The Real Story of Real Pirates

In the very popular modern imagina-
tion, pirates of the classical period
were rebellious, clever teams who
operated outside the restricting
bureaucracy of modern life. In reality,
many pirates ate poorly, did not
become fabulously wealthy, and
died young. Unlike traditional
Western societies of the time,
many pirate clans operated as
limited democracies, demanding
the right to elect and replace their
leaders. The captain of a pirate ship
was often a fierce fighter in whom
the men could place their trust,
rather than a more traditional
authority figure sanctioned by an
elite. However, when not in battle,
the ship's quartermaster usually had the real authority. Many groups of pirates shared in whatever they seized; pirates injured in battle might be afforded special compensation. Often all of these terms were agreed upon and written down by the pirates, but these articles could also be used as incriminating proof that they were outlaws. Pirates readily accepted outcasts from traditional societies, perhaps easily recognizing kindred spirits, and they were known to welcome them into the pirate fold. Such practices within a pirate clan were tenuous, however, and did little to mitigate the brutality of the pirate's way of life.

The classical age of piracy coexisted with a rise in English imperialism which required merchant vessels to transport goods and warships to protect the trade ships from pirates and privateers. Living conditions on the warships were horrible even by 17th-century standards; sailors were often fed rotten, maggot-infested food, frequently suffered from scurvy or other nutritional disorders, and could be counted lucky to escape their service without a crippling injury.

English captains were known to have been extremely brutal; the captain held a nearly sovereign power aboard his ship and many were unafraid to abuse that power. To fill the warships, officers would forcibly pressgang boys and young men to replace lost crew. The horrid living conditions, constant threat to life, and brutality of the captain and his officers pushed many men over the edge.

Possessing seafaring skill, a learned intolerance for absolute authority, and a disdain for the motherland they might have believed abandoned them, many crews would simply mutiny during an attack and offer themselves and their ship as a new pirate vessel and crew.

Famous Historical Pirates


A privateer or corsair used similar methods to a pirate, but acted while in possession of a commission or letter of marque from a government or monarch authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation. For example, the United States Constitution of 1787 specifically authorized Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal. The letter of marque was recognized by international convention and meant that a privateer could not technically be charged with piracy while attacking the targets named in his commission. This nicety of law did not always save the individuals concerned, however, as whether one was considered a pirate or a legally operating privateer often depended on whose custody the individual found himself in--that of the country that had issued the commission, or that of the object of attack. Spanish authorities were known to execute foreign privateers with their letters of marque hung around their necks to emphasize Spain's rejection of such defenses. Furthermore, many privateers exceeded the bounds of their letters of marque by attacking nations with which their sovereign was at peace (Thomas Tew and William Kidd are notable examples), and thus made themselves liable to conviction for piracy. However, a letter of marque did provide some cover for such pirates, as plunder seized from neutral or friendly shipping could be passed off later as taken from enemy merchants.

The famous Barbary Corsairs of the Mediterranean were privateers, as were the Maltese Corsairs, who were authorized by the Knights of St. John. One famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake. His patron was Queen Elizabeth I, and their relationship ultimately proved to be quite profitable for England.

Under the Declaration of Paris of 1854, seven nations agreed to suspend the use of the letter of marque, and others followed in the 1907 Hague Convention.


Commerce Raiders

A wartime activity similar to piracy involves disguised warships called commerce raiders or merchant raiders, which attack enemy shipping commerce, approaching by stealth and then opening fire. Commerce raiders operated successfully during the American Revolution. During the American Civil War, the Confederacy sent out several commerce raiders, the most famous of which was the CSS Alabama. During World War I and World War II, Germany also made use of these tactics, both in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Since commissioned naval vessels were openly used, these commerce raiders should not be considered even privateers, much less pirates - although the opposing combatants were vocal in denouncing them as such.



The Buccaneers were pirates who attacked Spanish, and later French shipping in the West Indies during the 17th and 18th centuries. The term is now used generally as a synonym for pirate. However, properly speaking only native Caribbean pirates, the original boucaniers or their later allies, are buccaneers. Generally, buccaneer crews were larger, more apt to attack coastal cities, and more localized to the Caribbean than later pirate crews who sailed to the Indian Ocean on the Pirate Round in the late 17th century or who bedeviled the world's shipping in the early 18th century during and after the War of the Spanish Succession.



The corsairs were privateers working for the King of France attacking the ships of France’s enemies. In France they did not need to fear punishment for piracy—being hanged—as they were granted a licence as combatants, the Lettre de Marque or Lettre de Course, a document which legitimised their actions to the French justice system and which they hoped gave them the status of a war prisoner in case they were ever captured.

The Corsair was ordered to attack only his ships of enemy countries, theoretically respecting “neutrals” and his own nation's ships. If he did not respect this rule, he was then treated as a pirate and hanged. The Corsairs' activities also provided the King with revenue as the licence required them to hand over a part of their booty to the King.

In common with privateers of other nationalities, however, they were often considered pirates by their foreign opponents, and could be hanged as pirates if captured by the foreigners they preyed on.


Barbary Pirates

The Barbary pirates, also sometimes called Ottoman corsairs, were pirates and privateers that operated from north Africa (the "Barbary coast"). They operated out of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Salé and ports in Morocco, preying on shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea from the time of the Crusades as well as on ships on their way to Asia around Africa until the early 19th century. Their stronghold was along the stretch of northern Africa known as the Barbary Coast (a medieval term for the Maghreb after its Berber inhabitants), although their predation was said to extend throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic, purportedly as far north as Iceland. As well as preying on shipping, raids were often made on European coastal towns. The pirates were responsible for capturing large numbers of Christian slaves from Europe, who were sold in slave markets in places such as Algeria and Morocco.


The Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples is the term used for a confederacy of seafaring raiders who sailed into the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, caused political unrest, and attempted to enter or control Egyptian territory during the late 19th dynasty, and especially during Year 8 of Ramesses III of the 20th Dynasty. The Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah explicitly refers to them by the term "the foreign-countries (or 'peoples') of the sea" in his Great Karnak Inscription. Although some scholars believe that they "invaded" Cyprus, Hatti and the Levant, this hypothesis is disputed.



Famed for their longships, Vikings founded settlements for three centuries along the coasts and rivers of mainland Europe, Ireland, Great Britain, Normandy, the Shetland, Orkney, and Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland circa 1000. They reached south to North Africa and east to Russia and Constantinople, as looters, traders, or mercenaries. Vikings under Leif Ericson, heir to Erik the Red, reached North America, with putative expeditions to present-day Canada in the 10th century. Viking voyages decreased with the introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia in the late 10th and 11th century.



Wōkòu or Japanese pirates were pirates who raided the coastlines of China and Korea from the thirteenth century onwards. Originally, the Wokou were mainly soldiers, ronin, merchants and smugglers from
Japan, but became predominantly from China two centuries later. The early phase of Wōkòu activity began in the 13th century and extended to the second half of the fourteenth century. Japanese pirates from only Japan concentrated on the Korean peninsula and spread across the Yellow Sea to China. Ming China implemented a policy to forbid civil trade with Japan while maintaining governmental trade (Haijin).