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Pirates and their ancient forerunners terrorized the seas long before the first British privateer stalked a treasure-laden Spanish galleon in the Caribbean.

Some of the earliest accounts are of the Lukkan Sea Raiders in the 14th century B.C. Hailing from Lycia, the mountainous region of what is now Turkey's Mediterranean coast, these brigands of the Bronze Age terrorized some of western civilization's first maritime trade routes, contributing to a war-ridden dark age that lasted until the Romans came to power around 500 B.C.

Using their organized military might to conquer and assimilate warring regional cultures, the Romans eventually restored order to the Mediterranean under one powerful government. But the process was far from instantaneous.

During the first centuries of Roman rule, pirates were so strong a force that they were able to capture and hold for ransom high-profile elder statesmen, the most spectacular of whom was Julius Caesar himself. But their daring proved to be their downfall. After his release, Caesar garnered support from the Roman senate to unleash the full might of the navy upon them.

Though the political center of the Roman Empire lost power around 600 A.D., its fall did not result in a new era of Mediterranean piracy. Instead, Rome's erstwhile eastern stronghold, the Byzantine Empire, remained a force of maritime law until its capital, Constantinople, was captured by Christian crusaders in 1204 A.D.

The Eastern Orthodox Byzantines eventually recaptured control of their land, but their might at sea was never restored. Without a strong force of justice in the Mediterranean, pirates were once again able to prey upon maritime trade routes without any fear of retribution. In fact, need for survival forced many former Byzantine naval sailors to adopt a life of piracy for themselves.

The Development of Piracy in Asia

While Rome was struggling for control of the Mediterranean, some of Asia's first pirates were terrorizing trade routes in the South China Sea.

After the downfall of the Han dynasty in 220 A.D., China experienced nearly four centuries of brutal rule by regional warlords. This period of lawlessness allowed an institution of piracy to develop that remained an undefeatable force for over 1600 years until 1849.

That year, British interest in the opium trade grew too great to allow pirate activity to continue unabated. Though the opium trade operated on the edge of legality itself, the British government sent an expedition to eliminate the threat of pirates capturing their valuable shipments.

When British captain Darymple Hay discovered a pirate fleet near the gulf of the Tonkin River, he employed the modern power of the British steamships under his command. In the fight, they managed to outpace the pirates' older sailing vessels, trapping them in the river delta.

There, Hay's forces massacred over 1,800 pirates, who were under the command of captain Shap-'ng-Tsai. But Shap-'ng-Tsai was not among the dead. He had escaped to accept a position in the Chinese Navy.

Pillage and Plunder in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance

The fall of the Roman Empire left a vacuum of power in Western Europe that lasted for over 800 years. As the last vestiges of its former military might fell to the Ottoman Empire, piracy continued unabated in the Mediterranean.

Toward the later years of the Middle Ages, private ships were increasingly being hired to protect coastal towns, in response to a newer, fiercer class of pirates that was emerging from North Africa's Barbary Coast.

Called corsairs, from the Medieval Latin word for "plunder," the Barbary Pirates combined piracy with naval service for the Ottoman Empire, taking part in a struggle for supremacy between the warring forces of Christianity and Islam.


The Treasure of the New World

When Christopher Columbus claimed the New World for Spain in 1492, he touched off a period of expansion and exploitation that would lead to a wave of piracy like none that been seen before, though large-scale piratical action by the Barbary corsairs would continue in the Mediterranean for nearly 100 more years.

Other European countries felt they deserved a share of the wealth, but all were wary to engage the mighty Spanish at war. Instead, they wrote letters of marque, giving private sailors legal permission to capture Spanish wealth in return for a small percentage of the booty. Called privateers, these government-sanctioned robbers became the first pirates of the Caribbean.

A profitable system during times of war, periods of peacetime left career privateers without a reliable source of income. In desperation, many turned to piracy to survive. This culture established by the governments of Europe in the New World would lead to the large-scale pillage and plunder that would define the social and political environment of the Caribbean for the next 300 years.

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Did you know?

  • At the height of its popularity, Port Royal, Jamaica had one drinking house for every ten residents. In July 1661 alone, 41 new licenses were granted to taverns.

  • Pirates wore an earring to ensure they died with at least one piece of treasure to buy their way into 'Fiddler's Green' (sailor's paradise in heaven).

  • The reason you've heard of most well known pirates is that they were captured and killed, or brought to trial where their exploits were recorded. But pirate captain Henry Every was made famous because he evaded capture after his piratical exploits.

  • Many pirates had eye patches, peg legs, or hooks. Ships in the 17th and 18th century were extremely dangerous places to work, so pirates would commonly lose limbs or even eyes during battle. 

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