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A pirate digging…perhaps to bury treasure, perhaps a grave.
A pirate digging…perhaps to bury treasure, perhaps a grave.
This article is about sea pirates. For other uses see Pirate (disambiguation)

A pirate is one who robs or plunders at sea, or sometimes the shore, without a commission from a recognised sovereign nation. Pirates usually target other ships, but have also attacked targets on shore. While piracy in popular conception conjures up the romantic imagery of fictionalized tales of Caribbean pirates in the 17th century, piracy persists in the world today. Unlike the stereotypical pirate with cutlass and masted sailing ship, today most pirates get about in speedboats wearing balaclavas instead of bandannas, using AK-47s rather than cutlasses.

Seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant problem (with estimated worldwide losses of $13 to $16 billion USD per year), particularly in the waters between the Pacific and Indian oceans, and specifically in the straits of Malacca and Singapore, used by over 50,000 commercial ships a year. While boats off the coasts of South America and the Mediterranean Sea are still molested by pirates, the advent of the United States Coast Guard has nearly eradicated piracy in American waters, and it is also much reduced in the Caribbean Sea.


Piracy in the Caribbean

Main article: Piracy in the Caribbean

The great or classic era of piracy in the Caribbean extends from around 1560 up until the 1720s. The period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1640s until the 1680s. 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, the Dutch United Provinces, and France. Two of the most well known pirate bases were Tortuga in the 1640s and Port Royal after 1655.


Main article: Privateer

A privateer or corsair used similar methods to a pirate, but acted while in possession of a commission or letter of marque from a government or king authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation. The famous Barbary Corsairs of the Mediterranean were privateers, as were the Maltese Corsairs, who were authorized by the Knights of St. John. The letter of marque was recognized by convention—for example, the United States Constitution of 1787 specifically authorizes Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal—and meant that a privateer could not technically be charged with piracy. This nicety of law did not always save the individuals concerned, however, as whether one was considered a pirate or a legally operating privateer often depended on whose custody the individual found himself in—that of the country that had issued the commission, or that of the object of attack. Under the Declaration of Paris of 1854, seven nations agreed to suspend the use of the letter of marque, and others followed in the Hague Conventions. The most famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake. His patron was England, and their relationship ultimately proved to be quite profitable.

Pirate organization

In the popular modern imagination, pirates of the classical period were rebellious, clever teams who operated outside the restricting bureaucracy of modern life. In reality, many pirates ate poorly, did not become fabulously wealthy, and died young.

Unlike traditional Western societies of the time, many pirate clans operated as limited democracies, demanding the right to elect and replace their leaders. 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 ship's quartermaster usually had the real authority.

Many groups of pirates shared in whatever booty they seized, according to a complicated scheme where each man received his alloted share of the prize. Pirates injured in battle might be afforded special compensation. Often all of these terms were agreed upon and written down by the pirates. 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 free slaves from slave ships and welcome them into the pirate fold.

Such egalitarian practices within a pirate clan were tenuous, however, and did little to mitigate the brutality of the pirate's way of life.

Commerce raiders

A wartime activity similar to piracy involves disguised warships called commerce raiders or merchant raiders which attack enemy shipping commerce, approaching by stealth and then opening fire. Commerce raiders operated successully during the American Revolution. During World War II, Germany also made use of these tactics, both in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, but since naval vessels were openly used, these commerce raiders should not be considered even privateers, much less pirates.

Modern piracy

Piracy in recent times has increased in areas such as South and Southeast Asia (the South China Sea), parts of South America, and the south of the Red Sea, with pirates now favouring small boats and taking advantage of the small crew numbers on modern cargo vessels. Modern pirates prey on cargo ships which must slow their speed to navigate narrow straits, making them vulnerable to be overtaken and boarded by small motorboats. 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 inspections.

In most 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 to pay payroll and port fees. In some cases, the pirates force the crew off the ship and sail the ship to a port, where it is repainted and given a new identity through false papers.

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 Straits of Malacca. 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. Modern piracy can also take place in conditions of political unrest or vacuum. For example, following the disintegration of the government of Somalia, warlords in the region have attacked ships delivering UN food aid [1].

Modern definitions of piracy include the following acts:

Pirate 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.

182 cases of piracy were reported worldwide in the first 6 months of 2004. Of these incidents, 50 occurred in Indonesian waters.

The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated in 2004 that most pirate attacks in that year occurred in Indonesian waters (70 of 251 reported attacks). 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.

In modern times ships, as well as aeroplanes, are also hijacked for political reasons. The perpetrators of these acts could be described as pirates (for instance, the French for plane hijacker is pirate de l'air), but in English are usually termed hijackers or terrorists. An example is the hijacking of the Italian civilian passenger ship, the Achille Lauro.

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, and AK-47s. There is also speculation that modern pirates eavesdrop on satellite communication networks such as Inmarsat to determine cargo and the degree of risk involved with an operation.

Recent Pirate Attacks

Piracy in international law

Effects on international boundaries

In the Straits of Malacca, during the 18th Century, the British and the Dutch controlled both sides of the Straits of Malacca. Some pirates carried on activities similar to armed rebellion with the aim of resisting the colonizers. In order to put a stop to this, the British and the Dutch drew a line separating the Straits into two sides. The agreement was that each party would be responsible for piracy in their respective area. Eventually this line became the separating line between Malaysia and Indonesia in the Straits.

International law

Piracy is of note in international law as it is commonly held to represent the earliest invocation of the concept of universal jurisdiction. The crime of piracy is considered jus cogens, a conventional peremptory international norm from which states may not derogate. Those committing thefts on the high seas, inhibiting trade, and endangering maritime communication were considered by sovereign states to be hostes humani generis (enemies of humanity).

