History & Mythology

The History of Pirates: From Ancient to Digital Piracy in 14 Minutes

Pirates. Few subjects capture our collective imagination more. In recent times, pirates have been the inspiration for countless books, movies, costumes, theme park rides, video games… movies again, more movies, very, very... long movies.

But far from the cuddly, non-threatening image of pirates that prevails today, these were some of the most feared individuals in history. And, as we will see, the legacy of their rich, complex histories very much impacts our world today.

But to start, we have to go back to the dawn of human civilisation. Because although the famous, swashbuckling, Pirates of the Carribean did exist and are, as we will see, very much real…! they were by no means the first of their kind. In fact, in historical terms, they were quite late to the game…

Ancient Times

There is an old Malay saying that the very first ship was built to catch fish, and the second was built to steal the first’s haul-- something which is supported by the fact that records of piracy appeared in China, 7000 years ago! 

About 3,000 years later, the Ancient Greeks-- founders of Western Civilisation as we know it, were known to be impacted by pirates hiding among the thousands of islands and inlets of The Aegean Sea,, from which they could easily prey on passing merchant ships. Pirates are mentioned often in Homer’s The Odyssey, composed in about 800 B.C., described as men who wander across the seas, Putting their lives at risk and bringing evil to foreign peoples.

But for the wanderers themselves, their plundering of coastal towns in the Greek empire was not considered shameful. Indeed, some Ancient Greek writers suggest it “actually brought them some glory” (Thucydides) and that looting was considered acceptable, even appropriate! The children of pirates would often wear Iron swords, just so everyone knew their family’s history. It’s hard to imagine that today. The Greeks nicknamed these groups as ‘the attackers’, or peirates. 

Let’s stay in the same stretch of the Aegean sea, and fast-forward a few hundred years later to the time of the Roman Empire. In 75 BC, a 25 year old Roman was captured by pirates, who demanded 620 kilograms of silver as a ransom -- worth $600,000 in today’s money. The pirates were amazed when their prisoner-- a nobleman by the name of Julius Caesar… yes that Julius Caesar... became insulted at such a low valuation, demanded they increase their ransom by more than double. 

The scale of piracy in the rest of the Roman Empire is evidenced by the landmark “Lex Gabina” law passed by Caesar’s predecessor Pompey the Great, which gave him remarkable powers to combat piracy, including up to 500 warships, 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry!

It was only with this monumental effort that piracy was somewhat controlled in the Meditteranean seas for the rest of the imperial age. However, that didn’t stop piracy from flourishing elsewhere in the following centuries…

Middle Ages (450-1450)

Throughout the Middle Ages, from the 5th to the 15th century in Europe, piratical activities were carried out across the world by various populations with different beliefs and religions.

Arguably the most famous and influential were the Vikings of Scandinavia, who were active between the 8th and 12th centuries, and who constantly attacked the vast majority of Europe’s coastlines during that time, conquering most of it. 

We all know Vikings for their reputation as raiders and pillagers, and although it’s well deserved, it’s worth remembering their brutality wasn’t excessive for the historical period. As is the case with pirates throughout history, they weren’t inspired by bloodlust, rather by the prospect of money, goods and political gain. Their piratical tactics helped bring trade and even a coin-based economy to Europe, and also helped them discover America, with the Viking Leif Erikson sailing to modern-day Canada around 500 years before Christopher Columbus “discovered America.

Early Modern period (1500-1800)

From a piratical point of view, the Vikings were significant because they were tied to a physical state, rather than just being bandits on the run from the law. In many ways, they were the law. They weren’t unique. The modern-day nations of Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco from the Northern coast of Africa relied entirely on piracy until the 19th century. But as Christianity grew in Europe, they boosted the resources (and coastal defences) of the new nations. But this didn’t herald an end to piracy. In fact, the newly formed nations knew first hand the impact of piracy, and realised that getting pirates to attack and steal from enemy nations’s ships would be effective way to gain an advantage against them.

France gave out contracts called letters of marque to corsairs, as they called them. As long as you had that letter, you could basically do what you wanted to enemy ships, without being a thief or a murderer or a pirate.  You were simply a member of your nation’s war efforts. Other countries followed France’s example, including Britain who called them privateers, because the ships were owned privately, rather than by the state. Sir Frances Drake, one of Britain’s national heroes travelled round the world under the banner of Queen Elizabeth I, carrying out piratical attacks on predominantly Spanish ships, seizing an almost unimaginable amount of plunder. In 1579, he attacked the Spanish ship known as Cagafuego-- or “fireshitter”, which had so much gold, jewels, coins and silver that it took 6 full days and nights to unload. 

Golden Age of Piracy

The image that most of us think of when we think of pirates, big hats, big boots, swashbuckling sword fighters, looking for buried treasure and chests full of doubloons in the Caribbean… they actually did exist. But only for a very short amount of time, from around 1650-1720, in what has since become known as the Golden Age of Piracy. During these 70 years, more than 5,000 pirates were said to be at sea, including some of the most famous pirates, whose names we can still recognise.

