Golden Age of Piracy > History
Sir Edward Coke (Instit. iii. 113) describes a pirate (Lat. pirata, from Gr. πειρατής, πειρᾱν, to attempt or attack), as hostis humani generis and as a robber upon the sea. Sir J. Fitzjames Stephen in his Digest of Criminal Law defined piracy as follows: "Taking a ship on the High Seas or within the jurisdiction of the Lord High Admiral from the possession or control of those who are lawfully entitled to it and carrying away the ship itself or any of its goods, tackle, apparel or furniture under circumstances which would have amounted to robbery if the act had been done within the body of an English county" (cf. A. G. for Hong-Kong v. Kwok-a-Sing, 1873, L.R. 5 P.C. 179).Piracy, being a crime not against any particular state but against all mankind, may be punished in the competent court of any country where the offender may be found or into which he may be carried. But, whilst the practice of nations gives to every one the right to pursue and exterminate pirates without any previous declaration of war (pirates holding no commission or delegated authority from any sovereign or state), it is not allowed to kill them without trial except in battle. Those who surrender or are taken prisoners must be brought before the proper tribunal and dealt with according to law.Piracy has been dealt with in a large number of English statutes, from 1556 down to the Territorial Waters jurisdict1on Act 1878 (41 & 42 Vict. c. 73), which provided for the maintenance of the existing jurisdiction for the trial of " any act of piracy as defined by the law of nations."During the Spanish-American War the Spanish government issued (1898) a decree declaring that "captains, masters and officers of vessels, which, as well as two-thirds of their crew, are not American, captured while committing acts of war against Spain, even if they are provided with letters of marque issued by the United States" would be regarded and judged as pirates. This was not in accordance with the international practice on the subject. A public ship or one which is entitled to fly the flag of a belligerent Ind navigates under the cover of state papers, by the very sense of the term, is not a pirate. Again, during the Russo-Japanese War, the word " piracy " was freely applied in British newspapers to the seizure of the " Malacca " and other vessels held up by the " Peterburg " and " Smolensk," two cruisers belonging to the Russian Black Sea volunteer fleet, which in July 1904 passed as merchantmen through the Bosporus and Dardanelles and were transformed to their real character on the open sea. The application of the term in this case was equally inaccurate.The conversion of merchant into war ships was one of the subjects dealt with by the second Hague Conference (1907), but it was agreed that "the question of the place where such conversion is effected remains outside the scope " of the agreement." Historical Sketch.—It has at all times been more difficult to enforce good order on the sea than on the land; or perhaps we ought to say that the establishment of law and order on the sea has in all ages of the world's history followed, but has not accompanied, and has still less preceded, the creation of a good police on the land. The sea robber, or pirate, cannot make a profit from any part of his booty except the food which he consumes, or the vessels which he may use, unless he can find a market. But so long as he is sure that he will somewhere meet a purchaser for the goods he has taken by violence, he has every encouragement to pursue his trade. Therefore from the times described in the Odyssey, down to the days when Sir Henry Keppel sailed in H.M.S. " Dido " to suppress the pirates of Borneo, and when Rajah Brooke of Sarawak co-operated with him on land, we find that the prevalence of piracy and the suppression of it have been closely dependent on the efforts made to rout it out from its lurking-places on the coast, and the degree of success achieved.Very different types of men have been named pirates. They have in fact been so unlike that to class them all together would be in the last degree unjust. The Greek in the youth of the world, and the Malay of Borneo in the 10th century, knew of no rule of morals which should restrain them from treating all who lay outside the limits of their city or their tribe as enemies, to be traded with when strong and plundered when weak. They might be patriotic, and law-abiding men towards the only authority they recognized. Their piracy was a form of war, not without close moral analogies to the seizure of Silesia by Frederick the Great, the attempted seizure of Spain by Napoleon. Indeed the story of this latter venture, with its deceitful preliminary success and its final disaster, may fairly be compared with the fall of Ulysses and his companions on the Cicones, as told in the ninth book of the Odyssey. Yet it would be highly uncritical to class Ulysses or Napoleon with Captain Avery, or Captain Kidd, or Bartholomew Roberts. We are not here concerned with the legal aspects of piracy, but