Pirates are well documented in history and even in the present, pirates are a fascinating subject as, despite the modern, romantic image, that is the staple image of pirates and their jolly rogers drinking rum and having a genuinely great time (more or less), but, they, unlike other romanticised characters are those that are by far considered bad. There are many in history who did bad things but are considered heroes, people like the first Emperor of China, numerous Roman rulers, people like Napoleon Bonaparte and Tito, former Yugoslavia’s ruler, even modern day celebrities that have done terrible things are seen as heroes. Then you think of people like William Kidd, Francis Drake and the most well known pirate Edward Teach ‘Blackbeard’, many would recognise these names and know they were not good men. So what of Pirates? Who were they? and why are they so famous or should I say infamous?
The act of piracy is the act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or attacks by sea, a pirate is someone that partakes in such acts. Pirates first appearances date back as far as the 14th Century B.C. attacks carried out on Egypt by the people known as the Sea People. Very little is known as to who these sea people were, all that is known is that they were a confederation of people who attacked via sea throughout the Aegean and the Mediterranean, they were also of some intelligence as they had plotted the most viable sea routes and timed when best to attack. These sea people were a constant threat to Egyptian trade and coastal settlements in which large scale battles did actually take place, the most documented and eminent battle was the “Battle of the Delta” which took place around 1175 B.C. The battle was led by Ramesses III who had successfully repulsed the Sea People’s invasion. In the early Greek and Roman era the Phoenicians and Illyrians were considered pirates with references to these ‘pirates’ found in Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’. In the ancient Greece the job of ‘pirate’ was a job of disgrace even though it was t times the only way for people to survive, though it was a way of survival for many it had become a very serious problem as shown in the 3rd century B.C. when pirate raids from the Illyrians was so bad that it had left a city in Anatolia called Olympos impoverished. The pirating Illyrians were finally defeated by the Romans in 229 B.C. as the people of these pirating states that dotted the Aegean coast had become a real threat to Roman trade. The power that these pirate states had gained is shown in the capture of Julius Caesar by some Cilician pirates who had held him for some time.
The most well known pirate people are the Vikings of the Middle Ages, these seabourne warriors who originated from Scandinavia, that peaked during the 8th- 12th century’s A.D. The vikings had raided many of the settlements along the seas and even inland settlements via rivers and inlets. The vikings managed to raid as far as Africa and Italy, the lack of a centralised power all over the world and in particular Europe made it an extremely easy thing to do. The vikings were arguably one of the biggest threats to the Holy Roman Empire’s trade and they had been in battle with each other more than a few times, the success of the vikings is not only shown in the vast artefacts and remnants of viking societies that are still being found all over the world today, but in documented evidences of the past, these show how immense in size the vikings presence was, with sources showing that the vikings had sacked many of the holy places within the Roman occupied territories and even kidnapped and ransomed Roman bishop emissaries would convince any sceptic of the vastness and efficiency of the vikings and how large a threat they were. The viking presence in Britain is arguably one of the largest as it is here where much of the viking social structure is present, the vikings had allied with the Irish pirates as well as the Scottish, Welsh and Picts to invade Britain which was a successful endeavour as the Vikings had established numerous settlements within Britain and Ireland.
The later years between 1650-1720 A.D. was when piracy reached it’s absolute peak, this time period was the era of Empire building in its colonial sense, the occupying of the Caribbean islands meant that the settlements that were controlled by the powers of France, Spain and Britain relied extensively on maritime trade, this is also the most romanticised and portrayed era of pirating. The constant sea traffic made for a very profitable living for the skilled seamen of the age, but it of course, also was very profitable for the more undesirable men of the sea, pirates, seamen at this time made a very handsome sum of money starting at 2 shillings and going up to 8 shillings per voyage and for the experienced seamen they could earn up to 22 shillings as a standard wage. The money to be made for pirates was not necessarily that of robbing merchant ships, the pirates also made a tidy sum from capturing and selling ships that were taken as ‘prize’ ships in victory after battle, many pirates would defeat enemies and take their ships as prizes to sell of at harbours all around the Caribbean, sometimes they would just take the prize ship and replace their current ship with it as it was a better ship. At this time in which tensions and conflict was commonplace between the empires pirates could also make a healthy sum of money by allying with one of the powers via the purchasing of ‘letters of marque’ these letters were not licenses to pirate per se but they did grant extra freedoms for the pirates. The letter of Marque was basically a contract in which the pirate would fight the enemies of their sponsoring empire without having to concern themselves with reparissions and punishment of the sponsoring empire, the pirates that had purchased these letters were known as privateers as in the army a privateer could and would sometimes have a say in the political domain of the empire, they serve a perfect example was that of Sir Francis Drake. The appeal of Privateering was great as they could plunder and rob enemy and neutral (merchant) ships, (though the sponsor would also gain some commission) at the sacrifice of a little of their freedoms, as they represented an empire they still had to abide by some sort of laws, a perfect example is that a captain could not murder any of his seamen, an incident that had William Kidd labelled a pirate and tried for murder. Privateers were considered a representative of the military might of an empire and many pirates did make full use of these letters of marque as a means to do what they enjoyed doing.
The complexity of piracy in its more factual and evidential sense make them a fascinating subject and an even more fascinating era, as even though they were generally bad, governments were more than happy to look the other way to the terrible deeds of the pirates so long as it was beneficial to them, though the paradox of it, that all that they do is bad, selling slaves and prisoners, plundering and pillaging coastal towns and merchant ships; and being the worst type of human beings that could be left to exist gives the pirate era, golden age of maritime trade or the age of the rising colonial powers an extremely romantic, easily skewed, certainly exciting era. As to why pirates are generally bad people, I would argue that it is just a way to defend the colonial powers choices, by cutting the rot from the image of what it was to be a colonial power in the 17th and early 18th century.