(A/N: I have been meaning the write this post forever.  Like before I had the blog forever.  Today is the day I finally get down to writing it.  Enjoy!)

Everyone knows what a pirate is right?  Peg-leg, parrot, Jolly Roger flag, sails the seven seas plundering and marauding.  Known for being quite good at singing and if not good, at least very loud.

They have attained a mythical quality which has only recently been challenged by the news of the Somalian pirates, and even then the first thing we’re likely to think of when we hear the word ‘Pirate’ is Jack Sparrow or Captain Hook over actual “real-life” pirates.

But pirates are not a myth: they did actually exist and got up to a lot interesting stuff while they were around.  Reports of piracy can be found from around the globe and have been recorded as long as history has been a thing.  No seriously, Plutarch talks about pirates, although his definition is very different from today, and it’s this idea of definitions which interests me and what I’m going to be writing about today.


You see not all pirates are made equal or indeed are called pirates in the first place.  One of the key things I’ve learnt as an undergraduate is a synonym doesn’t really exist and each word has it’s own specific connotations.  This is by no means an exhaustive list and doesn’t mean that the types of pirates you know and love(?) didn’t exist (although they were surprisingly democratic for a bunch of pillaging hooligans).  This list is more to deal with some words which are treated as synonymous with piracy and crop up in the literature but have their own intricacies too.

So where to begin?

Well today we start in Elizabethan England.  Yes, I know this may seem an odd place to start but there’s no way I’m starting at 46AD.  So, to the 1400s!

Now there were some people around who we would recognise as “Pyrates” today, mainly operating from the South-West of England and Ireland.  This coastline has many small coves which were good for concealing stolen goods and often it was not a rag-tag band of outlaws but the Gentry encouraging and engaging in this behaviour.  Now they managed to get away with this for many years, mainly because 1) the navy was busy fighting wars, 2) there was not the manpower to patrol the coasts and 3) Elizabeth’s solution was to send in 2 ships.  Yep, 2 ships to cover the entirety of the South-Western coastline and surrounding sea.  I think the problem is obvious.

Letters of Marque:

Now let me introduce you to possibly the most stupid law I have ever heard of and it’s called a Letter of Marque (or if you’re French and proper: Lettre de Marque).  The basic principle is this: If someone, say a French ship, stole from your ship, you were allowed to attack any French ship and take goods to the amount that were stolen from you.  Now can anyone else see the glaring and obvious problems with this, namely that other governments could issue these as well against the people who were stealing because their good were stolen by someone else?  Because they sure didn’t.  Well, until it was too late.

The first Letter of Marque that has survived is from England, 1295 during the reign of Edward I which means that for about 200+ years NO ONE DID ANYTHING ABOUT THIS.  In fact it was actively encouraged.  Like, come on guys, get it together.

Now as LDM’s were being issued left right and centre, there was basically low-key warfare in the English Channel in the 16th century which basically amounted to state-approved piracy and caused a whole heap of shipping problems which was actually really bad as commerce of the day was mainly done by boat (as it still is today!).  This is why LDM’s were up for grabs for everyone up to the 1620s when Elizabeth actively banned them from being issued.  However this wasn’t the only issue causing problems.  Let me introduce you to Privateering.



Now privateering is often spoken of in terms of war when privately owned ships were pressed into service for the Royal Navy, although they still belonged to private citizens.  This was only supposed to happen in war-time but seeing as Europe was constantly at war, it was a free-for-all.

You have probably heard of famous privateers and often in very good terms.  Sir Walter Raleigh.  Sir John Hawkins.  Sir Francis Drake.  Heroes right? Welllllll…

You see what they did was essentially state-endorsed Piracy.

Now we have to go back a little bit to 1494 and the Treaty of Tordesillas for background.  What this treaty boils down to for us is that there was a line cutting the world into roughly two-halves, from the Cape Verde islands off of the west coast of Africa to the newly discovered Caribbean islands of Cuba and Hispaniola.  Portugal would take the East, Spain the West.  Then the Pope jumped in to say that South America could belong to Spain so long as they promoted the Catholic faith (because massacring people is fine if it’s in the name of a crusade right?)  and that everyone found crossing the line would be considered religious heretics and treated as such.

