History of Piracy

The history of piracy dates back more than 3000 years, but its accurate account depends on the actual meaning of the word ‘pirate’. In English, the word piracy has many different meanings and its usage is still relatively new. Today, some uses of the word have no particular meaning at all. A meaning was first ascribed to the word piracy sometime before the XVII century. It appears that the word pirate (peirato) was first used in about 140 BC by the Roman historian Polybius. The Greek historian Plutarch, writing in about 100 A.D., gave the oldest clear definition of piracy. He described pirates as those who attack without legal authority not only ships, but also maritime cities. Piracy was described for the first time, among others, in Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey. For a great many years there remained no unambiguous definition of piracy. Norse riders of the 9th and 11th century AD were not considered pirates but rather, were called "Danes" or "Vikings". Another popular meaning of the word in medieval England was "sea thieves". The meaning of the word pirate most closely tied to the contemporary was established in the XVIII century AD. This definition dubbed pirates "outlaws" whom even persons who were not soldiers could kill. The first application of international law actually involved anti-pirate legislation. This is due to the fact that most pirate acts were committed outside the borders of any country.

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.

Golden Age 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.

Famous Pirates

Excerpts from 'A History of Piracy' copyright Krzysztof Wilczynski