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The History of Maritime Piracy

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

Pirate Articles
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Book Reviews
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The Articles

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Pirates have commonalities, attributes that mark them as sea thieves. For example, pirates steal their ships. They often start with small boats, such as canoes, and build upwards to larger vessels through pinching someone else’s. Or they don’t get a regular paycheck. Instead, they receive shares of plunder that is stolen from others; if nothing is seized, the pirates aren’t paid. Or they choose who among them will be captain. As is often the case, however, there are exceptions to these “rules.” Who fits that bill? A gentleman named Stede Bonnet.

Being a Pirate (or How to Be One)
Modern Piracy
Notorious Pirates (or Who Was Who?)
Piracy Around the World
Pirates and Literature
Ships & Maritime History
Being a Pirate
The Crew of a Pirate Ship
Published 4 April 2005
Pirates required a ship to practice their trade.  While they dispensed with many of the traditional seafaring hierarchies, they understood the need to have some members lead them in battle.  They elected their officers, and certain pirates had a greater value than others because of their skills.  Who were the officers aboard a pirate ship and what were their duties?  Whose skills were most prized?  What happened if pirates disagreed with the captain?

Friends and Enemies
Published 5 May 2005 and 9 July 2005
Pirates didn’t live or work in a vacuum. They required others to fence the stolen booty or to prey upon. The outrages they committed stirred merchants, ministers, and governments to see that justice was done. The pirates also visited safe havens where women and spirits awaited them.  Informants shared their knowledge. Governors authorized hunting expeditions. Hunters tracked down their quarry. Victims testified at trials. Once caught, most pirates met a similar fate -- dancing the hempen jig. Come and meet the friends and enemies of the pirates.

Making Your Mark
Published 1 June 2000
Pirates were notorious for their lawlessness and brutality.  Yet they adhered to the ideals of the French Revolution-liberty, equality, and brotherhood-a century before that country's monarchy fell.  Their Articles of Agreement set them apart from other naval and governmental institutions of the time because they incorporated principles of democracy.

Medicine at Sea
Published 1 August - 1 October 2007
December 10th…. In the afternoon of this day our chief surgeon cut off the foot of a negro-boy, which was perished with cold….  December 12th…Yesterday died the negro-boy whose leg was cut off by our surgeon, as was mentioned the day before. This afternoon also died another negro, somewhat bigger than the former, named Chepillo. The boy’s name was Beafero. All this evening but small wind.
Basil Ringrose penned these words in his journal in 1680. Mere notes in history, his entries provide a glimpse of the tenuous lives pirates lived. If they survived diseases (the principal cause of death for many), they might develop a “bursted belly” (hernia) from lifting and pulling, or break a finger or arm while loading cargo, or fall from a mast, or burn a hand while tarring ropes, or be washed overboard. An additional danger for pirates was the chance of being wounded or killed during battle. This was why one of the most esteemed members of any crew was the surgeon. But his work was rarely easy. This article examines medicine at sea during the Age of Sail.

A Most Unwelcome Death
Published 1 June 2001
Hollywood’s depiction of a castaway on a deserted island is a far cry from the reality of a pirate sentenced by his fellow mates to be marooned.  In most cases it was a death sentence.

Oh to be a Pirate
Published 1 July and 1 August 2001
Sand sifting through an hourglass symbolizes the swiftness with which time passes.  For pirates, it meant life was fleeting so they played with the same ferocity as they preyed.  Yet the dangers they faced were not so different from those of others who sailed during the Age of Sail.  The beauty of the sea belied the danger it possessed, for in the blink of an eye a ship became a wreck or a storm swept the ablest of seamen from the deck.  If by chance they survived those perils, they might fall victim to disease. If life at sea was so dangerous, why did men become pirates?  Was it the lure of treasure or were there other reasons for making a choice that might lead to death by hanging if caught?

Pirate Conning
Published 17 May 2010 and 4 July 2010
Figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B isn’t a major concern for us today. After all, we have road maps, online maps with step-by-step instructions, cell phones, and GPS devices for when we’re lost. We have it easy compared to navigators of the past. Many didn’t even know there was a world beyond the horizon. Intrepid mariners discovered new lands and forged new passages, but navigating their vessels to go where they wished was a major feat. Various devices aided in latitudinal calculation, as did estimates regarding tides, currents, and ship’s speed and course. The inability to determine longitude meant many ships were not where their captains, or navigators, thought they were. It was common to miss an island or landfall by going too far or not far enough. Such an error could seriously endanger the ship and those on board.

A Pirate Lexicon
Published 10 May 2012
The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines a lexicon several ways, and the meaning that most pertains to this article is “the vocabulary of some department of knowledge or sphere of activity; the vocabulary or wordstock of a region, a particular speaker, etc. Also, a list of words or names.” (1589) Talking like a pirate has gained popularity ever since Ol’ Chumbucket (also known as John Baur) and Cap’n Slappy (also known as Mark Summers) christened September 19th as International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Pirate Lingo
Published 1 September 2005
Ten years ago, John Baur and Mark Summers created a new holiday.  It didn’t amount to much until Dave Barry wrote a column in 2002 that introduced readers to International Talk Like a Pirate Day!  To help pirates everywhere celebrate this special day, this article explores words associated with pirates.

Pirate Tactics
Published 1 August 2006
Planning, intelligence, the ability to adapt to any given situation, leadership, and teamwork are key to the success of any action.  If any one of these is lacking, the action may be jeopardized and the consequences unpredictable.  Pirates incorporated these elements into each attack or raid they made.  This article examines the various strategies and tactics they employed to carry out successful missions.

Pirates and Death
Published 26 July - 20 December 2014
A perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary definitions for “death.” In its simplest form it is “the act or fact of dying; the end of life; the final and irreversible cessation of the vital functions of an animal or plant.” Yet death is more complicated than that, for one’s demise may be quiet and peaceful, or brutal and cruel. How one dies is far more telling, because it provides those still alive with clues to the final moments of how that person expired. Was it a simple exhalation of one’s last breath, or was the person assassinated, beheaded, crucified, hanged, massacred, shot, or slaughtered? Pirates encountered death in a variety of ways, but they also snuffed out the lives of others. They viewed death differently than most, because reality had shown them life was short and rarely sweet. This article explores pirates’ encounters with death, both as instigators and victims of the Grim Reaper.

