The English "pirate" is derived from the Latin term pirata, and ultimately from Greek peira (πεῖρα) "attempt, experience", implicitly "to find luck on the sea". The word is also cognate to peril. In 17th and 18th century sources the word is often rendered "pyrate". However, the term does not exclusively relate to robbery committed at sea, as other similar origins have a broader definition
Pirates have been around as long as people have used the oceans as trade routes. The earliest documented instances of piracy are the exploits of the Sea Peoples who threatened the Aegean and Mediterranean in the 13th century BC. In Classical Antiquity, the Tyrrhenians and Thracians were known as pirates. The island of Lemnos long resisted Greek influence and remained a haven for Thracian pirates. By the 1st century BC, there were pirate states along the Anatolian coast, threatening the commerce of the Roman Empire.
On one voyage across the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner in the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa. He maintained an attitude of superiority throughout his captivity. When the pirates decided to demand a ransom of twenty talents of gold, Caesar is said to have insisted that he was worth at least fifty, and the pirates indeed raised the ransom to fifty talents. After the ransom was paid, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and had them put to death. The Senate finally invested Pompey with powers to deal with piracy in 67 BC (the Lex Gabinia), and Pompey after three months of naval warfare managed to suppress the threat. In the 3rd century, pirate attacks on Olympos (city in Anatolia) brought impoverishment. Among some of the most famous ancient pirateering peoples were the Illyrians, populating the western Balkan peninsula. Constantly raiding the Adriatic Sea, the Illyrians caused many conflicts with the Roman Republic. It was not until 68 BC that the Romans finally conquered Illyria and made it a province, ending their threat.
As early as 258 AD, the Gothic-Herulic fleet ravaged towns on the coasts of the Black Sea and Sea of Marmara. The Aegean coast suffered similar attacks a few years later. In 264, the Goths reached Galatia and Cappadocia, and Gothic pirates landed on Cyprus and Crete. In the process, the Goths seized enormous booty and took thousands into captivity.
In 286 AD, Carausius, a Roman military commander of Gaulish origins, was appointed to command the Classis Britannica, and given the responsibility of eliminating Frankish and Saxon pirates who had been raiding the coasts of Armorica and Belgic Gaul.
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 Siponte in Benevento. 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 827-82. As soon as the Venetian fleet would return 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 raided Venetian traders returning from Benevento, and 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 Kaorle. 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 c. 872 and the retreat of the Imperial Navy, the Narentines restored their raids of Venetian waters, causing new conflicts with the Italians in 887-888. The Narentine piracy traditions were cherished even while they were in Serbia, serving as the finest Serb warriors. The Venetians futilely continued to fight them throughout the 10th-11th centuries.
H Thomas Milhorn mentions a certain Englishman named William Maurice, convicted of piracy in 1241, as the first person known to have been hanged, drawn and quartered, which would indicate that the then-ruling King Henry III took an especially severe view of this crime.
As early as Byzantine times, the Maniots - one of Greece's toughest populations - were known as pirates. The Maniots 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.
During the 16th century there was frequent European piracy against Mughal Indian vessels, especially those en route to Mecca for hajj. The situation came to a head, when Portuguese attacked and captured the vessel Rahimi which belonged to Mariam Zamani the Mughal queen, which led to the Mughal seizure of the Portuguese town Daman. In the 18th century, the famous Maratha privateer Kanhoji Angre ruled the seas between Mumbai and Goa. The Marathas attacked British shipping and insisted that East India Company ships pay taxes if sailing through their waters.
The most famous pirate utopia is that of Captain Misson and his pirate crew, who founded free colony of Libertatia in northern Madagascar in the late 17th century. In 1694, it was destroyed in a surprise attack by the island natives.
The southern coast of the Persian Gulf became known as the Pirate Coast as raiders based there harassed foreign shipping. Early British expeditions to protect the Indian Ocean trade from raiders at Ras al-Khaimah led to campaigns against that headquarters and other harbors along the coast in 1819.