with the true character of the persons to whom the name pirate has been applied at various times. The term was applied by the Romans to the adventurers against whom Pompey was commissioned to act by the Gabinian Law, by the English of the 9th and 10th centuries to the Vikings, and by the Spaniards to the English, French and Dutch who were found sailing beyond the line.Sufferers by naval commerce-destroyers call it "a piratical form of warfare." But the pirates of the Roman Republic were no mere "gang of robbers." They were the victims of a time of conquest and " general overture "—" the ruined men of all nations, the hunted refugees of all vanquished parties, everyone that was wretched and daring—and where was there not misery and violence in this unhappy age? It was no longer a gang of robbers who had flocked together, but a compact soldier state, in which the freemasonry of exile and of crime took the place of nationality, and within which crime redeemed itself, as it so often docs in its own eyes, by displaying the most generous public spirit." Such men are akin to the fuorosciti of Italian history or the Dutch Beggars of the Sea, the victims of party strife in the cities, who took to the sword because they had no other resource. Mutatis mutandis we may say as much for the intruders beyond the line, whom history calls the "Buccaneers ". The " Vikings " were a portion of the Barbarian invasions. The " Barbary Pirates " stand apart. As for the piratical character of the commerce-destroyer, or privateer—why are we to brand Captain Fortunatus Wright, the Englishman who captures a French merchant ship, or Captain Robert Surcouf, the Plenchman who captures a British East Indiaman, as piratical, and not make the same reproach against Admiral Lord Howe, or Admiral Don Luis de Cordoba, who with a fleet captures whole convoys?The pirate pure and simple is that member of an orderly community who elects to live on the sea, by violence and robbery, making no distinction between his own city or tribe and any other. The old adage that " war makes thieves and peace hangs them " has ever been peculiarly true of the sea. War has always been conducted there by the capture of an enemy's property, and by division of the spoil. A portion of the naval forces of all nations has been composed of privateers, letters of marque or corsairs, who plundered with a license. They have ever found a difficulty in drawing the line between enemy and neutral; when peace returned some of them found it hard to be content with honest wages earned by dull industry. Nelson declared that all privateers were no better than pirates. He was borne out by the experience of Great Britain, which at the beginning of the Seven Years' War had to take strong measures to repress the excesses of its privateers, and to hang a good few of them as mere pirates. The pirates suppressed by Pompey did not all submit to remain in the settlements he made. Some continued to rob at sea. If we can trust the Pastoral of Longus, and the other Greek romances, the pirate was a known type even under the Roman peace, but it is highly probable that he was more of a stock literary figure than a reality. Before the Roman peace, and during long centuries after it had been shattered, piracy was common. It grew out of a state of war. In modern times—even down to 1815—a recrudescence of piracy has followed regular hostilities. But there are other conditions which have a material influence, such as the need for a lurking place and for a receiver of the plundered goods. An archipelago provides the best lurking-places, and next to it a coast of many inlets. Therefore the Greek Islands, the British Isles, the Antilles, the Indian Ocean, the coast of Cilicia in Asia Minor, of Dalmatia, of Malabar and of Norway, have all at one time or other, and some of them for centuries, been haunts of pirates. The convenience of the place had to be completed by the convenience of the market. In the ancient world, and the middle ages, the market never failed. One city or tribe had little care for the sufferings of another. The men of the Cinque Ports who plundered the men of Yarmouth knew that their own townsmen would never call them to account, and therefore they had a safe refuge. Even when the medieval anarchy had come to an end on land. the sea was lawless. When peace was made with Spain after the death of Queen Elizabeth there were many who could not settle down to a life of industry. Some took the plain course of betaking themselves to Algiers or Salee. But there were many who prowled nearer home. Sir William Monson, in his Naval Tracts, tells how he was sent in 1605 to hunt pirates out of the Shetlands and the Hebrides. He found none at sea near Scotland, but some unemployed, whom he shipped and used as guides and informers, on the coast of Ireland. At Broad Haven he discovered an Irish gentleman of the name of Cormat (presumably Cormac) living in some dignity. His house was " the well-head of all pirates," and their captains were the lovers of his daughters. Monson found agents of merchants of