Pirates and Music
Published 18 September 2013

Early ballads included songs about infamous pirates, such as John Ward and Blackbeard, and historical accounts mention musicians and their instruments. This article explores the connection between music and piracy.

Pirates and Sea Shanties
Published 19 August 2013

Sea shanties are often associated with pirates, but did they really sing these work songs aboard their pirate ships?

Pirates and Their Clothes
Published May-June 2008
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, “What did pirates wear?” It seems like a straightforward question, but it’s not. Clothes change as time passes. What’s in fashion one day may be out of fashion the next. The further back in time one looks, the more stringent the rules regarding clothes become. The basic outfit worn by all mariners didn’t change much over the centuries when wooden ships with billowing sails ventured farther and farther from their homelands. Pirate clothes, like the rogues themselves, broke societal boundaries and deviated from the norm.

A Pirates' Arsenal of Torture
Published 6 November 2010
Nestled among the books on my library shelves is John Swain’s The Pleasures of the Torture Chamber. It details a variety of ways to inflict pain on someone from “miscellaneous merriments of the olden times” to pain we inflict upon ourselves. Each of us may have a different viewpoint of what constitutes torture and what does not. For example, some former students likened my silent detentions to the most excruciating form of torture they ever endured. Many pirates experienced or witnessed various forms of torture at some point in their lives before going on the account, and just as law-abiding citizens tortured people, so did pirates.

'Polishing the King's Iron with Your Eyebrows'
Published 18 November 2017 - 20 April 2018
You might frown or scratch your head at reading this title, but if you lived two centuries ago and looked at the world from behind a window with iron grates, you understood. This gibberish was actually a "secret" language known to a select few. Becoming familiar with such cant (or jargon) meant you had literally and figuratively paid the cost of admission. How? By not paying your debts or by violating the law. Many pirates eluded justice; others did not. Pirate histories often mention such facts, but focus on their trials and executions. They skip over the interim between capture and death. Venture back in time, if you dare, and discover what you would have faced had you been incarcerated during the era of the buccaneers and the "golden age" of pirates.

Punishing Their Own and Hunting Prey
Published 1 May 2003
Although often seen as lawless, pirates sailed under agreements that included methods of punishment should they disregard the oaths they signed.  They also inflicted various forms of punishment and torture on their victims.  Some of these accounts appear brutal in the extreme, but people of the past lived in a harsh and violent world. Torturing and maiming people to extract information was a common practice, perhaps best illustrated by the Spanish Inquisition. Men and women who refused to enter a plea in English courts found themselves stretched on their backs in Newgate Prison’s Press Yard where the jailer placed weights on their chests until they acquiesced. If they didn’t, they were crushed to death. (WARNING: This article contains graphic accounts of violence.)

To Capture Prey and Plunder It
Published 1 October 2002
Once pirates had a ship, they sailed the High Seas in search of prey.  How did they capture another ship?  How did they defend themselves?  What did they search for once they boarded that ship?

When is a Pirate not a Pirate?
Published 1 April 2000
How many different synonyms can you think of for pirate?  Buccaneer, corsair, marooner, swashbuckler.  These are just a few, but do they really mean the same thing as pirate?

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Ancient Pirates
Published 20 September 2009
Considered one of the oldest professions, piracy began soon after people first used water to carry trade goods from one place to another. Historians can’t pinpoint this to a precise period in time, but the earliest known records appeared in the fourteenth century BCE. This article explores these early pirates in general, then focuses on Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

Baltimore, Ireland 20 June 1630
Published 15 March - 20 May 2014
The influx of European pirates to the north coast of Africa in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries brought not only men to swell the ranks of Barbary pirates, but also “round ships”. The rounded hulls made these merchant vessels more seaworthy and better able to traverse great distances than the traditional galleys the Barbary pirates favored. These men soon adopted the round ships into their fleets, and the more daring of the Barbary reis (captains) ventured farther afield in their pursuit of plunder. This article recounts one such journey.

Between Two Piracies
Published 22 May - 19 July 2021
Too many variables led to England's failure to bring Henry Every to justice. Successfully prosecuting only twenty-four out of 170 pirates -- none of whom had the same stature as their captain -- failed to impress Emperor Aurangzeb or the East India Company. As far as the latter was concerned, pirates became their nemesis, and if swift action wasn't taken, their factories in India would be shuttered and they would become insolvent and no longer viable. The government, however, was unwilling to grant them special powers to arrest and try the pirates in Company admiralty courts. Instead, ships of the Royal Navy were sent to dissuade the scoundrels. Still, the marauding continued.
Buccaneers, Zeerovers, and West India Companies
Published 20 May - 20 July 2020
Commerce was always a facet of each trading company that Europeans established. Exploration and territorial expansion were other goals. The West India companies, especially the Dutch, possessed another objective that was an integral component of their entities -- privateering.

In 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the Inter Caetera, a papal bull that decreed a specific meridian designated the lands west of this line of longitude belonged to either Spain or Portugal. The Treaty of Tordesillas formalized this invisible demarcation the following year. The problem was that neither the pope nor the treaty gave any consideration to all the other European States that also wanted their fair share of these undiscovered lands known collectively as the "New World."

Spain and Portugal frowned upon intruders who wished to stake their own claims or to steal what belonged to these two realms. As a result, subsequent treaties pertained to peace among regions east and north of that line -- basically Europe. To the west of that line of longitude, all remained fair in love and war. Into this arena came West India companies, buccaneers (or privateers, if you prefer), and zeerovers, who preyed on Spanish and Portuguese settlements and ships. This meant a perpetual state of war existed in the Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans -- conflict that was often substantiated as "No peace beyond the line."

Captives of the Barbary States
Published 1 October 2004
While we abhor slavery, it was a common practice during the Middle Ages in Byzantium, Middle Eastern lands Crusaders held, Slavic and Balkan regions, and along the Mediterranean coasts of France, Italy, and Spain.  The majority of accounts from former Barbary slaves come from men.  Only a few are from women, and of those that survive none appear to be authentic.