Piracy in South East Asia began with the retreating Mongol Yuan fleet after the betrayal by their Javanese allies (who, incidentally, would found the empire of Majapahit after the Mongols left). They preferred the junk, a ship using a more robust sail layout. Marooned navy officers, consisting mostly of Cantonese and Hokkien tribesmen, set up their small gangs near river estuaries, mainly to protect themselves. They recruited locals as common foot-soldiers known as 'lang' (lanun) to set up their fortresses. They survived by utilizing their well trained pugilists, as well as marine and navigation skills, mostly along Sumatran and Javanese estuaries. Their strength and ferocity coincided with the impending trade growth of the maritime silk and spice routes.
However, the most powerful pirate fleets of East Asia were those of Chinese pirates during the mid-Qing dynasty. Pirate fleets grew increasingly powerful throughout the early 19th century. The effects large-scale piracy had on the Chinese economy were immense. They preyed voraciously on China’s junk trade, which flourished in Fujian and Guangdong and was a vital artery of Chinese commerce. Pirate fleets exercised hegemony over villages on the coast, collecting revenue by exacting tribute and running extortion rackets. In 1802, the menacing Zheng Yi inherited the fleet of his cousin, captain Zheng Qi, whose death provided Zheng Yi with considerably more influence in the world of piracy. Zheng Yi and his wife, Zheng Yi Sao (who would eventually inherit the leadership of his pirate confederacy) then formed a pirate coalition that, by 1804, consisted of over ten thousand men. Their military might alone was sufficient to combat the Qing navy. However, a combination of famine, Qing naval opposition, and internal rifts crippled piracy in China around the 1820s, and it has never again reached the same status.
The Bugi sailors of South Sulawesi were infamous as pirates who used to range as far west as Singapore and as far north as the Philippines in search of targets for piracy. The Orang laut pirates controlled shipping in the Straits of Malacca and the waters around Singapore. and the Malay and Sea Dayak pirates preyed on maritime shipping in the waters between Singapore and Hong Kong from their haven in Borneo.
According to recent legal analysis by the U.S. Supreme Court, the United States treated captured Barbary corsairs as prisoners of war, indicating that they were considered as legitimate privateers by at least some of their opponents, as well as by their home countries.
In 1523, Jean Fleury seized two ships carrying Aztec treasures from Mexico to Spain. The great or classic era of piracy in the Caribbean extends from around 1560 up until the mid 1720s. The period during which pirates were most successful was from 1700 until the 1730s. Many pirates came to the Caribbean after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Many people stayed in the Caribbean and became pirates shortly after that. Others, the buccaneers, arrived in the mid-to-late 17th century and made attempts at earning a living by farming and hunting on Hispaniola and nearby islands; pressed by Spanish raids and possibly failure of their means of making a living, they turned to a more lucrative occupation (not to mention more active and conducive to revenge). Caribbean piracy arose out of, and mirrored on a smaller scale, the conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers of the time, including England, Spain, Dutch United Provinces, Portuguese Empire and France. 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. Some of the best-known pirate bases were New Providence, in the Bahamas from 1715 to 1725, Tortuga established in the 1640s and Port Royal after 1655. Among the most famous Caribbean pirates are Edward Teach or "Blackbeard" and Henry Morgan.
Seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant issue (with estimated worldwide losses of US $13 to $16 billion per year), particularly in the waters between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, off the Somali coast, and also in the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which are used by over 50,000 commercial ships a year. A recent surge in piracy off the Somali coast spurred a multi-national effort led by the United States to patrol the waters near the Horn of Africa to combat piracy. While boats off the coasts of North Africa, Iran and the Mediterranean Sea are still assailed by pirates, the Royal Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard have nearly eradicated piracy in U.S. waters and in the Caribbean Sea.