London and of Galway, who came to buy the goods which the pirates had to sell at a bargain. He put that interesting family under the gallows, and frightened them into turning king's evidence. It was his boast that he had cleared the Irish coast of pirates, but we know that they were common late in the reign of Charles I., and that under the name of " sea Tories " they abounded during the Civil War both in Ireland and in the Scilly Isles. Their existence was prolonged by the weakness of the government, which when piracy became very rampant took the disastrous course of offering pardon to all who would come in by a certain date. As a matter of course many did, and when their booty was spent returned to their piratical trade. Monson says that the pirates he caused to be executed had already tasted of the king's mercy. While there wx ere friendly harbors to anchor in, purchasers to be met and a very fair prospect of a free pardon, piracy was not likely to cease.As the 17th Century drew on the law and the police became too strong for such persons as Mr Cormat at Broad Haven, and his pirate friends. But the pirate class did not cease. It was only driven to a wider field of operations-to a field which in fact stretched from the Red Sea to New England. On this wide portion of the earth's surface everything combined to favor the pirate. In the West Indies there was a "well-head" of immense capacity. Spain was forced late and reluctantly to recognize the legitimacy of any foreign settlement. She would rather put up with the lawless adventurers known as the " Brothers of the Coast " and the " Buccaneers " than co-operate with foreign governments to suppress them. Even when she renounced her full pretensions, several of the islands remained unoccupied except by the lingering remnants of the native races. Swine and cattle had been let loose on many of them, and had multiplied. The turtle was abundant and succulent. There was no want of food. A population with predatory instincts had been formed in the early days of hostile settlement and buccaneering. Jamaica was full of the so-called " private men-of-war " whose doings are prominent in the correspondence of the early governors, who were not uncommonly their associates. Add to this that the commercial policy of Spain denied to her colonists the right of trading with foreigners, and yet that she could not supply their needs herself. Hence arose a smuggling trade which had affinities with piracy. The lawless trader was not liable to be asked awkward questions, as to the origin of his cargo by the Spanish American who purchased it on the sly for money or by barter. Nor were any questions asked him when he brought his cargo to Jamaica, San Domingo, the Carolinas, New England or even Europe. In the decay of Spain her navy was not to be feared. But it was not the commercial policy of Spain alone which helped the pirate. Great Britain, and France also, insisted that their colonists should trade exclusively with or through them. The colonists were always ready to buy " good cheap " from the smuggler, and never ask him whether the East Indian produce—tea, silk, spices and so forth—he offered for sale were purchased or plundered in the Red Sea or on the coast of Malabar or of Coromandel. Add to all this that the police and patrol work of regular navies was but superficially done even in peace, and hardly at all in war, and that in the British colonies there was no judicial machinery for trying pirates till the 11th and 12th years of William III (1700, 1701), and it will be seen that all the conditions favored the pirate. In the East the decadence of the Mogul Empire was plunging India into anarchy, and it had no navy. Yet a large native trade existed, conducted by " Moors," as they were called, and Madagascar, a great " no-man's-land," afforded ample anchorage and food. To get possession of a ship, to sail to the East, to plunder the " Moors " to sell the booty in New England or the Carolinas, to spend the produce in riotous living, and go to sea on the same errand again, was the round of life of the large class of known pirates, who formed a recognized element of the population of Massachusetts and New York at the end of the 17th century. These are the men we know best, for they were encouraged by the tolerance shown them to come into the light. Others are buried in, or only dimly visible in, obscurity. Some trace of these latter may be found in the Letter Books of the Old Providence Company, a puritan society formed in the reign of Charles I., of which Pym and the earl of Warwick, afterwards the Parliamentary admiral of the Civil War, were governors. It was founded to colonize Old Providence on the coast of Honduras, a place not to be confused with another pirate haunt, New Providence in the Bahamas. It took to plain piracy and was suppressed by the Spaniards in 1638. Warwick made a regular business and large profits by fitting out "privateers," which were in fact pirates on the " Spanish main," not the seas of America, as some have thought, but the coast of the mainland.