Captured by Pirates
Published 21 October 2021
As the eighteenth century progressed, the East India Company continued its trade with India in spite of a decline in cotton products. Their product focus shifted to tea from China -- a trade that became irrevocably intertwined with opium and would precipitate two wars between England and China during the nineteenth century. Western pirates faded from eastern seas as the golden age came to an end around 1730. But others lurked in the wings to take their place, as a young Company officer learned to his chagrin soon after the turn of the century.

Cotton Mather, Preacher to the Pirates

Published 5 October - 5 November 2008 and 5 January - 5 February 2009

Several years ago, I read Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations. Imagine my surprise when I came across the Reverend Cotton Mather’s name in the first paragraph. Not once in any history classes did my teachers mention pirates while speaking about this New England Puritan! What else had my instructors omitted about this man, who preached to and about pirates?

The Golden Age of Piracy
Published 1 March and 1 April  2003

For forty years from around 1690 until 1730, the most famous pirates sailed the High Seas. Writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and J. M. Barrie, painters like Howard Pyle, and Hollywood in films like Captain Blood made these pirates of the Golden Age of Piracy immortal. They, themselves, were legends in their own time. While Blackbeard was perhaps the most notorious of the pirates of the Golden Age, he wasn’t the only pirate whose name has survived.  Among those recorded in the annals of history are women and gentlemen who chose to follow a different calling than the one society deemed appropriate.

Henry Every and the East India Company
Published 21 March 2021

England's East India Company complained about pirate-infested Madagascar in 1706. According to his Review of the State of the British Nation, Daniel Defoe feared the pirates might "form a Nation, a State, at War with all the World" and urged the government to nip that possibility in the bud. Such fears weren't new. Two prior major incidents had already shown the EIC just how dangerous these sea marauders were to its future on the subcontinent of India. The first of these caused a media sensation and made one man a legend in his own time. His name was Henry Every.

í víking – Norse who went plundering and Q & A
Published 1 July and 1 August 2003

With names like Ivar the Boneless, Eric Bloodaxe, and Thorfinn Skullsplitter, the Norse raided far and wide, instilling fear in their victims and plundering lands where many eventually settled.  Who were these pirates and what did it mean to go í víking?  Why did the litany A furore Normannorum libera nos, DominiFrom the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord – sum up the terror their victims felt?  The Q&A answers the following questions: What are the origins of the word "viking?" Why did the Norse plunder? What did they wear? What weapons did they favor? Are the written accounts of their raids accurate? How did they impact history? Did women become pirates?

In the Aftermath of Kidd
20 August and 18 September 2021
Although Kidd was dead, the East India Company wasn’t finished with him. His attack did offer a respite for some pirates if they were willing to give up their criminal pursuits. As the sands of time shifted, so did public opinion about pirates. But pirates continued to prowl for victims in the Indian Ocean as one Company man soon discovered.
The Lure of Exotic Treasure: Piracy and the East India Companies
Published 20 January 2021
East and West were linked long before Marco Polo set out on his travels in the thirteenth century. Commodities from Asia traveled trade networks known as the Silk Road and the Spice Routes, winding their way over thousands of miles and changing hands multiple times. Each middleman added to the initial cost of the products until only wealthy and powerful Europeans could afford them. That changed in the fifteenth century when the Portuguese began exploring the world in ships. On 9 September 1499, Vasco da Gama and fifty-five of his original crew of 170 men returned home to Lisbon after sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to the Malabar Coast in India and back again. Rather than depending on many middlemen, enterprising merchants in many different countries established chartered trading companies that possessed the sole right to buy and sell these luxuries. Such treasures, traveling by sea, tempted a new host of marauders. This is the story of the East India companies and their nemeses . . . pirates.

The Jolly Roger and No Quarter Given
Published 1 May 2001
When asked about the flag most commonly associated with pirates, most people will describe a white skull and crossbones on a black field. The Jolly Roger wasn't the only flag pirates used, but the sight of it made seamen tremble. The most feared of the pirate flags, though, was the red flag, the jolie rouge, for it meant death to all.

Medieval Pirates
Published 6 January 2010
In CE 829 a Frankish monk named Ansgar set sail for Sweden, where he wished to introduce the Swedes to Christianity. His was a dangerous journey, in part because pirates attacked the vessel on which he sailed. After boarding the boat, they seized his precious books and religious artifacts before forcing Ansgar and his companions to abandon the vessel. This incident was but a single example of many such attacks that plagued medieval times.

Mother Nature, Pirates, & Dangers at Sea

Published 21 March 2016
“Shipwreck Day Setting Sail,” read the headline in a California newspaper in October 2015. A seemingly innocuous way to celebrate pirates . . . unless you’re a seaman or you know one. It’s upsetting to anyone whose life has been touched by a tragedy at sea, such as a shipwreck. One need only look to the stories about El Faro, which sank with all hands that same month. For myself, that day first came in 1967 when we learned of the explosion and fire aboard the USS Forrestal. My dad’s friend was a doctor on the aircraft carrier. While visiting my grandparents in 1986, tragedy struck again when a freak squall sank the Pride of Baltimore. I didn’t know Captain Elsaesser or the three members of the crew who lost their lives that day, but I lived in Baltimore at the time and was proud of our Goodwill Ambassador. Dangers are an inevitable risk for anyone who ventures onto the sea, including pirates.

The Nearly Forgotten Adventures of Sam Bellamy by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 22 August 2016
Sam Bellamy visits St. Croix and Virgin Gorda in 1717, where the pirates find destruction and create havoc.

Pirate Treasure

Published 1 March 2007

On my office wall hangs a Florida Treasure Map. It marks the locations of where pirates buried their plundered booty. For example, Sir Henry Morgan and Blackbeard secreted some near Boca Raton. Calico Jack Rackham deposited in excess of $3,000,000 on Ten Thousand Islands, while Black Caesar favored Sanibel Island to hide fourteen tons of silver. Gasparilla cached his gold, valued at more than $2,000,000, on Gasparilla Island, and his ship, the Florida Blanca, sank in the Boca Grande Pass around 1821 with plunder worth $9,000,000. Pirates prized gold and silver, yet few pirates garnered such treasure. What did they get after seizing their prey? What happened to that treasure? Which pirates succeeded in capturing plunder beyond their wildest dreams?

