Chinese: 海盜 (hǎidào)
Russian: пират (pirat)
Greek: πειρατής (peiratís)
Arabic: القرصان (alqirsan)
You’ve seen them and have your visual representation of them. I’m sure you do. A peg leg and a parrot. A bearded man with an eye-patch yelling, “shiver me timbers.” A Captain Jack Sparrow looking character in pantaloons trying to remember where he buried his treasure. In the modern day it’s almost impossible to think of anything but this characterization. However, pirates were and are much more than this. They’re a piece of our society that has been with us since man set sail. Horribly enough, they’ll probably always be with us because human societies’ ills will never leave us.
They’re pirates. They’re predators whose hunting ground is the blue open oceans with little supervision. Their main prey, much like a land based predator, is any target of opportunity. In the middle of the ocean, there are no police or guards to call for. There is no law as well. For some, it’s just too much of a temptation. This is especially true when there’s little hope of making a future for one’s self. As you might surmise by looking the translations above, most cultures have their own word for pirate and their own problems with them. In a way they’re almost universal, like an illness, plaguing humanity wherever it exists.
Piracy Has Seemingly Always Existed
Piracy plagued ancient people as well as modern civilizations. Even the superstars of the classical age were victims of piracy too. The most famous victim of a pirate gang in times past would have to be Julius Caesar. Even the man who would be emperor fell into the hands of one of these pirate bands in 75AD. This may not have been the fierce warrior / emperor version of Caesar at the young age of 25, but he was Caesar none the less during his captivity.
Perhaps ‘victim’ wasn’t the appropriate word for Caesar when he was in captivity. Plutarch writes about Caesar’s capture and how he refused to act like a captive. When Caesar was informed that his ransom would be 20 talents, he laughed and told the pirates he was worth at least 50. Then Caesar sent out some of his servants to raise the funds. How much was a talent? In Ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War, a talent of silver would pay a crew of a trireme ship for a month.
In the Roman world of Caesar’s time there was a terrible pirate problem near Asia Minor in the Aegean Sea. The future emperor barely seemed to notice he was being held captive. He bossed around the pirates and took part in their games and exercises. He also read them poetry and speeches he composed, insulting them for their illiteracy if they did not enjoy them. Caesar would also announce from time to time that he planned to have the pirates crucified at a later date. This crucifixion threat seemed to truly amuse the pirates.
That boy is going to have us crucified, how nice of him.
Perhaps the pirates should have taken Caesar a bit more seriously. Upon his release, he managed to raise a fleet, along with some mercenaries. He did all of this despite not having military experience or holding any political office. Caesar eventually found the pirates and captured them. When the governor of Asia seemed unlikely to punish the pirates, Caesar entered their prison himself and had them crucified.
The Golden Age of Piracy
“When Black Bart said he was going to get you, he got you, and when he got the governor of Martinique, he hung him from the yardarm of his own ship.”
The golden age of piracy existed from about 1650 to 1726. This era is representative of what you would see in the movies. The traditional pirate ship with sales and cannon. The buccaneer with pantaloons and a sword who chose to fly the Jolly Roger existed in these times. The original buccaneers were privateers who were granted letters of marque. These letters allowed a private sailor to attack ships from another country. At this time, the French governor of Tortuga and the English governor of Port Royal issued these letters in order to attack the Spanish.
Eventually, these buccaneers got out of control and started attacking anything valuable. In addition to ships, it wasn’t unusual for the pirates to sack towns as well. Perhaps the most infamous pirate in this age wasn’t the most traditional of pirates. Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts did not want to become a pirate. Serving in the Royal navy, he was captured on the ship the Princess in 1719. Due to his navigation skills, he was encouraged to join the crew of the pirate Howell Davis.
Within 4 weeks of joining the crew, Davis had died in battle and Roberts was elected captain of the pirate ship. Despite being a non-drinker and non- smoker, very religious, and a lover of classical music, Black Bart was the most vicious pirate the region had ever seen. His first act as captain was to get vengeance against those who killed the previous captain. Roberts would develop a legendary reputation for getting revenge against those who harmed himself or members of his crew.
In another act of revenge, Roberts took 15 ships in 3 days near St. Lucia and on one of those ships, a large war ship, found the governor of Martinique. The governor had sent number of pirate hunters out to capture Roberts. Roberts hung the governor from the yardarm of his ship and left the body there for weeks to demonstrate what would happen to his enemies.
In a short span of 3 years, Roberts conducted a reign of terror over many areas. He had visited the East Coast of Canada, the West Indies, and Western Africa. He captured 470 ships, included many naval battle vessels and amassed a fortune. At the height of his power, Roberts commanded an army of 500 pirates and a fleet of 4 ships. In another story, some of his crew attempted to retire to Virginia, where they were tried for piracy and executed. A few months later a terrified captain came to warn the Virginia colony that Roberts was coming to attack .