The lives of the later and better known pirates may be illustrated by the career of Captain Avery, or Every (alias Bridgman), whose renown was great at the end of the 17th century, and who has the credit of having inspired Defoe's Life, Adventures and Piracies of Captain Singleton. Avery was mate of a Bristol ship hired by the Spaniards in 1694 to serve as a coastguard vessel in South America. She was called the " Charles II.," commanded by one Captain Gibson, and mounted 40 guns. While the " Charles II. " was lying at Corunna, in company with another vessel also hired by the Spaniards, waiting for the payment ot wages which was delayed, Avery persuaded part of the two crews to seize her and sail with her on a piratical voyage to the East. The enterprise was carried out without bloodshed or, apparently, coercion of those who were unwilling to go. Avery and his crew sailed to Madagascar, a regular haunt of the pirates. Many of them ended by remaining for life among the natives. The adventurers in the " Charles II.," who had already made some small prizes, English and Danish, were joined at the island by others of the same character who had come from the West Indies. From Madagascar they went to the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, to lie in wait for the trade from India. Several prizes were taken, and finally a large and valuable ship, belonging " to the Great Mogul and his subjects " was captured about ten miles from Surat. Avery and his crew now hastened to New England to sell their booty. The '° Charles II. " was disposed of as a privateer at Providence, and the pirates bought a sloop in which they sailed along the coast of the English colonies, selling their spoil, with the consent of the colonists and the connivance of the officials, who were bribed. In an evil hour for themselves they decided to come to England. The Indian governments, exasperated by the piracy practiced at the expense of their subjects, were threatening reprisals on the East India Company. The Company made complaints to the government at home, and energetic measures of repression were taken. Avery himself escaped capture, but several of his men were brought to trial, condemned and executed. It is to be noted that when first tried, on the 19th of October 1696, they were acquitted. They were, however, re-tried on other counts, on the 31st of October. The charge of Lord Chief Justice Holt to the jury, and the address of Sir Charles Hedges, the admiralty judge, shows that they felt both the importance and the uncertainty of securing a verdict. The cruise of Avery is not only a typical example of a piratical venture, but it is an important date in the history of the policing of the sea. The English government was roused to a sense of the necessity for strong measures to repress piracy. All the steps taken were not according to knowledge. The extraordinary private venture of Lord Bellamont and his associates who sent out Captain Kidd, a man of piratical antecedents, to suppress pirates in the Eastern seas, brought deserved discredit upon them. The decision taken on the advice of Burchett, the secretary of the admiralty, to offer a pardon to all who would surrender by a given date—for all piracies committed before the 30th of April to the east of the Cape of Good Hope, and the 30th of June 1699 to the west—was an error. It induced many to come in, but it also gave all pirates the hope that they would in the future be provided with similar means of escape. The establishment of admiralty courts in the East Indies and America and the despatch of warships were more effectual methods. Yet it was long before piracy was thoroughly checked, indeed the signing of the Peace of Utrecht was followed by a recrudescence of this form of crime. The privateers who swarmed in the West Indies and, as long as the war lasted, used, in the phrase of the time, to join the squadrons of war-ships " on the plundering account," could not settle down to dull industry. They leagued themselves into a species of pirate republic, with its capital at Providence in the Bahamas. In 1718 a special force had to be sent against them under Woodes Rogers, who is best remembered now for having taken Alexander Selkirk from the island of Juan Fernandez, in the course of a privateering voyage into the Pacific with the " duke " and " duchess " of Bristol. Rogers broke up the Providence settlement, and did a similar piece of service on the coast of Madagascar. Piracy did not, however, die. The Asiento Treaty having given Great Britain a monopoly of the slave trade with Spanish America, the monopolists, e the South Sea Company and Royal African Company, were of course subject to the competition of interlopers. The interlopers were the natural friends of the pirates, who divided their activity between the Antilles and the west coast of Africa, plundering in the second, selling and re-fitting, not without further plunder, in the first. The most notorious of these freebooters was Bartholomew Roberts, who was introduced to piracy by Howel Davis. Roberts was the nearest known approach to the pirate of romance, ostentatious, brave, not without touches of generosity. He was killed in action with Captain Chaloner Ogle, of H.M.S. " Swallow," on the coast of Africa, in 1722.
