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It’s reasonable to assume that piracy has existed for as long as the oceans were used for commerce. The earliest documented instances of piracy are the Sea Peoples who threatened the Aegean and Mediterranean in the 13th century B.C.. These pirates wielded cutlasses, a type of sword common in that era. In Classical Antiquity, the Illyrians, Tyrrhenians, Greeks and Romans were known as pirates.
In the 3rd century B.C., pirate attacks on Olympos (city in Anatolia) brought impoverishment. Among the most famous ancient pirateering peoples were the Illyrians, populating the western Balkan Peninsula. Constantly raiding the Adriatic Sea until 168 B.C. when the Romans finally conquered Illyria, making it a province that ended their threat.
During the 1st century B.C., there were pirate states along the Anatolian coast, threatening the Roman Empire’s commerce in the eastern Mediterranean. In 75 B.C., Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates Aegean Sea and held prisoner. When the pirates decided on a ransom of twenty talents (680kgs) of gold, Caesar said that he was worth at least fifty, so the pirates raised the ransom to fifty talents (1,700kgs). Upon his released he raised a fleet, captured the pirates and had them crucified.
The Senate invested Pompey with powers to deal with piracy in 67 B.C. (the Lex Gabinia), he suppress the threat after three months of naval warfare.
As early as 258 A.D., the Gothic-Herulic fleet ravaged towns on the coasts of the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. The Aegean coast a few years later. In 264 A.D., the Goths reached Galatia and Cappadocia, and landed on Cyprus and Crete. They seized enormous booty and took thousands into captivity.
In 286 A.D., Carausius, a Roman military commander, was appointed to command the Classis Britannica and eliminate the Frankish and Saxon pirates raiding the coasts of Armorica and Belgic Gaul.
In the Roman province of Britannia, Saint Patrick was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates.
Middle Ages to 19th Century.
The most widely known and far reaching pirates were the Vikings, warriors and looters from Scandinavia who raided between 793 – 1066, during the Viking Age in the Early Middle Ages. They raided the coasts, rivers and inland cities of Western Europe as far as Seville, attacked by the Norse in 844. They also attacked coasts of North Africa, Italy and the coasts of the Baltic Sea, ascending the rivers as far as the Black Sea and Persia.
Muslim pirates were common in the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the 9th century. Pirate havens were established along the coast of southern France and northern Italy. In 846 Muslim raiders sacked Rome and damaged the Vatican. In 911, the pirates from Fraxinet controlled all the passes in the Alps. They operated out of the Balearic Islands in the 10th century. From 824 – 961 Arab pirates in Emirate of Crete raided the entire Mediterranean. In the 14th century, raids by Muslim pirates forced the Venetian Duke of Crete to ask Venice to keep its fleet on constant guard.
After the Slavic invasions of the Balkan Peninsula in the 5th and 6th centuries, a Slavic tribe settled the land of Pagania between Dalmatia and Zachlumia in the first half of the 7th century. These Slavs revived the old Illyrian piratical habits and often raided the Adriatic Sea. By 642 they invaded southern Italy and assaulted Siponto. Their raids in the Adriatic increased rapidly, until the whole Sea was no longer safe for travel.
The Narentines, as they were called, took more liberties in their raiding quests while the Venetian Navy was abroad, as when it was campaigning in Sicilian waters in 827–882. As soon as the fleet returned to the Adriatic, the Narentines temporarily abandoned their habits again, even signing a Treaty in Venice and baptising their Slavic pagan leader into Christianity. In 834 or 835 they broke the treaty and again and raided Venetian traders returning from Benevento. all of Venice’s military attempts to punish the Marians in 839 and 840 utterly failed. Later, they raided the Venetians more often, together with the Arabs. In 846, the Narentines broke through to Venice itself and raided its lagoon city of Caorle. In the middle of March of 870 they kidnapped the Roman Bishop’s emissaries that were returning from the Ecclesiastical Council in Constantinople. This caused a Byzantine military action against them that finally brought Christianity to them.
After the Arab raids on the Adriatic coast 872 and the retreat of the Imperial Navy, the Narentines continued their raids of Venetian waters, causing new conflicts with the Italians in 887–888. The Venetians futilely continued to fight them throughout the 10th & 11th centuries.
In 937, Irish pirates sided with the Scots, Vikings, Picts, and Welsh in their invasion of England. Athelstan drove them back.
The Slavic piracy in the Baltic Sea ended with the Danish conquest of the Rani stronghold of Arkona in 1168. In the 12th century the coasts of western Scandinavia were plundered by Curonians and Oeselians from the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. In the 13th & 14th century pirates threatened the Hanseatic routes and nearly brought sea trade to the brink of extinction. Until about 1440, maritime trade in both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea was seriously in danger of attack by the pirates.
H. Thomas Milhorn mentions William Maurice a Englishman, convicted of piracy in 1241. He was the first person known to have been hanged, drawn and quartered.
The Ushkuiniks were Novgorodian pirates who looted the cities on the Volga and Kama Rivers in the 14th century.
As early as Byzantine times (around 330 A.D.), the Maniots (one of Greece’s toughest populations) were known as pirates. They considered piracy as a legitimate response to the fact that their land was poor and it became their main source of income. The main victims of Maniot pirates were the Ottomans but the Maniots also targeted ships of European countries.
