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
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
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
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
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
Justifying these acts of piracy was not difficult - religious
differences provided a convenient excuse to plunder the ships of
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Brethren of the
A superb site on Pirates
and Piracy, Ships and Galleons, Cutlasses and Muskets, Links to
other Pirating Sites