Piracy, or the practice of robbery and murder on the high seas, is in the news again. Merchant ships and even private yachts are being attacked in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea by highly mobile young men and women armed with machine guns, not cutlasses.
Piracy can be traced by the student right back to ancient history. As long as there have been navigable oceans and rivers, and unprotected merchant shipping, there have been pirates. They have been vividly described in classical literature, successful Victorian novels, and a multitude of twentieth century movies. Pirates have helped the Disney Empire to re-instate itself for the nth time, with a vastly successful series called Pirates of the Caribbean. The reverse of the coin happened to poor Roman Polanski though, with a really dreadful film of his made in 1985 starring Walter Matthau called simply, Pirates.
During what we call the Dark Ages (‘dark’ because few people could write and printing had not been discovered) the Vikings (Norwegian and Danish) indulged in an orgy of European piracy, attacking shipping, landing in Scotland, the North and East of Britain and Normandy where they burned buildings (especially churches, on behalf of Odin) Killed the menfolk and raped the women. They specialized in fast, oar-driven longships and were afraid of no-one. The Vikings actually held on to a large part of Eastern and Northern England for a couple of centuries. The land they occupied was called ‘The Danegeld’. It took a King of the Saxons called Alfred (qv.)to dislodge them, at the battle of Edington. They never really left Normandy, and the Norman duke who succesfully invaded and occupied England descended from a Viking.
When Spain and Portugal created their seaborne empires in the 15th and 16th centuries, the fact that their ships had to traverse most of the Atlantic Ocean back and forth in order to supply the newly established colonies, as well as bring back treasures, was too much temptation for a host of Dutch, French and British pirates. For the Spanish in particular, traditional British naval heroes like Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins, Gilbert and others were and are merely pirates. If these men had been caught, they would have been killed just as surely as the governments of their respective countires would have hanged them at Execution Dock. But when Britain was at war with Spain, her monarchs raised navies of pirates by financing their looting expeditions, often providing the ships they sailed. Queen Elizabeth I treated corsairs or privateers like Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake like courtiers, and in return they provided her with much needed treasure, on returning from expeditions to ‘singe the Spaniard’s beard’. Often, the Spainish Ambassador in London would be lamenting the evil pirates to the Queen in one chamber in her palace, while Drake and others would wait, chuckling into their mostachios in the chamber next door.
In the 17th century pirates took up slave running as well, a horrific and unfortunately profitable industry. Names like that of Edward Teach, Henry Morgan and Captain Kidd, even young women like Anne Bonny, began to cast fear into captains and crews of the mercantile marine. Henry Morgan (1635 – 88) eventually became respectable, was knighted and became Governor of Jaimaca, after being the scourge of Spanish settlements and shipping in the Caribbean between 1660 and 1680. He was a privateer, that is he was commissioned to attack foreign shipping, though if caught his country (actually he was Welsh) would deny knowledge of him. He was responsible for the sacking of Porto Bello in 1668 – at the age of thirty-three – the looting of Maracaibo in 1669, and the taking of Chagres and Panama (1670/71). The appointment to the governorship of Jamaica took place in 1674. From its capital, he continued to encourage piracy, occasionally sallying out of harbour in his very well-armed ship to indulge in a bit of piracy himself.
Basically the worst piracy in the 16th and 17th century ravaged the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and South China Sea, though the traditional masthead flag of the Skull and Crossbones flew in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Mediterranean as well. Piratical bases were in Jamaica, the Bermudas, the Bahamas and Madagascar. English pirates were mostly Westcountrymen based in Plymouth, whereas many French pirates were centred around Dunkirk.
The so-called Barbary Corsairs were in the Eastern Mediterranean or on the African Atlantic coast, setting out from Algiers, Oran, Tunis and Salli. Pirates had lived and contracted their crews in Algiers since Roman times, but between 1800 and 1815 the United States made war on Tripoli and Algiers, in a largely successful attempt to stamp out piracy.
By mid-18th century, piracy on the high seas had mostly been erradicated, the nautical skills and fine gunnery of the British, French, Dutch and American navies being rather sensibly guided in many cases by sea captains who had themselves, in mad youth, been pirates.
In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, piracy on the cinema screen became as popular a subject as the Western. Stars like Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks (father and son), Basil Rathbone, Jean Marais, and lately, Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush have all done their stint as pirates. To the modern youth, and because of the movies, piracy is wrong but wromantic. The historical fact is different. For every daring ‘Captain Blood’ (who actually existed as a doctor sent to a prison isle falsely accused of taking part in the Monmouth Rebellion qv.), there were a thousand bloodthirsty and treacherous assassins, most of whom ended up swinging from a yard-arm at Dover or Calais. They did, however, it should be admitted, know a great deal about the sea.