As the American colonies grew more settled piracy became intolerable to them. Yet it lingered on the coast of North Carolina, where the pirates could either terrorize the scattered inhabitants, or were encouraged by dishonest officials. Here flourished the grotesque brute known as Blackbeard, Edward Teach, till he was run down and slain by Lieut. Milvain in 1718. It was noted that several of those who helped to suppress him afterwards " went a-pirating " themselves. So strong was the piratical tradition of the New World that even men of some standing fell into it.
" Major " or Captain Stede Bonnet, who was condemned and executed at Charleston, South Carolina, as a pirate, in 1718, was a gentleman of some property in Barbados, who first ventured to sea in a ship of his own. Stede Bonnet had taken advantage of an act of grace, had come in on a proclamation, and had returned to a pirate's life. The last great explosion of piracy in the West Indies followed the peace of 1815. Here again we find the old conditions—privateers and other unsettled men, the safe lurking-place and the receiver. The refuge and the market were supplied by the Spanish colonies, which were plunged into anarchy by their revolt against Spain. The pirates were able to masquerade as " patriot " navies.
The sloth and corruption of Spanish captains-general of Cuba were no less favorable to the pirates. The south coast of of the island became a haunt of these villains till the British and American governments were driven to combine for their suppression. When they had been followed into their hiding-places and their vessels sunk, they took to brigandage on land, and were garroted by the Spanish authorities in self-defense. The piracy of the Greek islands went on to later years, and the Malays were not tamed till nearly 1850. On the coast and the rivers of China piracy was and is endemic, but the sailing junk has no chance with the modern steamer. When cases of piracy have occurred in the Straits of Malacca or in the China seas, by which Europeans have been the sufferers, the crime has generally been perpetrated by men who shipped as passengers or as crew, and who surprised the vessel. The pirate has been as useful to the author of modern tales and poems as to the writers of the Greek romances. When he is seen in authentic evidence he is found to have been for the most part a pitiful rogue. His gains were but small. A share of £200 was wealth to a mere sailor, and one of £1000 wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. He rarely fought a warship if he could help it, and indeed nothing is more surprising than his readiness to surrender when the fate before him was the gallows.
The pirates of the ancient world are admirably dealt with in Mommsen's History of Rome. For the modern pirate, see Monson's " Naval Tracts " in Churchill's Voyages, v. 5 (London, 1744–1746), and in the edition of the Navy Record Societv (1902). But the best accounts are to be found in the State Trials, vols. xiii, xiv., xv. (London, 1812). Captain Charles Johnson's General History of the Pyrates (London, 1724) must be used with caution. He no doubt learnt much from pirates who, having come in on a proclamation, were free to talk, but he cannot always be reconciled with authentic records. The Documents relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1856–1858) contain many curious details. For the eastern seas, the Compendious History of the Indian Wars; with an account of the Rise, Progress, Strength and Forces of Angria, the Pyrate, &c, by Clement Downing (London, 1737) is useful.
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 21. pg. 638-641