Modern pirates favor small boats and taking advantage of the small number of crew numbers on modern cargo vessels. They also use large vessels to supply the smaller attack/boarding vessels. Modern pirates can be successful because a large amount of international commerce occurs via shipping. For commercial reasons, many cargo ships move through narrow bodies of water (such as the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and the Strait of Malacca) making them vulnerable to be overtaken and boarded by small motorboats. Other active areas include the South China Sea and the Niger Delta. As usage increases, many of these ships have to lower cruising speeds to allow for navigation and traffic control, making them prime targets for piracy. Small ships are also capable of disguising themselves as fishing vessels or cargo vessels when not carrying out piracy in order to avoid or deceive inspectors.
Also, pirates often operate in regions of developing or struggling countries with smaller navies and large trade routes. Pirates sometimes evade capture by sailing into waters controlled by their pursuer's enemies. With the end of the Cold War, navies have decreased size and patrol, and trade has increased, making organized piracy far easier. Modern pirates are sometimes linked with organized-crime syndicates, but often are parts of small individual groups. Pirate attack crews may consist of 4 to 10 sailors for going after a ship's safe (raiding) or up to 70 (depending entirely on the ships and the ships crew size) if the plan is to seize the whole vessel.
The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) maintains statistics regarding pirate attacks dating back to 1995. Their records indicate hostage-taking overwhelmingly dominates the types of violence against seafarers. For example in 2006, there were 239 attacks, 77 crew members were kidnapped and 188 taken hostage but only 15 of the pirate attacks resulted in murder. In 2007 the attacks rose by 10% to 263 attacks. There was a 35% increase on reported attacks involving guns. Crew members that were injured numbered 64 compared to just 17 in 2006. That number does not include hostages/kidnapping where they were not injured.
In some cases, modern pirates are not interested in the cargo and are mainly interested in taking the personal belongings of the crew and the contents of the ship's safe, which might contain large amounts of cash needed for payroll and port fees. In other cases, the pirates force the crew off the ship and then sail it to a port to be repainted and given a new identity through false papers often purchased from corrupt or complicit officials.
Modern piracy can also take place in conditions of political unrest. For example, following the US withdrawal from Vietnam, Thai piracy was aimed at the many Vietnamese who took to boats to escape. Further, following the disintegration of the government of Somalia, warlords in the region have attacked ships delivering UN food aid.
Environmental action groups such as Sea Shepherd have been accused of engaging in piracy and terrorism when they sink ships with mines, scuttle them, or ram them and throw butyric acid on their crews; although they carry firearms, they are not known to have fired them during attacks.
The attack against the U.S. cruise ship the Seabourn Spirit offshore of Somalia in November 2005 is an example of the sophisticated pirates mariners face. The pirates carried out their attack more than offshore with speedboats launched from a larger mother ship. The attackers were armed with automatic firearms and an RPG.
Many nations forbid ships to enter their territorial waters or ports if the crew of the ships are armed in an effort to restrict possible piracy. Shipping companies sometimes hire private security guards.
Modern definitions of piracy include the following acts:
In modern times, ships and airplanes are hijacked for political reasons as well. The perpetrators of these acts could be described as pirates (for instance, the French for "plane hijacker" is pirate de l'air, literally "air pirate"), but in English are usually termed "hijackers". An example is the hijacking of the Italian civilian passenger ship Achille Lauro, which is generally regarded as an act of piracy.
Modern pirates also use a great deal of technology. It has been reported that crimes of piracy have involved the use of mobile phones, modern speedboats, assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, mounted machine guns, and even RPGs and grenade launchers.
Reports of piracy attacks were declining worldwide since 2004, but seems to have bottomed out in 2007. Figures reported by the International Maritime Bureau indicate incident reporting fell for the third year in a row in 2006. Ships reported 239 incidents to the IMB during the year 2006, down from 276 in 2005, and 329 in 2004. But the piracy rose by 14% in the first nine months of 2007.
