The History of Piracy


The first written evidence of piracy is on a stone tablet from 1350 B.C., describing a pirate attack on North Africa. In ancient Greece and Rome, piracy was commonplace. The Vikings of the Middle Ages could also be considered a type of pirate breed, as they plundered all over Europe.

Life of a Pirate

A pirate's life was not an easy one. Ships were frequently overrun with insects and vermin, and the average pirate's career lasted only two to three years, ending in death, either during battle or by hanging. The so-called Golden Age of Piracy lasted only 50 years, from 1680 to 1730, until worldwide anti-piracy laws and an increased number of armed forces put a damper on it.

Legal Piracy

Buccaneers and privateers are two types of pirates whose activities were tolerated and even encouraged by certain countries. During the 17th century, buccaneers were mostly French and British settlers who eventually made their way to Tortuga, a Caribbean island near Haiti. Spain was at war with almost every other European country at the time, and it tried to drive the buccaneers out of Tortuga. The buccaneers, however, gained strength as more settlers arrived and began attacking the Spaniards both on land and in the sea. Their colonial governments provided official authorization for their attacks on the enemy, and raids by buccaneers continued until the war between Spain and England ended in 1670. Though French buccaneers continued to attack the Spanish until 1697, a truce was eventually reached, and the reign of the buccaneer came to an end.


Between the 16th and 18th centuries, privateers acted under the authority of their home countries or a trading company or other group as a sort of soldier-pirate. Most of their actions took place during times of war, and they were authorized by "letters of marque and reprisal" to capture or destroy enemy vessels and seize any valuables. Both sides benefited from this arrangement: the privateers kept most of the wealth they plundered, and the authorizing entity didn't have to pay wages to the crew. After the Declaration of Paris in 1856, however, privateering became illegal.

Today's Pirates

Modern piracy started to increase in the early 1980s and continued to do so very slowly, year after year, until by the first half of 2004, 200 pirate attacks were reported around the world. These modern-day pirates operate mostly in the southern oceans of South America, Southeast Asia and the southern area of the Red Sea. With the technological advances available today, they are able to much more easily locate their prey, rob and murder their victims and escape quickly. Small cargo ships are the usual victims, though kidnapping people for ransom, as in the days of old, still occurs from time to time. As long as ships have gone to sea, pirates have been part of the landscape. Though literature and Hollywood have romanticized piracy, a better way to describe pirates would be to compare them to today's street gangs.