This is all well and good until we realise that many powerful European countries were now Protestant due to the whole Reformation debacle and so they essentially stuck two fingers up at the Pope and crossed the line anyway.  This all brings us back to the Privateers who plundered the Americas at a rate so fast they quickly ran out of places to steal from *cough* excuse me, liberate certain objects in the name of the crown obviously without doing anything illegal at all.  They also kidnapped and killed a lot of the new Spanish residents and when caught were treated as heretics which often meant a selection of painful, tortuous deaths.

But Drake circumnavigated the Globe so like, it’s all good, right?



Moving swiftly into the 17th century, we get to another type of Caribbean pirate emerging: the Buccaneer.  In fact this also comes from a French word: boucanier, which actually refers to those who lived on the Caribbean islands, and hunted and smoked meat for a living.

Now there are a few reasons why these people turned to piracy.

One was because the Spanish were still “Can’t you see we called dibs guys?!” about the Americas and they started to try and drive the new colonists from the islands, causing some French colonists to flee from Hispaniola to Tortuga (which I’m sure rings a few bells).  People generally don’t like having to flee their newly built homes and so turned to piracy in a similar argument as that of the LDM’s.

However as Nuala Zahedieh has argued, what countries like Britain and France wanted was to turn these islands into agricultural centres but that costs a lot of money.  In order to fund their future, and to tide themselves over in the present, people turned to piracy for help.  For a time, whole economies, especially in places such as Port Royal in Jamaica, were funded and run on money and goods obtained via piracy.

In an ironic twist, the end of the buccaneering period was facilitated by one of the most famous buccaneers, Henry Morgan, who was sent back to England after the sacking of Panama in 1671.  He was sent back to Jamaica a pirate hunter and deputy governor until his death in 1688.  There was also an earthquake in 1692 which destroyed much of Port Royal and the hub of buccaneering with it.

French Buccaneers sacking Havana


Now, the last definition we’re looking at is the Corsairs.  These are also called Barbary Pirates or Ottoman Pirates because, you’ve guessed it, they worked off the Barbary coast from the Ottoman Empire, which is now the modern-day coastline of Northern Africa.

This type of piracy occurred mainly in the 16th and 17th centuries when the Ottoman Empire took over the states of the Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but had in fact been a staple of the region for at least 400 years.  In fact, much like Port Royal, the state of Algiers sprang up practically overnight and was built on and relied upon piracy to function.  This was because the state took captives from the ships they plundered in order to press them into slavery.  Either the family paid the ransom to free the captive or they were sent to work on state projects such as buildings, or sent to work on a corsair ship.  This was considered the worst deal as the likelihood of survival was slim.  A corsair ship was powered by hundreds of men rowing in tightly confined spaces and was highly physically demanding.

However, they were also attacked in return and so some argue that this was simply a retaliatory tactic, and that just as the European states said they were defending Christianity, the Barbary Corsairs were defending their Islamic faith.  Also the European countries did not actively try and suppress all corsair activity as attacks on their competition meant they actually benefited from the corsairs.  And this is the crux of the matter: as much as they may condemn them as pirates, were the European state actually any better?


Now there are many other issues surrounding this topic.  There’s the Golden Age of Piracy and it’s surprisingly democratic way of living and the “piracy” in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea which British and Danish forces promised to suppress in the 1830s (though of course there’s the issue of whether it was piracy at all and why we constantly feel the need to meddle in issues that don’t apply to us [Double bracket! It’s Empire.  It’s always Empire.])

If you enjoyed reading this, I’d highly encourage you to dive into the amazing literature on piracy already out there and if there’s anything else you’d like me to cover, send me a comment!

Thank you for reading and I will see you next time.