The maritime watchdog group points to better awareness of the magnitude of piracy and subsequent involvement by governments in combating piracy as factors in the decline.
Yet hotspots remain. They include Indonesia, still the world’s most dangerous piracy region, Nigeria, Somalia, and the ports of Chittagong in Bangladesh and Santos in Brazil, according to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) 2006 Annual Report. Furthermore, experts caution that local problem areas can emerge quickly, despite a worldwide down trend in pirate attacks.
"When attacks hit a peak in 2000, at that time Somalia was just a blip on the radar screen," said the secretary-general of the Shipping Federation during an interview with the London Financial Times. "Then it becomes a big problem. Piracy tends to be a feature of areas where there is either lawlessness or real economic deprivation and it's very difficult to eradicate.
The recent downward trend in piracy worldwide follows a period when attacks tripled between 1993 and 2003. The first half of 2003 was the worst 6-month period on record, with 234 pirate attacks, 16 deaths, and 52 people injured worldwide. There were also 193 crew members held hostage during this period. In the first 6 months of 2004, 182 reported cases of piracy turned up worldwide, 50 of which occurring in Indonesian waters.
The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated in 2004 that more pirate attacks in that year occurred in Indonesian waters (70 of 251 reported attacks) than in the waters of any other country. Of these attacks, a majority occurred in the Straits of Malacca. They also stated that of the attacks in 2004, oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers were the most popular targets with 67 attacks on tankers and 52 on bulk carriers.
Authorities estimate that only between 50% to as low as 10% of pirate attacks are actually reported (so as not to increase insurance premiums).
In the popular modern imagination, pirates of the classical period were rebellious, clever teams who operated outside the restricting bureaucracy of modern life. Pirates were also depicted as always raising their Jolly Roger-flag when preparing to hijack a vessel. The Jolly roger is the traditional name for the flags of European and American pirates and a symbol for piracy that has been adopted by film-makers and toy manufacturers.
In reality, many pirates ate poorly, did not become fabulously wealthy, and died young. Unlike traditional Western societies of the time, many pirate crews operated as limited democracies. Both the captain and the quartermaster were elected by the crew, they in turn appointed the other ship's officers. The captain of a pirate ship was often a fierce fighter in whom the men could place their trust, rather than a more traditional authority figure sanctioned by an elite. However, when not in battle, the quartermaster usually had the real authority. Many groups of pirates shared in whatever they seized; pirates injured in battle might be afforded special compensation similar to medical insurance. Often all of these terms were agreed upon and written down by the pirates, but these articles could also be used as incriminating proof that they were outlaws. Pirates readily accepted outcasts from traditional societies, perhaps easily recognizing kindred spirits, and they were known to welcome them into the pirate fold. For example as many as 40% of the pirate vessels crews were slaves "liberated" from captured slavers. Such practices within a pirate crew were tenuous, however, and did little to mitigate the brutality of the pirate's way of life.
Even though pirates raided many ships, few, if any, buried their treasure, or booty. 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. For this reason, there was no need for the pirates to bury these goods.
The classical age of piracy coexisted with a rise in British imperialism which required merchant vessels to transport goods and warships to protect the trade ships from pirates and privateers. Living conditions on the warships were horrible even by 17th century standards; sailors were often fed rotten, maggot-infested food, frequently suffered from scurvy or other nutritional disorders, and could be counted lucky to escape their service without a crippling injury. British captains were known to have been extremely brutal; the captain held a nearly sovereign power aboard his ship and many were unafraid to abuse that power. To fill the warships, officers would forcibly pressgang boys and young men to replace lost crew. The horrid living conditions, constant threat to life, and brutality of the captain and his officers pushed many men over the edge. Possessing seafaring skill, a learned intolerance for absolute authority, and a disdain for the motherland they might have believed abandoned them, many crews would simply mutiny during an attack and offer themselves and their ship as a new pirate vessel and crew.
