight with other sailors and ships, while looking to gain profit from the commerce on board these ships. These seafarers fought for no single nation and were simply looking for profit. Men like John Hawkins, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and Thomas Cavendish were all English by nationality, but their respective attacks on Spanish treasure ships or forts in the Americas were simply for-profit ventures for themselves and investors back in England. These individuals did not consider themselves thieves—Spain was considered an enemy. These men believed they were providing their country a benefit of protection, although no state of war existed between England and Spain. The English Government, under Queen Elizabeth I, renounced any actions of piracy officially, but was very happy to accept the revenue from these private ventures without any question of its source. Since England had little or no navy in the sixteenth century, it relied on these private captains for naval protection, as well as for revenue. It was these men that later sailed out to meet and defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588.

They, and their descendants, eventually separated themselves from other seafaring bandits by identifying themselves as "privateers." Being a privateer suggested some degree of legitimacy, since these individuals were carrying some form of "Charter" or "Letter of Marque" from a government to conduct their military action against an enemy’s ships. These privately owned ships may not be of the nation granting the Charter, but these privateers were paid with the goods and wealth of their respective prey. Pirates then, became those completely free of alliance or recognition by any government, who paid no duty to a government agent, nor cared to have a charter for their actions.

The British focused on developing their own standing naval force in the latter seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, as it moved away from its reliance on the use of privateers against its enemies. As British colonial interests grew globally, so did its shipping interests. The Royal Navy focused on protecting these shipping interests, especially in the waters around North America. It worked to curb the impact of piracy in general, focusing on destroying its base of operations in the Caribbean during this period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is during this time period that pirates such as Edward Teach, the notorious "Black Beard," would meet their end. The Royal Navy was successful at containing piracy, but never totally eliminated it.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century, pirates operating out of the South Mediterranean, from their bases in North Africa along the Barbary Coast, raided regional shipping. This was a practice dating back for nearly a century, where these Barbary Corsairs would raid European shipping and even ports, capturing goods and either enslaving or ransoming the various crews. With Europe in the middle of the Napoleonic wars, most European governments found it easier to pay a tribute to these various Barbary rulers as a preemptive means to protect their nations’ merchants and commerce interests. Even the British, with their vast naval superiority, found it more cost effective to pay tribute, rather than draw their much needed warships from their duties against the French.

The United States had followed the lead of the Europeans in dealing with these Barbary Pirates. In 1801, under newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson, the US refused to pay any tributes to these Barbary states. Jefferson ordered the very young US Navy into the Mediterranean for patrols, and over the next four years, the US Navy conducted a blockade and a number of military actions against the Barbary Pirates and their rulers. The war culminated with the assault and conquest of the Tripolitan coastal city of Derna, by a unit of seven US Marines under Presley O’Bannon and a number of mercenaries. In 1805, Bashaw Hamet Karamanli agreed to a peace treaty with the US, ending the conflict.

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