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Pirates are sea robbers who prey on other ships and rob them of their goods and sometimes capture the ship itself for their own purposes. Piracy has a long history and began over 2000 years ago in Ancient Greece when sea robbers threatened the trading routes of Ancient Greece. Roman ships were also attacked by pirates who seized their cargoes of grain and olive oil. The Vikings (which means sea-traveller from Old Norse) were renowned for attacking shipping and coastal settlements. Piracy really flourished between 1620 and 1720 and this period is known as the golden age of piracy. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, different types of pirates include privateers, buccaneers and corsairs.


Privateers were pirates authorised by their government to attack and pillage ships of enemy nations. They shared their profits with the government. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries governments issued ‘letters of marque’ which licenced these sailors to plunder foreign ships. This letter prevented privateers from being charged with piracy, an offence punishable by death. Francis Drake was England’s most famous privateer. In the sixteenth century, he attacked Spanish treasure ships returning from the new world sharing his profits with Queen Elizabeth I. He was knighted for his services.


Buccaneer was the name given to both pirates and privateers who operated from bases in the West Indies and attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean.


Corsairs were instead Muslim or Christian pirates active in the Mediterranean from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The Barbary Corsairs were Muslim group that operated solely from the North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Morocco and were authorised by their government to attack the ships of Christian countries. In contrast the Maltese Corsairs were Christian and were granted a licence by the Christian Knights of St John to attack the ‘barbarian’ Turks.


During this time becoming a pirate was called ‘going on the account’ as they had to agree to live by the rules of the ship. These rules were often strict and breaking them could mean flogging or even death. If a pirate was found stealing from their comrades or deserting during battle, they were marooned on a desert island with meagre supplies. Most would die a slow death from starvation if they could not hunt or fish.


Pirates required ships that were fast, powerful and with shallow a shallow draught, this was vital to a pirate attack and they needed to be able to navigate in shallow coastal waters to hide in secluded coves and inlets. Schooners were used by pirates in North American waters as they were fast, easily manoeuvred with a shallow draught but were large enough to carry many guns and a large crew.


In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Barbary Corsairs used galleys that were long and narrow with a sail. During action, these vessels were rowed to allow travel at speed with each oar being manned by up to six slaves who were chained to benches. The aim of the corsairs was to ram the enemy ship, board and defeat the crew in hand-to-hand battle. The galleys were only suited to the Mediterranean where conditions were calm. Junks were flat bottomed boats with three masts and sails held together with bamboo rods, used in Chinese waters. The largest junks held twelve guns and carried rowing boats to raid coastal villages or board enemy ships. Pirates often took over captured merchant ships and altered them to suit their purpose to increase speed, cut more gun ports and also to hide the true identity of the ship. They would also utilise the weapons, clothes, medicines and food found on board.


Pirates used flags to frighten passing ships into surrendering without a fight. The original pirate flags were blood red and this signalled that no mercy would be shown once the pirates boarded and battle ensued. As piracy developed, more flags were used and pirates often had their own flags. The Jolly Roger (a skull and crossbones) is the most famous pirate flag. The symbol had been appropriated from the symbol used in ships’ logs, where it represented death on board. It was first used as pirate flag around 1700 and quickly became popular with pirates, who designed their own versions e.g. a skull and crossed swords.


To board ships pirates would jam the rudder with wooden wedges so that the ship could not be steered. They would then use grappling hooks to board the ship while heavily armed with pistols, daggers and cutlasses for hand-to-hand fighting. Pirates also used homemade weapons such as hand grenades made by filling wine bottles with gunpowder or create smoke screens by setting fire to yellow sulphur. Merchant seamen under attack tried to prevent pirates boarding by greasing decks or scattering dried peas or broken glass on the decks. The pirates would take all the treasure or cargo that the ship carried. These might include silks, jewels, spices, wine, brandy, linen, money or slaves. Sometimes the pirates added the captured ship to their fleet or sank it to get rid of any evidence that would convict them. The seamen would be killed, ransomed, taken as slaves or joined the pirate crew.


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when the slave trade was a lucrative business, the profits from slavery attracted many pirates. Some became slavers whilst others sold cargoes of slaves captured from the merchant ships bound for the American colonies or from raids on the West African slave ports. The Barbary Corsairs found that by selling the crews of captured ships as slaves or demanding a ransom for them was more profitable than the ship’s cargo. Thus many pirates became a combination of slaver, privateer and pirate, and by the 1830’s the term picaroon had come to mean both pirate and slaver.


There were not many women pirates as seamen believed that it was unlucky to have women aboard ships. Women wanting to live as a pirate usually disguised themselves as men. Yet, there were some extremely powerful women pirates, such as Ching Shih who commanded a pirate community of 80,000. The two most famous women pirates were Anne Bonney and Mary Reed. They were captured in 1720 and put on trial in Jamaica. They were both sentenced to death but escaped execution as they were both pregnant. Mary Reed died of fever a few months after the trial but Mary Bonney was released.


