Piracy on the High Seas

One cannot leave the Spice Trade without mentioning the often romanticised subject of Piracy on the High Seas.




We are accustomed to hearing about the Captain Hooks, Captain Crooks, and the Jolly Old Rogers in fairy tales and old swashbuckling movies. And although we are familiar with famous ones like Blackbeard, Bluebeard, or Redbeard and classify them all under the term 'buccaneers', piracy on the high seas actually existed and included people who we might not immediately think of as 'Pirates'.

There are four terminologies for the meaning of 'stealing another's property at sea' -


Pirate simply means one who robs or plunders on the sea. It was described in 1696 by the Admiralty High Court judge, Sir Charles Hedges, to distinguish it from ordinary robbery which occurred on land. The demarcation line was the low-tide mark. Any robbery which took place on the high seas and the waterways up to the low-tide mark was deemed as 'Piracy' and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. Pirates were hanged for their crimes at the low-tide mark to stress this point.


The term buccaneer was originally applied to hunters of cattle and pigs who lived on the island of Hispaniola (now Dominica and Haiti). The word was taken from the French boucan, a barbeque, because the hunters barbecued their meat on grills in the fashion of the Arawak Indians. Driven out by the Spanish, the hunters joined the groups of runaway slaves, deserters and others who preyed on Spanish ships. By the end of the 17th century the word buccaneer was being applied generally to most of the privateers and pirates who operated from bases in the West Indies.


The privateer was an armed vessel, or the commander or crew of that vessel, which was authorised by a commission or a letter of marque from the government to capture the merchant vessels of a hostile nation. In the 15th century the 'letters of marque and reprisal', as they were called, were issued by the sovereign; but after 1702 they were issued by the Lord High Admiral, and later by the governors of the colonies. A letter of marque was recognised by international law and an authorised privateer could not, in theory, be charged with piracy. Maritime nations made frequent use of privateers in times of war because they were a cheap way of attacking enemy shipping and save the cost of building and maintaining a large standing navy. Needless to say the system was wide open to abuse.


The corsair was the term used for the privateers and pirates who operated in the Mediterranean. The most famous corsairs were those of the Barbary Coast of North Africa who were authorised by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries. Less well known are the Maltese corsairs who were granted licences to attack the Turks by those martial Christians, the Knights of St. John. But just as the Spanish regarded the British privateers like Drake and Hawkins as pirates, so the English, and other Christian nations, regarded the Barbary corsairs as pirates.





Much of the material for the fictional pirates of the past 200 years has been drawn from 2 books which were among the best-sellers in their day -
Buccaneers of Americaby Alexander Exquemelin published in 1684 was based partly on fact as Exquelmelin had indeed taken part in many of the buccaneer raids which he describes, but certain stories in the book are suspect.
A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Piratesby Captain Charles Johnson published in 1724 was based on interviews with seamen and former pirates and included biographies of many of the notorious pirates of the day.
Treasure maps and buried treasure, which were popularised by Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Ransome scarcely feature in the histories of the pirates. Apart from the curious case of Captain Kidd who buried his treasure on Gardners Island, most pirates seem to have squandered their plunder on gambling, whores and drinking.


Piracy has been around for thousands of years.


There were Greek and Roman pirates, there were the Danes and the Vikings, the Dutch Sea Beggars and some notorious French pirates.


There was piracy on a relatively small scale along the south and east coasts of England in the 17th century.


There was piracy on a massive scale in the China Seas during the early 1800s when the female pirate chief, Ching Shih, commanded a fleet of 800 large junks and 1000 smaller vessels.


The Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in Mexico and the Inca civilization in Peru produced the flood of gold and silver destined for the King of Spain. The treasure ships were principal targets for privateers and pirates of the 16th century, and Spanish merchant ships of all types continued to be the target for the buccaneers in the 17th century.


The Barbary corsairs roamed the Mediterranean for three centuries plundering ships and enslaving their passengers and crew.


Chinese pirates are not perhaps, as well known as the pirates of the Caribbean, but they operated on a much larger scale and were every bit as bloodthirsty.
The coast of Africa and the Indian Ocean became the focus for piracy in the 18th century, and naturally the Spice Islands and ships operating in and out of there became targets.

But native pirates had been plying the oceans beyond the Cape of Good Hope for centuries, and Marco Polo had recorded the dangers of piracy off the coasts of western India as early as 1290 with more than a hundred pirate craft cruising the waters every year from Gujarat and Malabar in fleets of 20-30 vessels. They remained at sea the whole summer taking their wives and children on the voyage.
And other early travellers commented on the pirate ships infesting the oceans from the shores of the Red Sea to Celebes (Sulawesi) in South-East Asia. The arrival of the European traders in substantial numbers in the early 16th century introduced a new element into these centuries-old patterns of trade and plunder by providing a tempting new target for native pirates. They themselves being equally happy to steal from local merchant vessels encountered on their voyages.

