Ancient Piracy

The earliest documented incidence
of piracy are the exploits of the
Sea Peoples who threatened the
Aegean in the 13th century BC. In
Classical Antiquity, the Tyrrhenians
and Thracians were known as pirates.
The island of Lemnos long resisted
Greek influence and remained a
haven for Thracian pirates. The Latin
term pirata, from which the English
"pirate" is derived, derives ultimately
from Greek peira (πείρα) "attempt,
experience", implicitly "to find luck
on the sea". The word is also cog-
nate to peril. By the 1st century BC,
there were pirate states along the
Anatolian coast, threatening the
commerce of the Roman Empire.

On one voyage across the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held prisoner in the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa. He maintained an attitude of superiority throughout his captivity. When the pirates thought to demand a ransom of twenty talents of gold, he insisted they ask for fifty. After the ransom was paid, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and imprisoned them in Pergamon. The governor of Asia refused to execute them as Caesar demanded, preferring to sell them as slaves, but Caesar returned to the coast and had them crucified on his own authority, as he had promised to when in captivity – a promise the pirates had taken as a joke.

The Senate finally invested Pompey with special powers to deal with piracy in 67 BC (the Lex Gabinia), and Pompey after three months of naval warfare managed to suppress the threat. In the 3rd century, pirate attacks on Olympus (city in Anatolia) brought impoverishment. Among some of the most famous ancient pirateering peoples were the Illyrians, populating the western Balkan peninsula. Constantly raiding the Adriatic Sea, the Illyrians caused many conflicts with the Roman Republic. It was not until 68 BC that the Romans finally conquered Illyria and made it a province, ending their threat.

Early Polynesian warriors attacked seaside and riverside villages. They used the sea for their hit-and-run tactics - a safe place to retreat to if the battle turned against them.

Middle Ages

After the Slavic invasions of the Balkan peninsula in the 5th and 6th centuries, Serbs were given the land of Pagania between Croatian Dalmatia and Zachlumia in the first half of the 7th century . These Slavs revived the old Illyrian piratical habits and often raided the Adriatic Sea. By 642 they invaded southern Italy and assaulted Siponte in Benevento. Their raids in the Adriatic increased rapidly, until the whole Sea was no longer safe for travel.

The "Narentines," as they were called, took more liberties in their raiding quests while the Venetian Navy was abroad, as when it was campaigning in Sicilian waters in 827-82. As soon as the Venetian fleet would return to the Adriatic, the Narentines temporarily abandoned their habits again, even signing a Treaty in Venice and baptising their Slavic pagan leader into Christianity. In 834 or 835 they broke the treaty and again raided Venetian traders returning from Benevento, and all of Venice's military attempts to punish the Marians in 839 and 840 utterly failed. Later, they raided the Venetians more often, together with the Arabs. In 846 the Narentines broke through to Venice itself and raided its lagoon city of Kaorle. In the middle of March of 870 they kidnapped the Roman Bishop's emissaries that were returning from the Ecclesiastical Council in Constantinople. This caused a Byzantine military action against them that finally brought Christianity to them.

After the Arab raids on the Adriatic coast c. 872 and the retreat of the Imperial Navy, the Narentines restored their raids of Venetian waters, causing new conflicts with the Italians in 887-888. The Narentine piracy traditions were cherished even while they were in Serbia, serving as the finest Serb warriors. The Venetians futilely continued to fight them throughout the 10th-11th centuries.

Saint Patrick was captured and enslaved by Irish pirates.
The Vikings were Scandinavian pirates who attacked the British Isles and Europe from the sea reaching south as far as Italy, and east by river to Russia, Iran and the Byzantine Empire.

In 937, Irish pirates sided with the Scots, Vikings, Picts, and Welsh in their invasion of England. Athelstan drove them back.

In 12th century the coasts of west Scandinavia were plundered by Slavic pirates from the southwest coast of Baltic Sea.

The ushkuiniks were Novgorodian pirates who looted the cities on the Volga and Kama Rivers in the 14th century.

Piracy On The Kerala Coast

Since the 14th century the Deccan was divided into two antagonistic entities: on the one side stood the Bahmani Sultanate, and on the other stood the Hindu rajas rallied around the Vijayanagara Empire. Continuous wars demanded frequent resupplies of fresh horses, which were imported through sea routes from Persia and Arabia. This trade was subjected to frequent raids by thriving bands of pirates based in the coastal cities of Western India.

Piracy In East Asia

From the 13th century, Japan based Wokou made their debut in East Asia, initiating invasions that would persist for 300 years.

Piracy in South East Asia began with the retreating Mongol Yuan fleet after the betrayal by their Sri Vijayan allies in the war with Majapahit. They prefered the junk, a ship using a more robust sail layout. Marooned navy officers, consisting mostly of Cantonese and Hokkien tribesmen, set up their small gangs near river estuaries, mainly to protect themselves. They recruited locals as common foot-soldiers known as 'lang' (lanun) to set up their fortresses. They survived by utilizing their well trained pugilists, as well as marine and navigation skills, mostly along Sumatran and Javanese estuaries. Their strength and ferocity coincided with the impending trade growth of the maritime silk and spice routes.

Wang Zhi was a Chinese pirate and trader of the 16th century, one of the chief named and known figures among the wokou ("Japanese" pirates) prevalent at the time.

The most powerful pirate fleets of East Asia were those of Chinese pirates during the mid-Qing dynasty. Pirate fleets grew increasingly powerful throughout the early 19th century. The effects large-scale piracy had on the Chinese economy were immense. They preyed voraciously on China’s junk trade, which flourished in Fujian and Guangdong and was a vital artery of Chinese commerce. Pirate fleets exercised hegemony over villages on the coast, collecting revenue by exacting tribute and running extortion rackets. In 1802, the menacing Zheng Yi inherited the fleet of his cousin, captain Zheng Qi, whose death provided Zheng Yi with considerably more influence in the world of piracy. Zheng Yi and his wife, Zheng Yi Sao (who would eventually inherit the leadership of his pirate confederacy) then formed a pirate coalition that, by 1804, consisted of over ten thousand men. Their military might alone was sufficient to combat the Qing navy. However, a combination of famine, Qing naval opposition, and internal rifts crippled piracy in China around the 1820s, and it has never again reached the same status.

Piracy In The Caribbean

The great or classic era of piracy in the Caribbean extends from around 1560 up until the mid 1760s. The period during which pirates were most successful was from the 1640s until the 1680s. Caribbean piracy arose out of, and mirrored on a smaller scale, the conflicts over trade and colonization among the rival European powers of the time, including England, Spain, Dutch United Provinces, and France. Some of the best-known pirate bases were New Providence, in the Bahamas from 1715 to 1725, Tortuga established in the 1640s and Port Royal after 1655.



Danes about to invade England. From "Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund" from the 12th century - Click To Enlarge