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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Cover Art: Catholic Pirates and
        Greek Merchants
Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants: A Maritime History of the Mediterranean
By Molly Greene
Princeton University, 2010, ISBN 978-0-691-14197-8, US $35.00 / £24.95


Books on Mediterranean piracy, especially during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are often devoted to Barbary corsairs. But these rogues weren’t the only pirates preying on merchant ships. The Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights of Malta, and the Knights of St. Stephen also prowled, and they didn’t just attack “infidel” ships. They targeted vessels belonging to or carrying goods of Greek merchants. What Greene explores in this book is whether these were legitimate corso attacks or not.* In conducting her research, she discovered that unlike others who suffered such plundering, the Greeks sought justice against these seizures.
Local merchants often deemed Catholic pirates as the most fearsome, and the white cross on the red flag terrified them the most. The Knights of Malta, who sailed from the 1570s into the 1700s, saw their attacks not as acts of piracy, but as legitimate attacks against Islam.
While other histories concentrate on commerce, Greene focuses on Greek Orthodox victims, rather than pirates or the state, to examine the “realities of traveling across the sea and the norms and customs that structured such crossings.” She incorporates perspectives of “the French, the Vatican, Ottoman merchants, and Catholic pirates,” to provide a well-rounded look into this historic period.
The material covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Chapter 1 (Subjects and Sovereigns) focuses on how and what the Ottomans and Venetians forged to facilitate trade between these nations, while Chapter 2 (The Claims of Religion) examines how the Knights of Malta challenged this established arrangement. The third chapter (The Age of Piracy) discusses Mediterranean piracy during the latter half of the seventeenth century, with particular emphasis on Catholic sea raiders. Chapters 4 through 7 (The Ottoman Mediterranean, The Pursuit of Justice, At the Tribunale, and The Turn toward Rome, respectively) shows how Greek victims fought back through legal means against these pirate attacks.
Using court records from the Tribunale degli Armamenti, Greene reconstructs this maritime world. The introduction clearly states her premise, while the conclusion succinctly sums up her findings. She also includes illustrations, extensive notes, a bibliography, and an index. If there is a drawback to this book, it is that she sometimes quotes from documents in their original language without benefit of an English translation. This makes it difficult for readers unfamiliar with those languages to better grasp the point she tries to make.
Greene’s examination deftly demonstrates how the maritime world changed for Greek merchants during these two centuries. In the sixteenth, they were subjects of Venice or the Ottoman Empire. Although they practiced Greek Orthodoxy, religion mattered little either legally or diplomatically. The Knights of Malta, however, saw everyone as Christian, Muslim, or Jew, and in the seventeenth century, the Maltese also attacked Greek merchants because of their relations with the Ottoman Empire. The difference between this particular group and other piracy victims is their Christianity allowed them channels of recovery not available to others, which Greene ably proves.
Of particular importance is Greene’s adeptness at showing that piracy was a global problem, not one confined to the Caribbean during a time period often considered part of the age of pirates. Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants is a fascinating, scholarly account that brings a fresh perspective to the maritime world of the Mediterranean.

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*While we tend to call those who plunder enemy ships during war “privateers,” this practice in the Mediterranean was known as “corso.” The difference, though, was that while privateers preyed until peace was declared, corso continued. It didn’t require formal declarations of war because of the ongoing struggle between Christianity and Islam.

Review Copyrighted ©2010 Cindy Vallar

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