Pirates & Religion
Published 7 February - 6 March 2012
If asked today, most people would say pirates were irreligious and, to a degree, this is true. To classify all pirates as such, however, is wrong because sometimes religion played a key role in acts of piracy, and pirates who blasphemed “found” religion before they died. This article discusses the various ways in which piracy and religion co-existed through centuries. We conclude our exploration of how piracy and religion intersected. It opens with a continuation of accounts from the later years of the seventeenth century, followed by those concerning the Golden Age of Piracy, and ends with a look at Asian pirates and their religious practices.

Punishing the Pirates
Published 1 June 2003
Pirates didn't fear death. Rather they expected it. Many died from disease or in battle, while others faced an executioner. A gruesome death (dancing the hempen jig) awaited condemned pirates. They often joked about hanging, but only until they stood on the gallows.

The Royal African Company and Pirates
Published 20 August - 17 November 2020
Slavery and piracy are inextricably linked throughout history. Although we don't know when the first pirate attack occurred, a clay tablet from 1350 BCE is the first known recorded incident. Even older is the first extant reference to slavery in the Code of Hammurabi, Babylonian laws dating back four centuries earlier. Most civilizations have experienced both; most have participated in both. But the Age of Exploration and Discovery would trigger a far greater exploitation of slavery with the rise of trading companies. While gold and ivory were the initial commodities that drew Europeans to Africa, the need for laborers on colonial plantations would give rise to slavery becoming an even more important commodity. And wealth of any kind, sooner or later, drew the attention of pirates.

Sam Bellamy and Olivier Levasseur by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 July - 20 August 2015
During a short span of time in 1716, two pirates terrorized merchant ships in the West Indies. Their names? Samuel Bellamy and Olivier Levasseur. Laura Nelson discusses their plundering in this article about two pirates just kicking around the Caribbean.

Sir Henry Mainwaring on the Prevention and Suppression of Piracy

Published 19 January 2014
To thank James I for his pardon from piracy, Sir Henry Mainwaring wrote a treatise on piracy that served as a guide for hunting these predators.

The Stupidest Mistake Ever Made by Pirates by Guest Columnist David K. Bryant
Published 20 June 2015
Before he ruled Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar was a victim of pirates. Guest columnist David K. Bryant writes about this episode in Caesar's life and how he dealt with the pirates who kidnapped him.

Thomas Davis: Reluctant Carpenter to the Pirates by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 August & 19 September 2017
When pirates seized a vessel, they requested volunteers to join their ranks. Some did, but others preferred to remain on the right side of the law. There were some, however, who were not given such a choice. These were the artisans -- men with specialized skills -- and two among these were highly sought-after, surgeons and carpenters. This article tells the story of one such man.
Tracing the Golden Age of Piracy by Guest Columnist Casey Sheehan
Published 5 October 2010
The early 18th century saw an upsurge in piracy. Casey provides an overview of this period and an introduction to some of the more famous pirates of the Golden Age.

William Kidd and the East India Company
Published 19 July 2021

Well read, respected member of society, and having a good reputation -- these are words that described the privateer William Kidd. After he left New York to unsuccessfully seek a commission in the Royal Navy and became entangled in a dangerous game with me far more powerful than he, other words became associated with Kidd: cheeky, reckless, defiant, argumentative, ambitious, and harsh. They were qualities certain to rub some people the wrong way. Their encounters with him would earn him a dodgy reputation and a potent adversary.

Women and the Jolly Roger
Published 1 March - 1 April 2004

David Cordingly, author of Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women wrote, “We will never know how many women went to sea as men because the only cases we have any evidence of are those in which the woman’s sex was revealed and publicized in some way, or those cases where a woman left the sea and had her story published….  What is striking about the genuine cases of female sailors is how they were able to fool the men on board for weeks, months, and in some cases, several years.” This article examines how female sailors who went on the account may have carried off their disguises and explores the lives of four lesser-known women pirates.

Woodes Rogers: Circumnavigator, Privateer, Author, & Governor
Published 11 February - 20 November 2022
During his presidency, Teddy Roosevelt used the adage, speak softly and carry a big stick, to define his foreign policy. It is a philosophy that served as a guiding principle throughout Woodes Rogers's lifetime, although the most famous examples came during his first tenure as governor of the Bahamas. He offered pirates who called the islands "home" the king's grace in exchange for relinquishing their marauding. Those who chose not to accept found him firmly resolved to vanquish piracy. Yet before his eradication of the Caribbean pirate republic, he had already made a name for himself. He sailed around the world in search of the ultimate prize, a Manila treasure galleon. This is his story.
Young Pirates
Published 20 October 2015
Did children ever go on the account? Yes, but how many became pirates is unknown. Historical records merely mention that children sailed under certain captains. Bartholomew Sharp, in his Voyages and Bold Adventures, mentions taking aboard an Indian and two boys. Children also sailed with Asian pirates, and today, in hot spots around the world, they can still be found attacking ships.

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Modern Piracy

How to Solve Somalia's Pirate Problem? by Guest Columnist Keith Thomson
Published 26 July 2013

For seamen who venture through waters in the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa being captured by pirates is a real threat. Many people around the world from various walks of life have proposed possible solutions. Keith Thomson, author of the modern piracy tale Pirates of Pensacola, puts forth his answer.

Modern Piracy: 2005 Update
Published 1February - 1 June 2006

In 2000 I investigated the problem of modern maritime piracy.  Resources on the topic were scarce, but no longer.  In the intervening years, people have become more interested in piracy and governments have initiated programs in an effort to combat it.  One reason for the renewed effort to stamp out this age-old crime stems from the possibility that terrorists might form an alliance with pirates to carry out their agendas.

Piracy versus Terrorism
Published 1 July 2006

While pirates often terrorize their victims, both now and in the past, is a pirate the same as a terrorist?

Piracy of Yore vs. Piracy Today
Published 1 August 2000

Pirates today are far from being the romantic images portrayed by Hollywood.  In this five-part series I'll examine modern piracy in more detail: pirate hot spots, their methods, what constitutes piracy, what's being done to combat piracy, the economic effects of piracy, and anti-piracy techniques.

Piracy and the Law: Modern Piracy - Part 2
Published 1 September 2000

During the Golden Age of Piracy, piracy attracted some because of promised riches with little fear of prosecution.  The likelihood of being brought to justice is the same if not greater today.  Why?  The legal definition of what makes a crime an act of piracy and the perpetrator of said crime a pirate.