Roberts was coming to attack the whole the colony.
The colony raced to build watchtowers and set up shore batteries to repel the attack. They undoubtedly heard of what he did to the governor of Martinique. Fortunately for Virginia, Roberts had been killed in battle with a British warship before he could make the trip to the colony.
By the way, if a pirate named Roberts sounds familiar, there’s a good reason why. The Dread Pirate Roberts in the Princess Bride was named after Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts. Roberts is also mentioned in the book Treasure Island.
Early America’s First Bout With Piracy
From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine. — Marine’s Hymn
Even if you’ve never had anything to do with the armed forces in the United States, you may have heard the Marine Corps’ Hymn. Ever wonder what happened on the shores of Tripoli? This just happened to be the early United States’ first war on foreign soil, versus a nation of pirates. The term attributed to marines, leatherneck, came from this engagement as well. The term derived from a leather collar worn by the marines around their necks to prevent cutlass swords of pirates from removing their heads.
Since the 15th century, pirates from the North African states of Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis had been extorting merchant vessels passing through the Mediterranean. This group, called the Barbary States, demanded tribute from the nations trading within the Mediterranean and often double-dealt with those they negotiated with. Crews of European ships were always at risk of being enslaved and tortured.
The United States as a colony of England was exempted from this treatment. The British paid tribute and sent naval ships to the area to enforce their treaties with the pirates. Once the United States became independent, they were a prime target and the Barbary States wasted no time in capturing American ships and enslaving American crews.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams attempted to negotiate with a representative of Tripoli in London in 1786. When asked why Tripoli would attack a nation that did it no harm, the rep told Jefferson and Adams they were infidels and in such, the American ships, cargo, and sailors were within rights to be taken. The representative also stated that between them the Barbary States would want one million dollars in tribute. At the time of this negotiation, that was 10% of the entire U.S. treasury.
After the signing of the Constitution, the United States began building a fleet. In the meantime, treaties were signed with the Barbary States. This would only last for so long, eventually in 1800 the leader of Tripoli, Yusuf Karamanli, demanded a higher tribute or there would be war. The newly elected Thomas Jefferson sent part of the new fleet to the Mediterranean.
The venture began poorly with the U.S. frigate Philadelphia running aground and their crew getting captured. Another American commander, Edward Preble, managed to send in men in a captured Tripolian ship, who recaptured the Philadelphia and burned it to the ground so the pirates couldn’t use it. Preble also managed to shell Tripoli 5 times and force Morocco to accept a peaceful resolution.
Determined to bring an end to the war, the United States sent a second fleet to Tripoli. William Eaton talked the commander into allowing him to attempt a land raid on Tripoli’s second largest city, Derna. Eaton and 8 marines led a 400 man mercenary army across 500 miles of desert and captured Derna. Despite capturing Derna and having enough fire power to smash Tripoli, U.S. diplomats negotiated an end to the war and paid Karamanli $60,000. The negotiation concluded with an end to hostilities, freeing the crew of the Philadelphia, and Tripoli ending demands for tribute. As can be imagined, the results of the negotiation and the payment caused controversy in the U.S.
The American fleet would have to return again in 1815 to deal with the pirates once again. This time, the second fleet got decisive results ending attacks against American ships.
The current sword a United States marine carries with their dress uniform pays tribute to the Barbary Wars. That sword is patterned after the Mameluke sword given to an American marine by the brother of Yusuf Karamanli. The ‘shores of Tripoli’ reference in the Marine’s Hymn also pays reference to the Barbary Wars as well.
Modern Pirates — Somalia
“The first pirate gangs emerged in the ’90s to protect against foreign trawlers.” — Peter Lehr, lecturer in terrorism studies at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews
The most recognized form of piracy in modern days would most likely be the Somali pirate. These attackers have monopolized the news and made appearances in movies over the past decade or so. Grappling hooks, small motor boats, AK-47’s, and RPG’s are the tools of their trade. They’ve used these simple tools to rake in large amounts of cash and to terrify the surrounding shipping areas in and around the Somali coast.
Oddly enough, like Bartholomew Roberts, the Somalis didn’t set out to be pirates. Their functional government collapsed in 1991 and afterwards many government run services just went away. Mainly, the coast guard just disappeared. The Somali coast is approximately 2000 miles long and now it was completely unguarded. Once foreign nations realized this, a flock of foreign ships began to appear off of the Somali coast illegally fishing. Some of these ships coming from as far away as Japan and South Korea.
The local fisherman suffered because they couldn’t compete with these advanced fishing vessels. The Somali people were also be robbed blind. A U.N. report at that time estimated that over $300 million a year in seafood was being poached from Somalia’s coast each year. Local tribes worked together and began chasing these illegal trawlers and seizing them. These ships would be held for ransom, which was usually paid quickly. The fishing vessels were there illegally, so the owners weren’t keen on making any noise. They just preferred to pay off the captures and leave the area quietly.