Justifying these acts of piracy was not difficult - religious differences provided a convenient excuse to plunder the ships of other nations.


Adherents of Islam were considered fair game for the Europeans and first on the scene were the Portuguese. The Arab merchants, who resented rivals trespassing on what they considered to be their trade routes took revenge on the Portuguese trading ships.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama, sailing to the east, violated any trust between the native traders and the European explorers when he plundered an Indian dhow off the African coast and stole a great store of gold and silver.


He in turn became a target for local marauders, and was attacked by pirates sailing out of Goa in small brigantines.
When the Dutch and the English eventually broke the Portuguese monopoly in the 1600s they too were bolstered by an unshakeable sense of racial and religious superiority and these traders also had no compunction in seizing the vessels both of native merchants and of their European rivals.


The East India Company had no formal policy on piracy in its early days and it was left largely to the discretion of individual commanders whether they took advantage of their size and armaments when richly-stocked native or hostile European vessels were encountered.
In fact the first ever voyage of the English East India Company in 1601, made by four ships under the command of James Lancaster, was more like a privateering attack upon Spanish and Portuguese trade than a genuine trading voyage.


In 1612 another Company commander, Sir Henry Middleton, who had been imprisoned by the authorities on the island of Socotra at the mouth of the Red Sea in 1609, seized and plundered two Portuguese ships at Dabhol in western India, before returning to the scene of his earlier humiliation, to revenge the wrongs he had encountered at the hands of the Turks and Moghuls.
In May of the following year he met up with Captain John Saris, and together they proceeded to harass the native traders of the area. They poisoned trading relations for years to come by ransacking some 15 native ships, forcing the owners to trade their goods for unwanted English broadcloth.
The East India Company, recognising its dependence on the good-will of the Moghul authorities, forced it to forbid such activities on the part of its commanders, and by the end of the 17th century, the Company had taken responsibility for policing of the Indian Ocean.
But while the East India company attempted to distance itself from the illegal seizure of shipping, its efforts were being undermined by its own sovereign - Charles 1, who was habitually short of funds, and frequently therefore granted commissions to cruise in the Red Sea to seize ships of any country that were not friends or allies of his sovereignty. Captain Richard Quail and Captain William Cobb both received commissions from the King.
By the 1670s the whole of the Indian Ocean littoral, from the Red Sea to the south-western shores of the Indian sub-continent, had become a pirate coast with the President at Surat offering a handsome incentive to privateers to seek out pirates by rewarding them with a third of the booty taken from any captured ship.


And with Spain being the historic enemy of England, predatory raids for easy riches could be combined with a comforting sense of patriotic duty.





Many of the pirates from the European settlements of North America and the West Indies were privateers with commissions from local governors against national enemies, and even though their real purpose of piracy was evident to all, a blind eye was turned to these activities which handsomely profited the local economy.
Numerous adventurers also came from the west coast of Africa, where frequent mutinies amongst the crews of merchant ships swelled the ranks of freebooters eager to find out for themselves the truth of persistent rumours of the easy pickings east of the Cape.


As they rounded the Cape they found a ready jumping off point in the island of Madagascar - a convenient base for intercepting the east-bound Indian trade and for cruising of Red Sea waters.


The mystery of the island, its exotic reputation and the absence of European settlers caused it to be seen as a 'pirate island' and soon stories of pirate chiefs living in tropical splendour began to filter back to Europe, endowing the pirates with a lifestyle and riches few of them can have known.
Indian trade with the Red Sea was paid for in gold and silver, and these were thus the treasure for which the pirates fought. The disposal of other mundane booty and merchandise was often more complicated. Bulky cargoes of silks and spices could not easily be stored on the small pirate vessel and often had to be sold at great discount to traders who knew they were dealing in stolen goods.
Often booties, too much too handle by the pirates, lay wasting away on the island of Madagascar.




Thomas Mathews and Clement Downing who visited the island in 1722 with an anti-piracy squadron found a Moor's ship and the ruins of several others laden with silks, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, opium, and spices discarded and lying exposed to the wind and the weather.
For some 30 years the island of Madagascar was the principal base for pirates. They were drawn to St. Mary's Island on the north-east coast of Madagascar as it had an easily fortified harbour. At various times the little island played host to many of the most notorious pirates in the world, including Captain William Kidd, Thomas White, Captain England, and Thomas Tew.
Stories of the pirate kings living a life of luxury in pirate kingdoms were largely fantasy but 'King' Samuel at Port Dauphin certainly existed, his authority extending over a small area of the island.


James Plantain, the self-proclaimed King of Ranter Bay to the north of St. Mary's, had pretensions to greater power, dressing his numerous Madagascan wives in English clothes, decking them with jewels and giving them English names. He is reputed to have ended his days in the service of the great Indian pirate Angria, who lived in such splendour than Plantain found himself at a loss how to behave himself, having been so used to a brutish way of living at Madagascar.






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