The Cost of Piracy: Modern Piracy - Part 3
Published 1 October 2000

A pirate’s main objective is to acquire money.  To that end he chooses a target that will provide him the greatest success with the least danger to himself.  He may find it lucrative, but what do those losses mean to commerce and the world?

Profile of a Pirate – Modern Piracy, Part 4
Published 1 November 2000

Modern pirates ply their “trade” for the same reasons their predecessors did.  Although their hunting grounds may differ, some regions are more geographically and politically suited to favor the pirates.  Depending on where they hunt, pirates favor different means to acquire their plunder.  Take a closer look at the pirates of today.

Combating Piracy – Modern Piracy, Part 5
Published 1 December 2000

Anti-piracy training offers seamen a way to detect and deter pirate attacks.  While such tactics have proven successful, history shows that piracy will continue to escalate unless law enforcement authorities strike back at the pirates’ weakest point—the land.

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Notorious Pirates

Alfhild – Princess and Viking
Published 1 November 2007

Whether you call her Alfhild, Alvid, Alwida, Altilda, or Alwilda, this pirate princess first appears in historical annals in the twelfth century. She may or may not have actually lived, and little is known of her actual exploits, but she is one of the earliest female pirates on record.

Bad Usage
Published 20 May 2018

If not for his brutality and flagrant refusal to bend to society's expectations, William Fly might have remained relatively unknown -- a mere blip in the historical record because he was caught. Instead his refusal to repent for his thirty-day crime spree brought him everlasting notoriety in the annals of pirate history.

The Barbary Corsairs
Published 1 July-August 2004

Elements of awe and fear surround the Barbary corsairs, but prior to the sixteenth century, Christians didn’t refer to them as such.  They were Moors or Saracens.  “Barbary” derives from an Italian word, first used around 1500, for North Africa.  While some Italians thought these Saracen corsairs were barbarians, the people and their culture were anything but barbarian.  After 1581, the Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli vied for supremacy over each other.  A national policy evolved where piracy provided the beys, deys, pashas, and emperors with income.  To safeguard their Mediterranean trade, European nations paid each Barbary State to cease attacking their ships and to ransom enslaved countrymen.  When a new country, the United States of America, encountered this national policy, they chose a new way to deal with the terrorizing of trade.  After all, Americans had not vanquished one tyrant to endure another.

Benjamin Hornigold: The Pirates' Pirate
Published 5 March and 5 April 2010
Like many pirates of yore, little is known about Benjamin Hornigold’s early life and even his death leaves questions. But during six short years, he left an indelible mark on history and piracy in the Caribbean. The depredations to merchant shipping in the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy eventually led the British Crown to issue a royal pardon to pirates willing to come back into the fold. With the arrival of a new governor at New Providence, Hornigold forsook his criminal path and became a pirate hunter.

Black Pirates
Published 1 January 2007
The greatest number of pirates preyed the seas from 1716 to 1726. Historical documents recorded the ages of 169 of those pirates. They were as young as fourteen and as old as fifty, but the average age was twenty-seven. Half the pirates had ties to the British Isles, while a quarter came from colonies in the West Indies and North America. Men who went on the account also came from Holland, France, Portugal, Denmark, Belgium, and Sweden. According to Marcus Rediker in Villains of the Sea, these pirates belonged to a group that comprised 6.9 percent of the sea rovers whose origins were recorded. Another group of men also entered into this number, but they tended to receive only cursory mention in history books. These were the black pirates.

A Buccaneer More Interested in Nature than Gold
Published 1 November 2004-March 2005

Explorer.  Naturalist.  Hydrographer.  Author.  Mariner.  Buccaneer.  Although mere labels, these words describe a man who sought his fortune through adventure, influenced men whose fame remains well known today, and died in relative obscurity.  His contemporaries included Robert Boyle, Daniel Defoe, Edmond Halley, Isaac Newton, Samuel Pepys, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Christopher Wren, but few know about the many significant contributions this man made to science, seamanship, language, and literature.  His name?  William Dampier.

The Buccaneers
Published 1 November 2002

The original buccaneers were hunters who lived on Hispaniola in the Caribbean.   Driven from the island, they turned to piracy and formed a brotherhood that went in search of Spanish prey. At first they attacked small ships, but eventually they preyed on larger prizes. Escaped convicts, outlaws, and slaves joined their ranks. These Brethren of the Coast obeyed no laws but their own, and their leaders maintained discipline through brutal acts of violence.

Captain William Kidd
Published 1 December 2005-1 January 2006

Most biographers list William Kidd's birth as 1645, but he may have been born as late as 1654. He grew up either in Greenock or Dundee, Scotland, the son of a minister or a sea captain. Historical documents, written in his hand and that of others, record his life since 1689 until his death in 1701, but his early years, and the question of whether there remains any treasure to uncover, continue to be mysteries.

Cheng I Sao ("wife of Cheng I")
Published 1 May 2000

At the height of her power, Cheng I Sao commanded a pirate fleet that surpassed the navies of many countries.  In addition to more than 200 oceangoing junks armed with 20-30 cannon and manned by up to 400 pirates each, she controlled 600-800 coastal vessels (12-25 cannon, 200 men) and dozens of river junks (20-30 men).  She set up a network of spies who watched the harbors and reported potential targets.

An Exception to the Rule
Published 20 May 2024

Pirates have commonalities, attributes that mark them as sea thieves. For example, pirates steal their ships. They often start with small boats, such as canoes, and build upwards to larger vessels through pinching someone else’s. Or they don’t get a regular paycheck. Instead, they receive shares of plunder that is stolen from others; if nothing is seized, the pirates aren’t paid. Or they choose who among them will be captain. As is often the case, however, there are exceptions to these “rules.” Who fits that bill? A gentleman named Stede Bonnet.

Famous Barbary Corsairs
Published 1 September 2004

“The Dutch flags disappeared and the masts and poop were simultaneously shaded by flags of taffeta of all colors, enriched and embroidered with stars, crescents, suns, crossed swords and other devices.”  These words of a seventeenth-century traveler spoke of the moment when Barbary corsairs revealed their true identity to their prey.  Meet some of the corsair captains who terrorized the Mediterranean.