The locals began to learn from these interactions that they could make much more money from ransoms than they ever could from fishing. The average Somali reported that they could generally make $200 to $400 per month fishing when conditions were good. Just for perspective, a decent fishing net may cost anywhere from $270 to $370. A single ransom from a large ship may be somewhere in the millions of dollars. When looking at those conditions, it’s obvious to see why piracy would be attractive.
At its peak in 2010–2012, it was estimated that piracy in this area cost the shipping industry 19.3 billion dollars. This number has dropped dramatically in recent years through joint naval patrolling operations from various governments. Also private security use aboard ships traveling through the areas has also been a major deterrence. Private military companies actually set up floating armories to equip and house personnel to defend private shipping companies.
“I believe the international navies represent a temporary solution for the piracy problem. The international community spent billions of dollars in the sea while they did not spend one dollar on the ground to address the root causes of the piracy which are poverty, unemployment, and illegal fishing. I’m sure piracy will come again if they leave.”
Mohamed, Former Government Official
Although the attacks have seemed to drop dramatically, the underlying issue driving piracy has not gone away. Illegal fishing is still a major problem in Somalia’s waters. As a result, if the patrols and private military go away, piracy will likely make a return.
New Piracy Hot Spot — Venezuela
“It’s criminal chaos, a free-for-all, along the Venezuelan coast” Jeremy McDermott, co-director of Insight Crime
In 2017 a total of 71 incidents of piracy occurred in the Caribbean, many in the waters off the coast of Venezuela. These attacks varied from just plain acts of robbery to barbaric attacks worthy of a slasher film. When four Guyana based fishing vessels were hijacked in 2018 of the coast of Venezuela, the crews were brutally tortured. 15 of the 20 crew members died in the attack after being sprayed with hot oil, slashed with machetes, and tossed overboard.
Venezuela’s dramatic economic downturn has caused many locals to take desperate measures. A number of ships in 2018 anchored off of various parts of the country have been robbed by bands of armed men. The Washington Post recently interviewed an official at a local port who said that the Venezuela coast guard has been robbing ships as well. The island of Trinidad and Tobago, not far off the coast of the failing nation, has also reported large numbers of guns from Venezuela being smuggled to their shores as well.
Bloomberg Newsweek recently did a large expose on the smuggling going from Trinidad and Tobago to Venezuela. A smuggler they interviewed noted how easy it was to bribe Venezuela coast guard members with diapers and dollars. Consumer products and currency were brought to Venezuela and arms, prostitutes, and drugs were brought back. The smuggler also reported that the port of Güiria was a piracy base. The writer of the story also interviewed a fisherman from Trinidad and Tobago who was captured and held for ransom, which worked out to be $46,000 — his entire family’s life savings.
You may not have heard much about piracy in this area of the Caribbean, but as Venezuela continues to disintegrate, you probably will.
Future Of Piracy — Hacking Ships
As with most industries, piracy is also taking advantage of technology. Large ships now are controlled with many computers that use GPS. For years now, cyber security companies have been warning of vulnerabilities in these systems. In particular, cyber security firm Kaspersky Labs has called the shipping industry “easy meat for cyber criminals.”
In 2010 an oil rig was tilted towards South America from its site in South Korea. The unit was overloaded with computer viruses and it almost took 20 days to fix. In 2013 the port of Antwerp was hacked by a drug cartel. This cartel managed to release containers to their own drivers and remove all history of these transactions from relevant databases. In 2017 a freighter traveling to Djibouti lost all control of its computer systems controlling navigation. This lasted almost 12 hours and the ship seemed to be directed into an area where piracy was prevalent.
As ships get more computerized and have less living crew, this will likely become more of an issue. Rolls Royce is currently designing drone cargo ships, which will take the inefficient human link out of the transportation equation. One can only imagine how a new technically proficient click of pirates could take advantage of that.
Black Bart was forced into his profession and soon realized it beat working for the navy. The pirates of the golden age earned far more and had more freedom then they could ever imagine from an honest life. The Barbary pirates hid behind religion, but mainly did it for the money they received. The Somalis started by defending their coastline, but soon learned piracy could be the one and only booming business in their country. Venezuelans are desperate and starving, like the Somalis, they realized that piracy may be the one and only industry that could feed them. Future pirates may be able to just use laptops and technology to hijack ships and cargo.
Piracy will most likely be a never-ending problem. As long as there are failing states and little supervision by local governments, piracy will live. Many have their reasons to become seaborne robbers, mainly money. When times are desperate and there’s a simple way to make money, many will be tempted to raise the Jolly Roger. As long as piracy can be a good profession for a young man in turbulent times, expect to see the black flag raised.
Thank you for reading my ramblings — don’t forget to feed your parrot and bury your treasure. If you enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.