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, as jus cogens, jurisdiction can nevertheless typically be exercised 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).

Other terms for pirates

Pirates who operated in the West Indies during the 17th century were known as buccaneers. The word comes from boucan, a wooden frame used for cooking meat (called a barbacoa elsewhere). These were used by French hunters called boucaniers. These hunters became pirates and took their name with them. The most famous person associated with buccaneers in the West Indies at that time was Henry Morgan.

Dutch pirates were known as kapers or vrijbuiters ("plunderers"), the latter combining the words vrij meaning free, buit meaning loot, and the ending -er meaning agent. The word vrijbuiter was corrupted into the English freebooters and French flibustiers. It came back into English as filibusters, who were not pirates, but adventurers involving themselves in Latin American revolutions and coups and then finally came to mean the disruptive parliamentary maneuver of talking without stopping.

Pirates are called Lanun by both the Indonesians and the Malaysians who form the nations bracketing the Straits of Malacca. Originally a culture of seafaring people, their name became synonymous with piracy in the 15th century.

Pirates with commissions from a government are called privateers or corsairs, which in modern Arabic is قرصان from the Turkish Korsan, which seems to have been derived from the European word, which in turn comes from the mediaeval Latin cursa, "raid, expedition, inroad".

Pirates are also known as picaroons.

Notable pirates and privateers

Main article: List of pirates


  • Early Polynesian warriors attacked seaside and riverside villages. They used the sea for their hit-and-run tactics - a safe place to retreat to if the battle turned against them.
  • The Sea Peoples were pirates who attacked ancient Egypt.
  • When Sulla died in 78 BC, Julius Caesar returned to Rome as a lawyer, prosecuted Sulla's supporters, and headed to the Greek town of Rhodes to study oratory. Pirates seized control of the vessel, kidnapped Caesar, and sold him as a slave. In 75 BC, Julius Caesar purchased his freedom and assembled a small army, which captured the pirates and crucified them.
  • Irish pirates attacked Roman trade vessels.
  • In the 3rd century, pirate attacks on Olympus (city in Anatolia) brought impoverishment.
  • Saint Patrick was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates.
  • The Vikings were Scandinavian pirates who attacked the British isles and Europe from the sea.
  • In 937, Irish pirates sided with the Scots, Vikings, Picts, and Welsh in their invasion of England. Athelstan drove them back.
  • During the Children's Crusade, Arab pirates may have captured and enslaved thousands of Christian children.
  • Environmentalist and yachtsman Peter Blake was killed by pirates in 2001.
  • The American luxury liner Seabourn Spirit was attacked by pirates in November 2005 off the Somalian coast.

Popular culture

A stereotypical cartoon pirate
A stereotypical cartoon pirate

In popular culture, pirates are associated with a stereotypical manner of speaking and dress. This tradition owes much to Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island. Many stereotypical pirates have accents which are apparently from Cornwall, or Bristol in England. Popular interest in pirates rose again when the movie Pirates of the Caribbean was released, bringing more attention to the pirate bases of Tortuga and Port Royal.

In the 1990s, International Talk Like a Pirate Day was invented as a parodic holiday celebrated on September 19.

A recurring Internet meme posits a rivalry between stereotypical pirates and ninja. The two sides are portrayed as having antithetical personalities: pirates are crude, brutish, extroverted sea brigands, whereas ninja are cautious, calculating, introverted stealth warriors who work from the shadows.

Stereotypical piratical dress

Surprisingly, many of these stereotypes are true. Pirates during the Golden Era would often lose limbs in battle. These pirates would be employed as cooks, as they could not be of any use during raids anymore. Bandanas would be worn to keep sweat out of their face. Their clothes, however, would typically be practical and comfortable, meant to be convenient for working on a ship. Sometimes pirates would even keep animals on board, to supply them with fresh food; exotic animals such as parrots and monkeys would be of no use to them, however, though it has been suggested that pirates may have kept exotic animals in order to sell them for high prices. Some pirates also believed that putting pressure on their earlobes (wearing earrings) would prevent them from becoming seasick. Another suggestion for the purpose of a gold earring is that when a pirate would die, the gold on him would provide some kind of funding for a funeral and coffin.

Pirates in fiction

Pirate jokes

Main article: Pirate jokes

One of the verbal tics commonly attributed to pirates in popular culture — "Arrr!" — has become the basis for many jokes and puns and much levity, such as International Talk Like a Pirate Day. For example, "Q: What was the Pirate movie rated? / A: Arrrrrrr [R]!"

Piratical pop stars

See also: Pirate rock

Pop stars have long been drawn towards pirate culture, due to its anti-establishmentism and motley dress. An early 1960s British pop group called themselves Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, and wore eye-patches while they performed. Keith Moon, drummer with The Who, was a fan of Robert Newton. Newer acts, such as Flogging Molly and Mad Caddies have pirate themed songs aswell. German Metal band Running Wild are probably the only 'pirate metal' band in wide circulation, adopting this image since their third album in 1987 and continuing with it to this day.

During the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II, the Sex Pistols, banned from performing on land, hired a pleasure boat and cruised down the Thames before being stopped by river police. They later adapted the dirty song "Good Ship Venus" as their hit "Friggin' in the Rigging". Another of Malcolm McLaren's protegées, Adam Ant, took the pirate image further. One of the tracks on the album "Kings of the wild frontier" was called "Jolly Roger".

See also

External links

Modern piracy

Historic piracy


Further reading

  • Langewiesche, William (2004) The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime, North Point Press. ISBN 0865475814
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