The discovery of the so-called New World had provided European nations huge opportunities for conquest, and new trade routes. However, the only ones who could take advantage of it were the Spanish and Portugese, who forbade their colonies to trade with the French, Dutch, English and so-on. The settlers of their colonies could only buy goods from Spanish merchants, for exorbitant prices. Far more affordable were those goods offered by the pirates, who settled on Carribean islands like Tortuga and Hispaniola, and preyed on Spanish ships. These pirates, most of whom grew up in France, Britain and Holland, became known as the Buccaneers.

A substantial difference between "Mediterranean" and "Caribbean" piracy was in the type of goods that could be stolen and looted. In the Mediterranean were mainly foodstuffs, things or people to be enslaved; while that of the Caribbean Sea was mainly of material kind, such as gold and silver.

In around 1650 the Brotherhood of the Coast was born, in which pirates and corsairs of the Caribbean formed an extremely interesting form of democratic governance. Each pirate ship that sailed the seas had “Articles of Agreement” that all crew members had to agree to, which, among other things, checked the power of the captain, ensured the fair division of treasure (including, crucially, alcohol), guaranteed a vote for all crew members, banned fighting and gambling and in some cases forbidding having sex with women without their consent. The punishments for breaking this code of conduct included walking the plank and being made governor of an island. This might sound fun, but in reality involved being left to die on one of the thousands of tiny spits of land in the Carribean-- a fine example of buccaneer humour. 

The articles of agreement that appeared throughout the Golden Age of Piracy is an extraordinary display of democracy and fairness from a group who proudly made a name for themselves as murderers and thieves. And looking back, we need to remember that their commitment to democracy was actually very revolutionary, at a time when the governance structures that existed in the rest of the world were absolute monarchies with no freedom of expression. Pirates proudly flew under no state flag, preferring a plain red flag (to indicate violence) or the Jolly Roger, and accepted all men onto their crews, including African sailors around 300 years before segregation was abolished in nearby America. It is perhaps these factors that has meant that the swashbuckling Pirates of the Caribbean continue to be romanticised to this day, rather than just dismissed as terrorists.

The most famous buccaneer, Blackbeard, was a real historical figure born in England as Edward Teach. Blackbeard was known for cultivating a very carefully-planned image of himself. He grew his hair and beard long, wore dark clothing, knee high boots and several gun holsters, and was known to stick lit matches under his wide hat to scare his crew as he spoke to them. Those who met him describe him as “such a figure that imagination cannot form an idea of a fury from hell to look more frightful.” Yet despite this, there are no records of Blackbeard harming those he kept captive. Blackbeard knew he didn’t need to resort to violence to gain a reputation as the most fearsome pirate of his age.

Soon enough, however, more resources began to be diverted by Spain and England to countering the Caribbean pirate threat. The English captured the pirate stronghold of Nassau in 1718 which forced many pirates to reevaluate their careers and retirement plans. And in the decades that followed, the growing strength of the US Navy was an effective counterforce to prevent a reemergence of the Buccaneers.

Modern piracy

As we have seen, piracy at sea has posed a serious threat to freedom and security in shipping since the dawn of civilisation, particularly in trade. 

And given that around 95% of all trade still happens by sea, naturally, piracy remains a threat, from knife-wielding amateur thieves who are opportunists with little tactical knowledge, to the more professional pirates, with sophisticated technology and crews.

A big difference between modern-day piracy and the piracy of the Golden Age are to do with the motives. Golden Age pirates were attracted by the lifestyle, by camaraderie, by defiance to the misery of the nation states they came from, and of course, by the promise of untold, unprecedented riches and wealth. The prospect was romantic enough for them to make a daring journey across an unknown ocean, where the risk of death was probable even before arriving at the Carribean. Modern-day piracy, however, is much more simplified. It does not call people from across oceans, rather it is situational, concentrated in areas of intense economic instability and often humanitarian crises. Unlike the pirates of old, it is often considered one of the few options available to gain any money at all, let alone a lot of it.

The most famous example of modern piracy exists off the coast of Somalia, East Africa. After the disbandment of the Somalian Navy in the 1980s, attacks grew on international shipping, culminating in 538 incidents in just five years from 2010. The piracy craze spread to the Indian Ocean and the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, also regions marked by poverty and socio-political instability.

The strengthening of the military patrols by the International Task Force has in recent years successfully combated Somali piracy, or at least the more organised versions of it. 

And finally, there is, of course digital piracy. Prominent piracy websites such as The Pirate Bay have long tried to associate themselves with the pirates of yester-year. But can we speak of them in the same breath as Blackbeard? In terms of their economic impact, potentially. Nearly 190 billion visits were made to illegal piracy websites in 2018 alone, with half of all visits to watch television shows. That’s all lost income for the producers, although the exact amount is hard to quantify. In terms of social impact, digital piracy has undoubtedly had a significant impact to, leading to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, to provide an answer to the ease of which such shows were illicitly available online. 

But we should be wary about confusing digital piracy too closely with traditional piracy, as to do so would obscure what we can learn from them. The history of sea-faring piracy is ancient, tied closely to politics, to the state of the world as we know it. It’s almost too easy to forget that these figures were criminals, responsible for thousands of deaths. Perhaps it’s precisely this complexity which makes them so fascinating, and why they continue to thrill us to this very day.
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