The Haida and Tlingit tribes, who lived along the coast of southern Alaska and on islands in northwest British Columbia, were traditionally known as fierce warriors, pirates and slave-traders, raiding as far as California.
In the Caribbean François l’Olonnais was nicknamed Flail of the Spaniards and had a reputation for brutality – offering no quarter to Spanish prisoners.
In 1523, Jean Fleury seized two Spanish treasure ships carrying Aztec treasures from Mexico to Spain. Piracy in the Caribbean extends from around 1560 to the mid 1730’s. The most successful period was from 1700 until the 1730’s. Many pirates came to the Caribbean after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. The buccaneers arrived in the mid-to-late 17th century. Most of these pirates were of English, Dutch and French origin. Because Spain controlled most of the Caribbean, many of the attacked cities and ships belonged to the Spanish Empire and along the East coast of America and the West coast of Africa. Dutch ships captured about 500 Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1623 and 1638. Some of the best-known pirate bases were New Providence, in the Bahamas from 1715 to 1725, Tortuga established in the 1640’s and Port Royal after 1655. Among the most famous Caribbean pirates are Edward Teach or Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, Henry Morgan and the most successful Bartholomew Roberts. Most were hunted down by the Royal Navy and killed or captured.
Piracy in the Caribbean declined for the next several decades after 1730 but by the 1810’s many pirates roamed American waters though they were not as bold or successful as the predecessors. Throughout the first quarter of the 19th century, the U.S. Navy repeatedly engaged pirates in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and in the Mediterranean. The most successful pirates of the era were Jean Lafitte and Roberto Cofresi. Lafitte’s ships primarily operated in the Gulf of Mexico but Cofresi’s base was in Puerto Rico where he was considered a type of Robin Hood by many Puerto Ricans. Eventually he was defeated by the schooner USS Grampus and captured in 1825.
In 1827, Britain declared that participation in the slave trade was piracy and punishable by death. The power of the Royal Navy was subsequently used to suppress the slave trade and the Atlantic slave trade would be eradicated by the middle of the 19th century.
In the 20th Century, one notable pirate active in the Caribbean was Boysie Singh. He operated off northern South America. He and his pirate gang killed several people and plundered their ships from 1947 to 1956.
Ocean piracy, off the coasts of North America, continued as late as the 1870s. Pirates who operated in the Caribbean often sailed north to attack targets off the present day eastern seaboard of the United States. Possibly the most famous of these was Blackbeard, who operated in the American south, attacking ships and at one point even blockading Charleston, South Carolina. Later in the 19th century, after the Golden Age of Piracy, Jean Lafitte became what is considered by many to be the last buccaneer due to his army of pirates and fleet of pirate ships which held bases in and around the Gulf of Mexico. Lafitte and his men participated in the War of 1812 battle of New Orleans and later his ships fought the U.S. Navy and the US Revenue Cutter Service. Eventually, Lafitte was evicted from the area by US forces after several battles and raids. Between 1822 and 1825, the American West Indies Squadron fought against pirates in the Caribbean.
By 1830, piracy in the Gulf of Mexico became rare with the exception of slave traders, who were considered pirates. In 1860 during the Reform War, the U.S. Navy fought the Battle of Anton Lizardo against rebels which were declared pirates by the Mexican government. In 1870, the U.S. Navy again fought pirates off Mexico during the Battle of Boca Teacapan. The pirates had attacked and captured Guaymas, Mexico, looted the foreign residents of their belongings and forced the United States consulate in Guaymas to provide their steamer with coal, after which they sailed for Boca Teacapan, Sinaloa. A U.S. Navy expedition under Willard H. Brownson was launched, resulting in the destruction of the pirate ship. The invention of steam powered vessels eventually put an end to piracy off North America though some isolated incidents continued to occur into the 1920’s.
Henry Every’s capture of the Grand Mughal ship Ganj-i-Sawai in 1695 stands as one of the most profitable pirate raids ever perpetrated.
Even though pirates raided many ships, few, if any, buried their treasure. Often, the ‘treasure’ that was stolen was food, water, alcohol, weapons, or clothing. Other things they stole were household items like bits of soap and gear like rope and anchors, or sometimes they would keep the ship they captured (either to sell off or keep because it was better than their ship). Such items were likely to be needed immediately, rather than saved for future trade. For this reason, there was no reason for the pirates to bury these goods. Pirates tended to kill few people aboard the ships they captured; oftentimes they would kill no one if the ship surrendered, because if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, their victims would fight to the last and make victory both very difficult and costly in lives. In contrast, ships would quickly surrender if they knew they would be spared. In one well-documented case 300 heavily armed soldiers on a ship attacked by Thomas Tew surrendered after a brief battle with none of Tew’s 40-man crew being injured.
Pirates had a system of hierarchy on board their ships determining how captured money was distributed. However, pirates were more ‘egalitarian’ than any other area of employment at the time. In fact pirate quartermasters were a counterbalance to the captain and had the power to veto his orders. The majority of plunder was in the form of cargo and ship’s equipment with medicines the most highly prized. A vessel’s doctor’s chest would be worth anywhere from £300 to £400, or around $470,000 in today’s values. Jewels were common plunder but not popular as they were hard to sell and pirates, unlike the public of today, had little concept of their value. There is one case recorded where a pirate was given a large diamond worth a great deal more than the value of the handful of small diamonds given his crewmates as a share. He felt cheated and had it broken up to match what they received.
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