The famous Barbary Corsairs of the Mediterranean were privateers, as were the Maltese Corsairs, who were authorized by the Knights of St. John, and the Dunkirkers in the service of the Spanish Empire. One famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake. His patron was Queen Elizabeth I, and their relationship ultimately proved to be quite profitable for England.
Privateering lost international sanction under the Declaration of Paris in 1856.
In English admiralty law, piracy was defined as petit treason during the medieval period, and offenders were accordingly liable to be drawn and quartered on conviction. Piracy was redefined as a felony during the reign of Henry VIII. In either case, piracy cases were cognizable in the courts of the Lord High Admiral. English admiralty vice-admiralty judges emphasized that "neither Faith nor Oath is to be kept" with pirates; i.e. contracts with pirates and oaths sworn to them were not legally binding. Pirates were legally subject to summary execution by their captors if captured in battle. In practice, instances of summary justice and annulment of oaths and contracts involving pirates do not appear to have been common.
Since piracy often takes place outside the territorial waters of any state, the prosecution of pirates by sovereign states represents a complex legal situation. The prosecution of pirates on the high seas contravenes the conventional freedom of the high seas. However, because of universal jurisdiction, action can be taken against pirates without objection from the flag state of the pirate vessel. This represents an exception to the principle extra territorium jus dicenti impune non paretur (the judgment of one who is exceeding his territorial jurisdiction may be disobeyed with impunity).
In 2008 the British Foreign Office advised the Royal Navy not to detain pirates of certain nationalities as they might be able to claim asylum in Britain under British human rights legislation, if their national laws included execution, or mutilation as a judicial punishment for crimes committed as pirates.
Pirates are a frequent topic in fiction and are associated with certain stereotypical manners of speaking and dress, some of them wholly fictional: "nearly all our notions of their behavior come from the golden age of fictional piracy, which reached its zenith in 1881 with the appearance of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Some inventions of pirate culture such as "walking the plank" were popularized by J. M. Barrie's novel, Peter Pan, where Captain Hook's pirates helped define the fictional pirate archetype. Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island also helped define the modern rendition of a pirate. Other influences include Sinbad the Sailor, and the recent Pirates of the Caribbean films have helped kindle modern interest in piracy and have succeeded quite handsomely in box office grosses.
The classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance focuses on The Pirate King and his hopeless band of pirates on the South coast of England. The Pirate King is often believed to be inspiration for Jack Sparrow. One of the stereotypical features of a pirate, the eye patch, dates back to the Arab pirate Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah who wore it after losing an eye in battle in the 18th century.
Running Wild, a long running Speed metal/Power metal act from Germany, have utilized a piracy gimmick since the late 1980s, releasing albums and songs with names such as "Under Jolly Roger", "Port Royal", "Treasure Island", "Calico Jack", "Jennings' Revenge" (about the hugely successful 1715 pirate raid by Henry Jennings) and "Rogues en Vogue".
"Pirate Master" is a CBS reality show which premiered on May 31, 2007. "Pirate Master" is about a modern day pirate crew searching for lost treasure. The National Geographic Channel is airing a documentary about Samuel Bellamy on January 7, 2008 called "Pirate Treasure Hunters." This features footage of the exploration of the wreck of the Whydah Gally by excavation expert Barry Clifford.
"Long John Silver" is portrayed as an anti-hero in the 2008 novel "SILVER--My Own Tale As Told By Me With A Goodly Amount Of Murder" by Edward Chupack.
Various variants on the pirate idea exist, notably "space pirates" in science fiction, such as the TV series "Firefly," that imagine future space shipping subject to similar pressures as shipping in the Age of Exploration. Pirates are also common mascots and names of sports teams.
Goodman, Timothy H. 'Leaving the Corsair's name to other times:' How to enforce the law of sea piracy in the 21st century through regional international agreements / Timothy H. Goodman In: Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, vol.31 (Winter 1999) nr.1, P.: 139-168