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The Era of Piracy

Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence at sea. They can include acts that were done on land, in air or in water. The english word "Pirate" comes from the Latin word Pirata and from the Greek word Peirates aka "brigand", Peiramoai aka "I attempt", Peira aka "I attempt, experience."

Even though pirates raided many ships, few if any, buried their treasure. Because often the treasure that were stolen was simple things such as food, water, alcohol, weapons or clothing. They also stole household items like soap, gear such as rope and anchors. They sometimes kept the ships they capture to sell off or replace their current ship if it was better. There was no reason to bury those kind of items. It was really rare to bury treasure.

Pirates also tend to try to not kill people aboard the ships that they captured if they surrendered because if it became known that pirates took no prisoners, their victims would fight to the last end and make it difficult for them. It would also be very costly in lives. This is why a lot of ships would surrender because they knew they would be spared. For example, one well documented case with 300 heavily armored soliders on a ship that was attacked by Thomas Tew surrendered after a short battle with none of Tew's 40-man crew being hurt.

Pirates had a system of rewards that had a hierarchy aboard their ships. The majority of plunder was the form of cargo and the ship's equipment with medicine that were highly prized. For instance, a vessel's doctor's chest would have been worth $470,000 today. Jewels were very common to plunder, but not as popular since they were hard to sell. Pirates back then had little concept of their value ironically. In one recorded case, a pirate was given a large diamond that was worth more than the value of a handful of small diamonds as a share and he felt cheated. And in turn, he broke the big diamond into smaller pieces to make it match to what everyone earned.

Ordinary seamen do receive a part of the plunder which was up to the Captain, but usually it was a single share. Pirates would expect a year's wage as his share from each ship that was captured. The crew of the most successful pirate would often receive a share around 1,000 ($1.17 million) at least once in their career. For instance, Captain Thomas Tew captured a ship that gave every ordinary seaman a share of 3,000 ($3.5 million) with the officers receiving larger shares while Capt. Thomas Tew himself received 2 1/2 shares (approx 9 million dollars.)

Ordinary seamen in the Royal Navy only earned 19s per month to be paid in a lump sum at the end of a tour of duty which was half the rate that was paid in the Merchant Navy. Corrupt officers would often tax their crew to supplement their own wages and the Royal Navy was infamous for its reluctance to pay. And from this wage, 6d per month was deducted to help maintain the Greenwich Hospital with similar amounts deducted for Chatham Chest, the chaplain and surgeon. Those who were pressganged or were volunteers would be shackled while the boat was docked and was not permitted to go ashore until they were released from service. This is probably why piracy was so attractive.

The famous Spanish pieces of eight were minted in Mexico or Seville were the standard currency in the American colonies even though they still also used pounds, shillings and pence for bookkeeping records. Spanish, German, French and Portuguese money were standard mediums of exchange. In England, 1 piece of eight was worth 3s 3d while it was worth 8s in New York, 7s 6d in Pennsylvania and 6s 8d in Virginia. One 18th Century English shilling is worth about $58 today and a piece of eight would be worth $248-465.

Pieces of eight are silver Spanish dollar coins that were made in the Americas from the late 15th century to the 19th century. Until 1857, they were the legal curracy of the United States. The reason why it's called Pieces of Eight is because it was worth eight reales. That meant that it also could be physically cut into eight pieces or "bits" to make change. Hence why the catchphrase of "pieces of eight" was born. A Piece O' Eight could also be cut into quarters which would be called "two bits," which would be like having 25 cents of a dollar. The silver coins were also called as Reales or "Reals" and the gold coins as Escudos or "Escudo." The silver coins were also known as "Pesos" or "Silver Dollars." The gold coins were also known as Doubloons. There were different classifications and names by weight. Back then, they were more worried about weight, not metal as we do today.

The Origin of Piracy

In 1241, William Maurice is the first person known to be hanged, drawn and quartered under the conviction of piracy by King Henry III. So piracy was a career long hated by the royalty and government of the British.

It has been said that piracy has existed as long as the ocean were used for commerce trading. The earliest documented of piracy was in 14th century B.C. by the Sea Peoples who threatened the Aegean and the Mediterranean. They were the ones who wielded cutlasses, a type of sword that was commonly used. In Classical Antiquity, the Illyrians and Tyrrhenians were known as pirates as well as the Greeks and Romans. The Phoenicians also sometimes resorted to piracy and specialized in kidnapping children to be sold as slaves.

On one voyage across the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and was held prisoner in the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa. He kept a cheerful attitude throughout his imprisonment. When the pirates decided to demand a ransom of twelve talents of gold, Caesar is said to have insisted that he was worth at least fifty. And the pirates listened to him, raising the ransom price. When the ransom was paid and Caesar was released, he had his revenge on those same pirates.

Medieval Age to 19th Century Pirates

In the Medieval Europe, the most known and far reaching pirates were the Vikings who were from Scandinavia who raided between 8th and 12th century in the Early Middle Ages. They raided the coasts of all Western Europe as far as Seville. They even attacked the coasts of North Africa and Italy.

In the Late Middle Ages, the Frisian pirates led by Pier Gelofs Donia and Wijerd Jelckama, fought against the troops of Charles V., Holy Roman Empire. With some success, they were able to capture 28 ships in one battle earning the Donia the title of "Cross of the Dutchman" making him one of the most famous pirates of the era.

Towards the end of 9th century, Moor pirates were common in the Mediterranean Sea and a lot of Moor pirate havens were established along the coast of southern France and northern Italy. In 846 Moor raiders sacked Rome and damaged the Vatican. They even were able to block the bishop of Narbonne in 911 because they controlled all of the passes in the Alps which showed how powerful pirates could be.

