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Pirates Were Not Cute or Fun 

Pirate 4.jpg

Pirates were terrifying.

Hollywood and children’s play gives modern Americans a fun entertaining view of pirates. Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum! Johnny Depp foiling those stodgy British naval officers with fancy tricks and magical friends from the deep sea.


The Pittsburgh baseball team is called the Pirates and the Tampa Bay football team is called the Buccaneers.


We would not name a sports team “The Rapists” or “The Murderers” or “The Slavers”.


But that’s what real pirates actually were.


If you were on a boat, and you were attacked by pirates, your life was over.


If you were lucky, they would just take all the goods on the ship, leaving you to starve on your boat having lost everything you ever owned.


Usually, though, they wanted more than that.


In the worst case scenario, the men on your boat would be thrown overboard. The women would be raped and then thrown overboard.


Not being killed immediately did not mean everything was okay. In many cases, the captain intended for the crew and passengers to be sold into slavery. In this case, the women would be left scrupulously untouched – so they could command a higher price when they were sold on dry land. They would kill enough men to control the rest of the booty. The surviving men would be sold into slavery as laborers. Neither the women nor the men would ever see their homelands or families again.


There was nothing nice or cute about pirates.


Five Historical Trends in Piracy


1. Pirates existed on nearly every coastline. Piracy was a standard way of making money for any population that lived on a coast. Inland teenagers and young men would become highway men or brigands, waylaying merchants and travelers passing through the area. Pirates were pretty much the same, except that they used boats and did not hide in forests or mountains.

Straits were ideal for piracy because a lot of merchant ships had to use the same narrow area to get to where they wanted to go. Pirates clustered around the mouth of the Red Sea where ships pass between Yemen and the Horn of Africa. This is why that strait is called The Gate of Grief.

Pirates were common in the Strait of Hormuz, the choke point at the tip of the Persian Gulf between Oman and Persia. All traffic from Babylonia had to pass through the Straits of Hormuz. Pirates were common in the Strait of Malacca between Sumatra on one side and Malaysia and Singapore on the other. The Barbary Pirates made much use of the Straits of Gibraltar – attacking Gibraltar itself on many occasions.


Pirates were a major source of world poverty. The vulnerability of sailing ships put a stranglehold on world trade. It was extraordinarly risky to use your assets to buy goods, put them on a boat and sail that boat into a strait full of pirates. It was even riskier to be on that boat yourself.


Consider the story of Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad the Sailor lives in Baghdad where travelling by sea meant passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Before each of his trips, his friends in Baghdad think he is crazy to leave the city. On every one of his trips, he is attacked. On every one of his trips, he loses everything. He never finds a safe or friendly place to land anywhere. He only saves his life and gets something to sell by the use of absolutely desperate ploys. However, when he returns to Baghdad, everything changes. Trade goods were rare because of the pirates in the straits. Because of this, Sinbad can charge a fortune for everything he sold. Each of these trips make him a wealthy man; seven trips make him wealthy several times over.


Pirates did not completely eliminate international trade. Merchants could and did use convoys. They armed their own ships. This made them able to engage in non-trivial long distance transactions. Goods from China somehow made their way to Europe via intermediary stops in Indonesia, India, Ethiopia and Egypt. However, piracy certainly made international trade a lot more difficult. The elimination of piracy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was a giant and under-appreciated cause of the general increase in economic growth that we have seen since 1800.


2) Piracy was intimately linked to the slave trade. Americans think of slavery as an ethnic phenomenon – White Europeans capturing Black Africans and sending them to the New World to work on plantations. In fact, slavery was nearly ubiquitous before the British banned the international slave trade in 1817. Nearly every region had full formal slavery except Western Europe. (Western Europe had milder versions of forced labor such as corvees and bound service.) In the Mediterranean, or in the Bay of Bengal or off the coast of the Southeast Asian Islands, anyone could be sold into slavery regardless of ethnicity. In the Mediterranean, the average slave was white. They were captured in the Aegean or Eastern Mediterranean or off the Barbary Coast, and were sold to buyers in North Africa.


Pirates were the primary recruiters for the slave trade. When pirates captured a boat, they not only wanted the merchandise in the hold; they wanted the crew. It is no accident that Britain’s ban on the international slave trade occurred at roughly the same time as Britain’s assault on international piracy. To stop one, one had to stop the other.


3. Britain’s economic dominance over the rest of Western Europe was accomplished in a large part through piracy. We tend to think of historical Britain as the juggernaut of the industrial revolution whose superior economy and naval forces led to easy domination of world affairs. This was not the case before 1800. The dominant military and economic power in the 1500’s was Spain. The dominant military and economic power in the 1600’s was the Netherlands. Britain was almost conquered by Spain in 1588 by an armada for which Britain had no adequate military answer. Only a fortuitous storm at sea saved Britain by wrecking the Spanish Armada before it could land.


How did the marginal also-ran Britain of 1500 become the naval juggernaut of 1800? Piracy had much to do with this. Britain’s primary opponents - first Spain and then the Netherlands – were dependent on foreign trade to build their armed forces. Spain imported silver from the New World. The Netherlands imported grain from the Baltic and sugar from Indonesia and Brazil. Their cargos were very valuable, particularly those on ships carrying silver or sugar. Britain’s primary concern was to ensure that Spain and the Netherlands never received their money.


So, Britain commissioned privateers whose goal was to harass foreign shipping.


