This is a short, edited excerpt from our book, Talk Like a Pirate – Pirate Words, Phrases, History, and Character Tips.
(In the book, we go into a lot more detail about pirate history. However, if you’re writing a report or something, this is enough information to get you started.)
A Brief History of Pirates
©2012 by Grace O’Blarney and Lady Wench
Piracy – from the Latin, pirata, a rogue or someone who plots — is loosely defined as robbery and plunder, or criminal violence at sea. We like to think of it in happier terms. However, piracy has certainly had a checkered past.
Pirates have existed for centuries, possibly as far back as time is recorded. Piracy, as we use the word, probably began in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the fourteenth century BC, the Lukka were pirates off the coast of Asia Minor. In addition to raiding Cyprus, they targeted Egyptian ships.
Around 3000 BC, Sumerians – especially those near the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers – were steadily under attack by pirates.
Then, in the second millennium BC, the Sea Peoples (or Peoples of the Sea) came from places unknown and began raiding in the Mediterranean. After that, Crete became well-known for the pirates who used it as a base for about 800 years.
Even Julius Caesar was captured by pirates when he was on a trip to Rhodes in 78 BC. After his ransom was paid, Caesar swore to return for revenge. Soon after that, he returned with four ships and about 500 men, and crucified every pirate not killed in the attack.
About 10 years later, not to be outdone, Pompey launched a huge anti-pirate campaign, killing over 10,000 pirates around the Cilician sea, including Illyrian pirates
The earliest pirate whose name survives might be Anicetus, from around modern Turkey. He was active in an anti-Roman uprising, and died around 69 AD
After the fall of the Roman Empire and the sacking of Constantinople (1204 AD), the Aegean Sea reigned as one of the most notorious homes for pirates. Within about 100 years, they’d been subdued by the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
From the 8th to the 12th century, some regard Vikings as the leading pirates of the day.
By the late 15th century, Barbary pirates were using North Africa as a base, mostly Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. From there, they attacked ships in the Mediterranean. They were soon under the attack of the Knights of Malta, who – in turn – raided a variety of areas (including Venice, infuriating the Pope) until Napoleon subdued them in 1798.
By the end of the 15th century, European countries did not have the manpower to subdue increasing pirate activity on the high seas. The British Admiralty decided to authorize the East India Company – already under attack from pirates – to deal with pirates by any means necessary. Generally, this meant hanging, branding on the forehead with the letter P, or flogging. In some cases, that deterred pirate attacks, but not completely
The 16th century brought the development of large-scale sailing ships equipped with cannon. That led to a dramatic increase in colonization. However, until the 17th century, navies were rarely well-organized for the purposes of defense at sea. In most cases, pirates could still attack with impunity.
The Spanish Main was among the pirate targets of the 16th century. The Spanish Main included all the territories in the Americas that had been seized by the Spanish, from the tip of South America, through Central America, and splitting east to the Atlantic and west to what we now call northern California.
The formal practice of privateering – piracy conducted with licenses (especially Letters of Marque) from governments – also emerged in the 17th century. It’s often joked that privateers honored the Letter of Marque, and pirates kept the loot themselves. In all other respects, they operated in similar manners.
The time from the middle of the 17th century through about 1730 is called the Golden Age of Piracy.
Through the latter half of the 18th century, piracy declined due to several factors. One was the increased ability of European governments to patrol the seas. However, natural disasters struck as well. In 1692, the pirate have of Port Royal (Jamaica) was almost leveled by an earthquake, killing over 2000 people, many (or most) of them pirates.
And, in general, times were changing. By the middle of the 19th century, privateers and pirates were generally outlawed.
Of course, piracy – as originally defined – continues today in uncontrolled waters near unstable nations.
In a created realm within modern culture, ourromantic version of piracy thrives. We connect with others in pirate crews, companies and guilds. At annual events like Dragon*Con, we meet even more people who share our enthusiasm for the pirate dream.
Ours is a vision of swashbuckling pirates – men and women – with eye patches, fold-down boots, parrots, Jolly Rogers, and a hearty “Arr!” for all.