Fléau des Espagnols – Flail of the Spaniards
Published 1 November 2001

To contemporaries he was known simply as L’Olonnais, “the man from Olonne.” His success at piracy attracted many pirates eager to sail with him in spite of the brutality he showed his prey, particularly the Spanish, who called him “Fléau des Espagnois.”  (Warning to readers: This article contains explicit examples of L’Olonnais’ ruthless torturing of prisoners.)

Granuaile (aka Grace O’Malley) – Irish Pirate
Published 1 March 2001

Most historical accounts written in the past were penned by men.  Women were largely ignored or gained mention because of their husbands or charitable deeds.  On occasion, though, a few women defied the roles often assigned them to gain prominence in their own rights.  Grace O’Malley was such a woman.  While Sir Francis Drake and other Elizabethan Sea Rovers gained notoriety as pirates, Granuaile would have drifted into obscurity if not for Irish bards and poets.  She dared to enter a man’s world, and in the process proved to be a successful sailor, chieftain, and pirate.

'A Greater Monster Never Infested the Seas': Edward Low
Published 19 November 2018 - 18 February 2019
From 1722 through 1723, colonists could not read a newspaper without coming across an item detailing this pirate's brutal attacks on innocent merchant sailors and their vessels. The viciousness was recounted in lurid details, demonstrating just how cruel this pirate and his men were. Governor John Hart of the Leeward Islands suggested that the king might offer a pardon, possibly even a reward, if Low's men turned against their captain and brought him to justice dead or alive. After all, "a greater monster never infested the seas."

Guillaume Le Testu: Cartographer, Huguenot, Corsaire
Published 18 February - 20 March 2023
His name might mean nothing if heard in an everyday conversation. A search will reveal he was a cartographer, a Frenchman, and a contemporary of a far more famous man of the sixteenth century (a man who was dubbed a knight and remembered long after his passing). Yet these two men formed an alliance and sprang a trap that garnered these pirates a treasure far beyond their expectations.
Henry Every
Published 9 October 2006
Known as Henry Avery, John Avery, Long Ben, and Captain Benjamin Bridgeman, Henry Every’s beginning and ending remains cloaked in mystery. During the brief span of time in which he captained a pirate ship, however, he became a legend in his own time.

Henry Morgan by Guest Columnist Jude Ellery
Published 26 September 2012
Was he pirate or privateer? Or did this famous buccaneer walk the gray line between both worlds? Jude Ellery of Fancy Dress Party Ideas provides an in-depth look at the privateer extraordinaire who was knighted for his service to the Crown.

Israel Hands
Published 20 January 2015
Of his early life we know nothing. Of his later life we have only rumors. In fact, he appears in the historical record for only a short span of time -- the waning days of Edward Teach's career. Yet many have heard his name; he's a coxswain on the Hispaniola in Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. Whether called Israel or Hezekiah or Basilica, Hands was a real pirate, perhaps best known for a tale Captain Johnson recounts in A General History of the Pyrates.

John Julian the Teenage Pirate by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 October 2013
John Julian survived the sinking of Black Sam Bellamy's Whydah. Who was John Julian and what happened to him after his rescue?

John King, the Boy Pirate by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 November 2015
When Sam Bellamy captured a merchant ship in 1716, he acquired a new member to his crew. He was a young lad who vowed to kill himself if he wasn't allowed to join the pirates.

Merchant, Pirate, Smuggler, Sea Lord
Published 23 March 2023 - 19 September 2023
When the winds of change blow, some people build walls and others build windmills. ~ Old Chinese proverb

A merchant buys and sells goods to make a profit. A pirate commits robberies at sea. The former is a legitimate operator who works hard to make a living. The latter is a thief who prefers to illicitly profit from others’ labor. Normally, the two are diametrically opposed to each other. When the merchant’s business involves importing and exporting goods and the winds of change blow, the merchant faces a conundrum: build a wall, or build a windmill. One man chose to build a windmill, forging a new path that merged legal with illicit. His name was Zheng Zhilong.

Patriots or Pirates?
Published 1 February 2004
While drafting lessons for an online workshop recently, I received a note from a gentleman who took me to task because I dared to refer to Kanhoji Angria of India as a pirate.  Am I the only one to affix such a label to someone India regards as a national hero?  No.  Nor was Kanhoji Angria the only national figure seen as both pirate and patriot.

Peter Cornelius Hoof and Me by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 April 2013

A visit to the National Geographic's Real Pirates Exhibit opened the world of pirates to Laura Nelson. She discusses her visit, her interest in Peter Hoof, his capture by Sam Bellamy, the fateful voyage of the Whydah, and Peter's execution.

The Pirate Known as La Buse: Olivier Le Vasseur
Published 18 March 2019

Known by many monikers -- including La Bouse, Leboose, La Bouche, La Buze, The Buzzard -- little is known about Olivier Le Vasseur aside from the fact that he was a French pirate, possibly from Calais, who operated out of Saint Domingue. (Captain Johnson said that he operated out of New Providence.) This changed when he met two English pirates, whose names are well-known in the annals of piracy: Benjamin Hornigold and Samuel Bellamy.

Pirate, Rebel, Freedom Fighter, Champion of the Poor
Published 1 June 2004

While English and French pirates raided the Spanish Main, Cossacks took to the sea against the Ottoman Empire.  Rather than gold and gems, they sought to free Ukranian girls and boys enslaved by the Turks.  In 1553 Dmytro Vyshnevetsky melded several bands of Cossacks into a single unit of pirates who plagued Turkish and Tartar ships and towns in the Black Sea.  Russian Cossacks plundered Persian villages and shipping on the Caspian Sea.  One of these pirates, Stepan Razin, gained immortal fame as a folk hero of seventeenth-century Russia.

Pyrate Surgeons
Published 7 May - 1 July 2007

A prized member of any pirate crew, and often a forced one, was the doctor. A few were actual physicians, medical men with college degrees, but more were barber-surgeons, who acquired their knowledge and skills while working as an apprentice to another surgeon. You might assume that pirates treated doctors with kid gloves – wouldn’t you rather be stitched up by someone who knows what he’s doing, rather than letting the carpenter or someone else do it – but not all pirates were grateful. Take Edward Low, for example. One of the pirates aboard his ship was having a bit of fun with a prisoner. A bit drunk, the brigand wielded his cutlass so poorly that he missed its intended target and slashed Low’s lower jaw deep enough to expose his teeth. John Hincher stitched up the wound, but Low took exception to the quality of the surgeon’s stitches. How dare a mere layman criticize him! The good doctor struck Low so hard that his fist “broke out all the Stitches, and then [Hincher] bid him sew up his chops himself and be damned….