In 13th and 14th century, pirates threatened Hanseatic routes and almost made sea trade extinct. Until about 1440, piracy had made maritime trade in both North Sea and Balitc Sea almost impossible and dangerous.

But as early as Byzantine times, the Maniots from Greece considered Piracy as a legitimate job due to the fact that their land was poor and they had nothing else to fall back on.


Even in India, there were pirates. During 16th and 17th centuries, there were frequent European piracy against Mughal Indian merchants that at one point, the pirate population of Madagascar were close to 1000. Ile Ste-Marie, an island off the east cast of Madagascar, became a popular base for pirates in 17th and 18th centuries. Early British expeditions tried to protect the Indian Ocean trade along the coast in 1819. But Captain Kidd the pirate, captured many vessels of the Mughal King and was quite successful.

East Asia

In Asia, Chinese pirate fleets became very powerful in early 19th century. In 1802, Zheng Yi inherited the fleet of his cousin's, Captain Zheng Qi, who gave his cousin a lot of influence in the world of piracy. Zheng Yi and his wife Zheng Yi Sao, who eventually inherits the leadership of his pirate confederacy, formed a pirate coalition that consisted of over ten thousand men by 1804. The United States Navy and Royal Navy fought against Chinese pirates in 1840s and 1850s. They weren't successful until 1860s and 1870s when the fleets of pirate junks started to give up.

Eastern Europe

From the 16th through the 18th century, there was a pirate republic in Europe in the remote Steppe populated by Ukrainian peasants who ran away from their feudal masters, outlaws, poor people, run-away slaves from Turkish galleys and more. The remoteness of this place protected them very well from angry former masters or enemies.

North Africa

According to Robert Davis, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and privateers and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between 16th and 19th centuries.  The most famous corsairs aka privateers who were authorized by their government to capture enemy ships were the Ottoman Hayreddin and his older brother, Oruc Reis aka Redbeard, Turgut Reis aka Dragut, Kurtoglu aka Curtogoli, Kemal Reis, Salih Reis and Koca Murat Reis. A few Barbary pirates such as the Dutch Jan Janszoon and the English John Ward aka Yusuf Reis were renegade European privateers who had converted to Islam.


The great or classic era of piracy in the Caribbean was from 1560 to about mid 1720s. For instance, in 1523, Jean Fleury seized two Spanish treasure ships carrying Aztec treasures from Mexico to Spain. Many pirates came to the Caribbean after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. Also the buccaneers arrived in mid-to-late 17th century and made attempts at honest living by farming and hunting. But because of Spanish raids and possibly being not successful at farming and hunting, they turned to piracy. Most of those pirates were English, Dutch, French and sometimes Spanish since most of the Caribbean was controlled by Spain. The Dutch Ships captured about 500 Spanish and Portuguese ships between 1623 and 1638. Some of the best known pirate bases were New Providence in the Bahamas from 1715 to 1725, Tortuga which started in 1640s and Port Royal after 1655. The most famous Caribbean pirates are Edward Teach aka Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham, Henry Morgan and the most successful, Bartholomew Roberts. Also Hendrick Lucifer who fought for hours to get Cuban gold, even becoming mortally wounded. He died of his wounds hours after transferring the booty to his ship.

Most pirates were eventually hunted down by Royal Navy and killed or captured. And piracy in the Caribbean declined for the next few decades after 1730. By the 1810s, many pirates who roamed American waters weren't as bold or successful as the prior ones. But Jean Lafitte and Roberto Cofresi were very successful. Roberto Cofresi was based in Puerto Rico where he was considered a "Robin Hood" by many Puerto Ricans. He was eventually defeated and captured in 1825. In the 20th Century, Boysie Singh who operated off northern South America was a notable pirate of this era. He killed a few people and plundered their ships from 1947 to 1956.

North America

One of the most famous pirates of this area is Blackbeard who would attack ships in waters in southeast of United States. He even did blockading Charleston, South Carolina. Jean Lafitte was based in the Gulf of Mexico but even in the middle of his pirating, he helped General Andrew Jackson defend New Orleans against the British in 1815. He died trying to capture Spanish ships around 1823 and nobody really knows how he died. And by many, Jean Lafitte is considered to be the last buccaneer. After the Revolutionary War, river piracy started to gain strength. In late 18th-mid-19th century, there was river piracy in America along the Ohio River and Mississippi River which ceased after massive action by the government and groups to stop it.

Pirate Democracy

Many Caribbean pirate crews that was descended from Europe operated as limited democracies. Pirate communities were some of the first to use a system of checks and balances that is similar to the one that present day United States uses as well as other countries. The first record of this dates back to 17th century. Both Captain and the Quartermaster would be elected by the crew, then by turn they would appoint the other ships' officers. The Captain of the pirate ship was often the tough fighter that they could trust to do the job. But when not in battle, the Quartermaster had the real authority. The pirates shared in whatever they seized and pirates who got injured in battle could be given special compensation almost like medical or disability insurance. There are records that many pirates would place a portion of their share into a central fund that would compensate the injuries that was sustained by the crew. Lists showed standard payments of 600 pieces of eight ($156,000 as of today) for the loss of a leg down to 100 pieces ($26,800) for loss of an eye. Those terms were often agreed upon and written down by the pirates.

Today's Pirates

Today's pirates are a totally different and more dangerous breed today that still roam the world's oceans. They are not to be trifled with since they are more high tech now and are more unsavory sort who engages in kidnapping and other scary things. Modern piracy sometimes take place in conditions of political unrest and possibly desperate need to survive. But no matter through the ages, piracy might sound cool from the stories you read and in the movies you watch. In reality, it is really a dangerous and scary thing to have happen to you if you were caught in the middle of it.