Pirate History

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

Thousands of years of ambushes, raids, hijackings, and more

by Mark Hughes

Related Links

Pirates have wreaked havoc in waters worldwide since people began sailing the seas. Not long after ancient peoples took to the sea, such as the Phoenicians and Greeks in the Mediterranean, piracy soon followed. In fact, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which were written before 700 B.C., provide early examples of coastal raiding and looting by sea-voyaging bandits.

The Earliest Pirates

There are periods of history when pirates controlled much of the world’s oceans, while in other eras pirate activity was almost non existent. About 2,000 years ago, pirates controlled the eastern Mediterranean Sea until a Roman naval fleet tracked down and destroyed all significant pirate ships and strongholds. The Mediterranean Sea was relatively pirate-free for hundreds of years after the Roman victory.

The most famous pirates of the medieval period were perhaps the Vikings, who ravaged Europe from about 700 to 1050. Unlike other raiders who only assaulted coastal towns, Vikings used rivers to ambush settlements far inland. Their exploits brought them all over Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa, and to the coasts of North America.

Government Sponsorship

While a great deal of piracy occurred in areas where lawlessness reigned, governments also used piracy as a weapon of war against other states. In the 1500s, England and Denmark sponsored privateers to harass Spanish vessels carrying gold in the Caribbean Sea. Privateer ships and their captains, such as Francis Drake, were heroes to the English and Danes, but were viewed as outlaws and pirates to the Spanish. Tales of hostility between European powers in the Caribbean formed the backdrop to popular tales, such as the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

Another example of government-sponsored piracy occurred during the 1500s in China. Chinese coastal defenses were increasingly neglected during the 14th and 15th centuries by the Ming dynasty rulers. By the mid-1500s, Chinese coastal areas were increasingly vulnerable to the Wako, a group of pirates believed to have been sponsored by Japan. By 1553, the Wako controlled large areas of the Chinese coastline, including the Yangtze delta region. It took 20 years for Ming forces to finally drive the Wako from China.

Controlling Pirates

Near present-day Malaysia and Sumatra, an island that is part of Indonesia, lies a narrow waterway called the Strait of Malacca. From at least the 1400s to the modern day, the strait has been a prime location for pirates to capture vessels. Nations like China occasionally had a naval force that confronted the pirates, but it was not strong enough to drive them out permanently. By the mid-19th century, after years of increasing contact and trade in East Asia, three European powers —England, Denmark, and Norway— were able to control local pirate bands, and instances of piracy remained low through the 19th and well into the 20th century. By the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, however, piracy was on the upswing again with sea robbers emerging from war-torn and economically depressed nations such as Somalia in Africa.

Early 21st-century Pirates

Many people were taken by surprise when pirate activity increased sharply in the early 2000s. Piracy in Somalia can be linked to the fall of its government in 1991. Internal and external strife has greatly weakened the country since the fall, with power increasingly in the hands of local warlords. The collapse of the government left Somalia’s coastlines unguarded, creating a perfect opportunity for piracy. By the end of 2008, Somali pirates had collected more than $150 million in ransom, and even hijacked two unlikely targets: a Ukrainian vessel carrying 30 tanks, and a Saudi supertanker filled with about two million barrels of oil. In April 2009, an American vessel was hijacked by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa. Pirates took the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. The ship, the Maersk Alabama, was carrying food and other aid supplies for the World Food Program. It was the first time an American vessel had been hijacked by Somali pirates.

Getting On Board

The saying “There’s nothing new under the Sun” certainly applies to pirates. Using ropes and grappling hooks to board vessels is a practice ancient and modern pirates share. A pirate will sneak alongside a target vessel, board it using ladders or ropes, and disable the crew to take control of the ship.

Modern and many ancient pirates used small boats or skiffs to sneak up on their victims. In the past, seamen kept watch for approaching ships, but today’s vessels use radar. Most radar systems, though, are designed to detect only large objects in the ship’s path, and small boats or skiffs are nearly undetectable.

Sources +