Rachel Wall
Published 5 April and 15 May 2012
Is she the first American-born female to become a pirate? Or is she just a common thief? Interesting questions to be sure, and if you search through books about women who went on the account, you might well find a brief account of her exploits. The problem is there are no historical records to back up such claims.

Richard and Jeremiah: Two Pirates Who Would Be Pardoned by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 23 January 2017
Most pirate histories, if they talk about Samuel Bellamy at all, begin with his capture of the Whydah Galley and end with its sinking in a storm off of Cape Cod on 26 April 1717. They completely disregard the stories of the men sent to be prize crews on the ships. Bellamy had captured earlier that day. Consequently, many people don't realize that these survivors of the Whydah's crew also have stories to tell. Mostly they are stories of continuing a life of piracy without a strong leader to pull them together.

Sam Bellamy: From Penniless to the Richest Pirate of All
by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 17 September and 22 October 2018
He came to Cape Cod with little money, but became the richest of the pirates of the golden age only to lose both his life and his wealth when his ship sank off the coast of Cape Cod. Legend says he was returning to collect the love of his life, Maria Hallet. His name? Samuel Bellamy.

Sam Bellamy & Olivier Levasseur by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 20 July and 20 August 2015
During a short span of time in 1716, two pirates terrorized merchant ships in the West Indies. Their names? Samuel Bellamy and Olivier Levasseur. Laura Nelson discusses their plundering in this article about two pirates just kicking around the Caribbean. She also explains how each pirate met his demise.

Samurai, Scholar, Poet, Prince, & Pirate: A Family Affair
Published 20 October 2023 - 22 December 2023
Knowing who was a pirate and who was not a pirate in Asian waters was a paradox. Yes, there were people who devoted their lives to robbery at sea, but many Chinese cross the line from merchant to pirate and back again as easily as the tide ebbs and flows. Like his father, Zheng Chenggong fished both waters, but his destiny lay elsewhere. He is better remembered as Koxinga.

Shap 'ng Tsai, Xú Yàbăo, and the Royal Navy
Published 19 May 2015

One product of the First Opium War was a rise in piracy. Shap 'ng Tsai was the most powerful of these pirates, and this article tells of his rise and fall, as well as that of his confederate Chui-Apoo, at the hands of the British Royal Navy and the Chinese government.

Sir Henry Mainwaring
Published 19 November 2013
Born into England’s aristocracy, Henry Mainwaring loved the sea. A journey to the Mediterranean led him to forsake family and position to become a pirate. His success as a Barbary corsair gained him wealth, notoriety, and many offers of pardons. Throughout this career, he remained loyal to his king, James I of England, and the Royal House of Stuart during the Civil War.

Spanish Adventurers
Published 17 September 2016
A common misconception in piracy, especially as regards the Caribbean, is that Spain was the enemy and only men and women from other countries were pirates and privateers. But they also came from Spain and her colonies. Sometimes they attacked shipping from foreign nations; other times, they attacked vessels from their native lands. Later on, when the colonies decided they wished to rule themselves, the rebel governments also commissioned privateers to fight against their Spanish overlords. Pirates also participated in this struggle.

The Spanish Pirates
Published 20 January 2013
What do an American president and a famous actor have to do with twelve pirates? The combination may seem strange, but Steve Berry melded these three facts into his bestselling novel, The Jefferson Key. Who was the president? Andrew Jackson, a man whose policies made him the target of an assassin. Who was the actor? Julius Brutus Booth, an illustrious actor with a penchant for alcoholic binges. Who were the pirates? Twelve seamen. Their trial captured newspaper headlines and stirred readers to debate whether or not they were really guilty of the crime.

The Stupidest Mistake Ever Made by Pirates by Guest Columnist David K. Bryant
Published 20 June 2015
Before he ruled Ancient Rome, Julius Caesar was a victim of pirates. Guest columnist David K. Bryant writes about this episode in Caesar's life and how he dealt with the pirates who kidnapped him.

Three Buccaneers
Published 20 May - 23 July 2017
The Oxford English Dictionary defines "buccaneer" in one of three ways: a hunter who cooks and cures meat on a boucan, a pirate, or an adventurer. All three definitions came into use during the 17th and 18th centuries. Other languages used different terms, but the meaning was similar. Many buccaneers came from families with some level of means, rather than the destitute or those eking out an existence. Rebellion, financial opportunity, and adventure were often primary motivations for becoming sea rovers, more so than simple survival. They were often pirateers -- sometimes falling outside the law, other times legally plundering. For the most part, Spain was their common enemy and some were particularly harsh in their treatment of Spaniards. L'Olonnois, whose real name was Jean David Nau, was the most ruthless and perhaps best known of these, but he wasn't the only one noted for his cruelty. Three contemporaries of his were equally vicious.

Transformation: A Family Affair
Published 22 December 2023
His childhood name suggested bright prospect for the Zheng house. His given name identified him as a model for the world. His behavior as a youth belied both those possibilities, yet he became a visionary and a compassionate, perceptive, and competent leader.

A Trio of Pirates
Published 1 July 2000
Time and distance separated Murat Rais, Kanhoji Angria, and Howell Davis, but each of these men employed audacious cunning to become successful pirates.  Although probably an Albanian by birth, Murat Rais rose high in the ranks of the Barbary corsairs.  Kanhoji Angria terrorized British ships in the Indian Ocean, and the Welsh seaman turned pirate, Howell Davis, hoodwinked governors into believing that he hunted pirates for a living.

The Youngest Pirates
Published 20 December 2015
Except for a handful of names the majority of pirates have been lost to history. Sometimes, when we dig under the surface, references to these men and woman emerge. But what of their younger comrades? We know they existed. We know some, such as John King, freely went on the account, while others were forced to join. Like their adult counterparts, the identities and lives of many lads are a mystery. Yet, for those willing to cull through many archival references, there are other young pirates whom we know by name.