The rules were:

a. Britain would pay nothing up front for the privateer’s services.

b. The privateer would be issued an official letter of marque giving them full permission to raid at will.

c. The privateer could attack any ship whatsoever with the exception of vessels flying the British flag. Some letters of marque were more restrictive as to what countries’ ships could be attacked. This was particularly the case in wartime when Britain would have had allies.

d. The privateer was expected to bring the booty to a British admiralty court and undergo formal procedures before receiving his share of the takings. Pirates did not always honor that particular technicality.


Privateers were extremely effective. They were able to deny Spain a very significant proportion of its New World Silver. Holland, which never generated a significant naval force, suffered severe economic harm in the eighteenth century from the predations of British raiders. The Netherlands were a dominant economic power in the seventeenth century; the transfer of Dutch resources to Britain from the actions of privateers was a significant factor in Britain’s rise to dominance and the Netherland’s decline to marginality.

4. Piracy has generally been wiped out by a hegemonic military power with global naval supremacy. In Roman times, the rise of the Roman Empire led to the reduction of piracy in Mediterranean waters. In the nineteenth century, piracy was eliminated by the British navy enforcing law and order on the high seas. The Somali pirates were wiped out by an international consortium of naval forces. The American Navy had the ability to do the job itself – but the international assistance was quite welcome. In all cases, what matters is a preponderance of naval force by the powers that want to protect global trade.

5. Modern day piracy sometimes has its origin in local fishermen protecting themselves from foreign mega-boats poaching their fish supply. The most recent renaissance in piracy occurred off the coast of Somalia. Somali fishers mastered the tactics of small-boat raiding. They then began to hijack oil tankers and other large Western ships with the explicit goal of being paid ransoms. Somali piracy is now under control – the result of sustained patrolling of Somali waters by Western, Russian and Chinese navies. The piracy got its start in the 1990’s with the collapse of the Somali national government; whatever naval or coast guard protection of Somali shores that had existed disappeared. The clear chaos on land in Somali was a signal to poachers that Somali waters were now wide open. Somalian fishers had generally been pacifist, (or relatively pacifist compared to the feuding clans of the interior.) However, the arrival of Russian and Chinese mega-fishing-boats was more than they could bear.


Out of necessity and self-defense, the Somalis learned how to send multiple small boats up against larger ships and chase them off. Given the civil wars that were occurring inland, automatic weaponry and light artillery were easy to obtain. A heavily armed small craft could easily inflict casualties on the crew of a mega-fisher simply by firing weapons from a distance. With subsequent practice they learned how to board these larger boats and put armed forces on decks. Since the mega-fishers were unarmed, the crew of even an enormous boat would have been helpless in the face of a dozen pirates equipped with automatic weapons.


The fishers were able to chase off the invading fishing boats. Recognizing the commercial potential of what they had accomplished – they began to aggressively attack passing shipping – notably oil tankers going back and forth from the Middle East.     

*  *  *

It took ten to fifteen years to eradicate the twenty-first century problem of piracy in Somali waters. It took a good half century for Britain to eliminate piracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Piracy is not a significant issue in the world today. However, it is not hard to imagine circumstances that would allow it to return.


Pirates are neither fun nor cute. I would not want to see my child dress up as a pirate for Halloween. If you want to go see Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, go. If you want to root for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, do so.


But think about how relatively secure your world is now … and how insecure the world was not so long ago. I would not want to see pirates ever come back.

For More Information

For a general all-purpose introduction to the history of piracy, see David Starkey’s edited collection Bandits at Sea, a Pirate Reader. (NYU).


On the history of crime and piracy, from an admittedly British perspective, see John Appleby, and Paul Dalton’s 2009 edited collection Outlaws in Medieval and Early Modern England: Crime, Government and Society c. 1066 – c. 1600. Routledge.

For a great set of documents, see Wadsworth, James. 2019. Global Piracy: Documentary History of Seaborne Banditry. London, Bloomsbury Academic. 

On Asian pirates, see R. J. Anthony’s 2003 Like Froth Floating on the Sea: World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China. (Berkeley Institute of Asian Studies), and Y. H. T. Sims’ 2014 edited collection Piracy and Surreptitious Activities in the Malay Archipelago and Adjacent Seas 1600-1840 (Springer). 

On long distance trade despite the presence of pirates see James Tracy’s 1993 Rise of Merchant Empires:Long Distance Trade in the Early Modern World. (Cambridge) and Raoul McLaughlin’s 2010 Rome and the Distant East: Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China. (Bloomsbury)

On the piracy-slavery link, see Seymour Drescher’s magnificent 2009 history of global slavery Abolition: a History of Slavery and Anti-Slavery. (Cambridge) 

On the role of pirates in the rise of British economic power, see the 1980 second volume of Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System: Mercantilism and Consolidation of the European World Economy 1600-1750, (Academic) particularly the chapter dedicated to Holland. 

On privateers more generally see J. E. Thomson’s 1994 Mercenaries, Pirates and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extra-Territorial Violence in Early Modern Europe. (Princeton). 

For an equivalent phenomenon in Asia, see R. E. Margariti’s  2008 article in the Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient “Mercantile Networks, Port Cities and Pirate States: Conflict and Cooperation in the Indian Ocean World of Trade Before the Sixteenth Century.”

On how fishing defense turned into piracy in Somalia, see Awet Tewelde Weldemichael’s 2019. Piracy in Somalia: Violence and Development in the Horn of Africa. (Cambridge).

For a more standard geopolitical view see Christopher Daniels 2012 Somali Piracy and Terrorism in the Horn of Africa. (Scarecrow Press)  

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