The official punishment for piracy was death by public hanging. Pirates captured at sea could receive a summary punishment of hanging at the yardarm though only if no legal judgement could be obtained due to the location. Likewise if a ship was attacked by pirates on the way to America and the pirates were captured, they could be executed without trial under Marine Law but otherwise all robberies and felonies committed by pirates at sea could be heard in any County of England, by the Kings Commission as if the offences had been committed on land.


The bodies of executed pirates were often tarred to preserve them to be hung from a gibbet. The corpse would be chained into an iron cage to prevent relatives from burying the body. A condemned man was measured for his iron cage before his execution, and many pirates feared this more than the hanging. The notable pirate, William Kidd, received this fate and his body hung for three years at Tilbury Point in the Thames estuary as a warning to seamen and pirates.  After Blackbeard was killed in battle, his head was cut off and tied as a trophy to the yardarm of HMS Pearl.


Organised piracy and privateering was finally ended in the nineteenth century. In 1816, the bombardment of Algiers ended the Barbary pirates’ power in the Mediterranean while Dutch warships patrolled Southeast Asia and the British navy attacked pirates in the South China seas. However, lawful privateers still flourished until 1856 when the majority of maritime nations signed the Declaration of Paris. This banned letters of marque and therefore outlawed privateering. Navies of each country were used to enforce this law. The age of steam also helped to end piracy as anti-slavery operations as steam ships could sail without wind and at great speed, while pirates still relied upon more cumbersome sailing ships. By 1850 there were only a small number of pirates remaining.


Almost as soon as the world’s navies had made the oceans safe, people quickly began to forget the reality of piracy. In the 1700s songs, plays, operas and novels were written about buccaneers, and during the nineteenth century storybook pirates were more famous than the real ones. Many writers turned pirates into heroes. Byron (1788-1824) for example, did much to create the myth of the romantic pirate hero in his poem ‘The Corsair’. However such books as Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ portrayed a more realistic view of pirates as villains.


Piracy has not completely disappeared although it has never returned to the level it was in previous centuries.  The world’s navies continue to undertake anti-piracy patrols worldwide though many attacks occur in developing countries. In the 1990s, political groups hijacked ships, threatening crews and passengers with death if their demands were not met. Pirates in South East Asia have attacked merchant shipping and in the Caribbean ships have been attacked and robbed.


Modern day pirates still rely on speed and surprise in their attacks using fast dinghies and arming themselves with assault rifles to overpower ships. Many ships today have smaller crews, relying on technology and so can be easily overpowered in this way. Changes in technology have also meant it is easier to report attacks and these are monitored by the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB PRC). The IMB PRC follows the definition of Piracy as laid down in Article 101 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Sources and references


There are many publications and sources on pirates. This list is not exclusive nor exhaustive; some titles are held with Museum collections and others can be referenced online or in other library and archive collections.


Legal and Government:

Legal definitions of piracy are in legal statutes, texts, parliamentary papers and government reports such as:

The Offences at Sea Act 1536 (28 Hen 8 c 15), Piracy Act 1698 (11 Will 3 c 7) and The Piracy Act 1837 (7 Will 4 & 1 Vict c 88).

JACOB, G. A new law-dictionary: containing the interpretation and definition of words and terms used in the law ... London, 1762

HOUSE OF LORDS, European Union Committee. Combating Somali Piracy: The EU's Naval Operation Atalanta : 12th Report of Session 2009-10 : Report with Evidence,  London:  The Stationery Office, 2010


General Reading

BROMLEY, J. S.  Corsairs and navies 1660-1760   London:  Hambledon, 1987 ISBN 0907628778.

CORDINGLY, D. Life among the pirates: the romance and the reality. London: Little, Brown and Company, 1995 ISBN 9780346113142

CROWHURST, P. The French war on trade: privateering 1793-1815, Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1989  ISBN 0859678040

DEARDEN, S.  A nest of corsairs: the fighting of the Barbary coast   London: John Murray, 1976   ISBN 0719532795

HEBB, D. D. Piracy and the English government 1616-1642, Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1994 ISBN 0859679497

MILLER, H. Pirates of the Far East   London: Robert Hale, 1970 ISBN 070911429X

PERKINS, R. & DOUGLAS-MORRIS, K. J. Gunfire in Barbary   Emsworth: Kenneth Mason, 1982 ISBN 0859372715

STARKEY, D. J. British privateering enterprise in the eighteenth century Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1990   ISBN 085989312X

TRAVERS, T. Pyrates: a history. Stroud: History Press 2007 ISBN 9780752448527

VILLAR, R.  Piracy today: robbery and violence at sea since 1980 London: Conway Maritime, 1985   ISBN 0851773575

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