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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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Notorious Pirate Havens -- Part 1
The Ancient World

By Cindy Vallar

From the earliest days of maritime trade, pirates preyed on merchant shipping.  They stole whatever they deemed of value, either to themselves or to those who would pay for their plundered wares.  Such attacks invited pursuit, but throughout history, pirates escaped their hunters by seeking sanctuary in havens where they could ply their booty and relax without fear of prosecution.

Perhaps the best-known pirate havens are those in existence during the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730), although pirates used some of these before and after that as well.  The Caribbean had Port Royal, Tortuga, and New Providence while Madagascar hosted pirates who attacked East Indiamen, Muslim pilgrims, and the treasure ships of the Moguls of India in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.  What made these havens so appealing to pirates?  Why were some locales used and not others?

The land enclaves that attracted pirates had several things in common:

1. Close proximity to trade routes used by maritime shipping.
2. Native peoples who were either in decline or friendly to pirates.
3. Isolated locations that discouraged pursuers from attempting to follow.
4. A pleasant climate.
5. A trading post and/or tavern where pirates obtained supplies and spent their ill-gotten gains.
Some havens, however, were simply remote coves or hidden harbors that allowed pirates to careen their ships, make repairs, or replenish water and food supplies.  A few were set up for the intentional purpose of catering to pirates.  In this and upcoming articles, we will visit numerous pirate havens.  This is not meant to be an all-inclusive list or in-depth study of places where pirates tread without fear of reprisal, but rather a look at some infamous and obscure havens used throughout history, beginning with the Ancient World.

Ancient Greek pirates used the Lipari Islands as their base for over 2500 years.  Istria offered Illyrian pirates sanctuary until they attacked a convoy of Roman ships laden with grain in the Adriatic Sea.  Rome launched two punitive strikes against the pirates that destroyed their bases in Istria.  For over eight hundred years, beginning in the tenth century BC, Dorian Greek pirates operated from Crete, which was located along busy shipping lanes.  Not until the second century BC, when the Rhodeans began patrolling the eastern Mediterranean with the express purpose of stamping out piracy, did Crete cease to be a pirate haven.

In the Antalya Province of present-day Turkey was the ancient land of Lycia.  Independence was so important to the Lycians that when Persians attacked in 546 BC, the Lycians went to extreme measures to remain free.  According to Herodotus, they were defeated and forced to retire within their walls, whereupon they collected their women, children, slaves and other property and shut them up in the citadel, set fire to it and burnt it to the ground.  Then…they marched out to meet the enemy and were killed to a man.  They repeated this supreme gesture of freedom when Rome attempted to incorporate Lycia into its empire.

Some Lycians were also pirates.  Their coastline contained many coves and inlets where they could lie in wait for heavily laden merchant ships that sailed passed Lycia on a regular basis.  The Lycians swooped down on their prey, plundered the ship, and returned from whence they had come.  In 1194 BC, Ramses the Third managed to destroy these havens for a time, but eventually the pirates returned.  They played an instrumental role in helping Xerxes invade Greece in 480 BC.  Several times the Romans also tried to suppress these pirates before finally succeeding in 67 BC.  Yet, once the Roman Empire fell, Lycia again became a haven for pirates, and this time they attacked passing ships into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when British warships began to patrol the coast.

Another area rife with pirates was Cilicia, located on the southern shore of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) near the trade route that connected Syria to Italy and Greece.  In addition, its nearness to Egyptian and Palestinian sea lanes, numerous rocky inlets, jutting headlands, and hidden anchorages proved ideal for pirates.  Cilicia became the most notorious pirate haven of ancient times and was home to one of the largest enclaves of pirates in history.

Cilicians captured Julius Caesar in 78 BC and imprisoned him on Pharmacusa until someone paid his ransom.  At the height of their power, these pirates almost crippled the maritime trade of Ancient Rome.  Such dominance could well have destroyed the empire.  To counter this, Pompey the Great attacked Cilicia in 67 BC so fiercely that the pirates were almost annihilated.

The last refuge for pirates of the Ancient World was in the Adriatic.  Dalmatia’s coastal region made it difficult for pursuers to hunt down pirates.  When Rome annexed Dalmatia in AD 9, it ceased to be a haven for pirates.

© 2001 Cindy Vallar

Read Part 2 of this series on Pirate Havens

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