Zheng Yi Sao by Guest Columnist Tanner Price
Published 2 December 2019 - 15 January 2020
Her real name has been lost to history, but there are many others by which she is known: Zheng Yi Sao, Madame Ching, and Cheng I Sao. At the height of her power, she commanded a pirate fleet that surpassed the navies of many countries. She was more successful than her western counterparts, and she lived to enjoy her ill-gotten gains. Guest columnist Tanner Price presents part one of the true story of this female underdog that Hollywood forgot.

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Piracy Around the World

The Dutch Beggars of the Sea by Guest Columnist Jean-Denis G. G. Lepage
Published 14 December 2011

In the 16th century, the Dutch sought more independence from Spain and this struggle eventually led to the Eighty Years' War. Among those who helped William the Silent in this revolt were the Watergeuzen or the Sea Beggars, Dutch pirates. Jean-Denis also discusses the privateers of the Dutch West India Company in the 17th century.

A Family Affair by  Cindy Vallar
Published 16 April 2023
During the 1600s, one pirate rises from boyhood to manhood to establish a dynasty based on trade, both legal and illicit. This business passes from him to his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson. It also involves numerous brothers, uncles, and other members of his extended family. Over the course of six decades, their average income equates to more than US $89,000,000 in 2023. This is their story.

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 1: The Ancient World
Published 1 December 2001
Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘haven’ as any port that provides shelter.  Pirates required such harbors in order to survive.  Why did pirates favor certain spots over others?  What sites in the Ancient World harbored pirates?

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 2: Around the World
Published 1 January 2002

In a series exploring pirate havens, this article examines safe harbors located around the world, from those favored by the Barbary Corsairs to American havens frequented by pirates and privateers.

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 3: Madagascar
Published 1 February 2002

The fourth largest island in the world was another locale that attracted pirates.  Thomas Tew, Henry Avery, and William Kidd were several who visited Madagascar.  Today, underwater excavations are under way to recover at least one pirate ship, Kidd’s Adventure Galley, which sank in the harbor at Île Sainte Marie.

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 4: Port Royal
Published 1 March 2002

My first introduction to Port Royal came when I saw Errol Flynn in Captain Blood.  That depiction of a bustling seaport was a far cry from reality.  For a time, Port Royal was a haven for pirates, who helped it gain a reputation of being one of the most vile and evil cities of the seventeenth century.

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 5: Tortuga and New Providence
Published 1 April 2002

Tortuga was one of the earliest safe harbors pirates used in the Caribbean.  New Providence was one of the last.  Together these two havens played host to some of the most infamous pirates to sail the High Seas.

Notorious Pirate Havens – Part 6: In League with Pirates
Published 1 May 2002

Pirates never work alone.  Whether in the past or the present, they require people to sell their plunder.  Sooner or later, this illegal trade results in government intervention to suppress piracy.

Pirates of Canada
Published 1 January 2001 and 1 February 2001

Among the brethren who prowled the seas in search of treasure were men, and some women, of many nationalities.  One group, however, that seems to get short shrift are the pirates who came from Canada or who committed acts of piracy against Canada.  Pirates frequented the waters of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  Most were English, but some were French or Dutch.  The earliest account of piracy occurred in 1582 when Henry Oughtred and Sir John Perrot attacked Portuguese and Spanish fishermen near Avalon.  During the 17th and 18th centuries, a few notorious pirates left their calling cards, yet most faded into the annals of history.  This article looks at some infamous and not so infamous pirates who by birth or deed are forever linked to Canada’s maritime history.

The Pirates of San Augustín
Published 7 January -- 1 April 2011

Today, it’s not unusual to bump into pirates when walking the streets of St. Augustine, Florida, but these are not the same rogues who visited the oldest city in North America in the past. Nor were the residents as welcoming as they are now.

Scottish Pirates
Published 7 October 2005

Surrounded on three sides by water and comprised of numerous islands, Scotland has a long association with pirates, but learning about these men presents challenges.  Early sources and histories don’t differentiate between pirates and feuds between families, for one clan raiding an enemy clan on land and by sea was an integral part of Highland life.  The earliest pirates to Scotland’s shores were the Vikings, who raided the monasteries and villages along the coast.  They opened the door to the Norse settlers who came to the Shetland, Orkney, and western isles to establish new homes and raise families.  History has forgotten most Scottish pirates, but two left indelible marks on Scotland--John Gow and William Kidd.  Meet them and the other Scottish pirates from Thormod Foal’s-leg to Ruari Og MacNeil to Daniel Machauly.

Tortuga by Guest Columnist Katherine Bone
Published 19 September 2015

A small Caribbean island, shaped like a turtle, became a notorious pirate haven in the 17th century. When Spain tried to drive off the hunters, they took to piracy and became known as the Buccaneers or the Brethren of the Coast. Guest columnist Katherine Bone takes us back to this infamous den of pirates and thieves.

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Pirates and Literature

Barbary Corsairs and Ludo da Portovenere by Guest columnist J. G. Harlond
Published 20 May 2019
Historical novelist J. G. Harlond talks about the main character in her The Chosen Man trilogy and the history that inspired his creation. His father was a Dutch privateer who "turned Turk" and became a famous admiral of Barbary corsairs. He was born Jan Janszoon, but history knows him better as Murat Reïs, the Younger. Harlond includes an excerpt from the book in the series, The Chosen Man.

Birth of a Pirate Novel by Guest Columnist Helen Hollick
Published 20 March 2013
Born in London, Helen has been writing since her early teens. While working in a library after graduation, she discovered the world of historical fiction. She eventually married and had a daughter. With time on her hands, Helen began to write historical novels. Aside from her pirate novels, she’s written stories based on the people and events that culminated with the 1066 Battle of Hastings and what might have happened in the life of King Arthur. Like me, she is a member of the Historical Novel Society and is the UK Editor for HNS’s Indie Reviews. In this article, she talks about how she came to write about Captain Jesamiah Acorne’s adventures and shares an excerpt from book one, Sea Witch.

Bringing Pirates to Life through the Written Word by Guest Columnist Darren Simon
Published 20 June 2016
Writers of historical fiction try to be as historically accurate as possible without sacrificing the fictional story. Darren Simon discusses his journey of weaving pirate history into his young adult fantasy, The Dangerous Legacy, where Sam Every travels back to the Golden Age of Piracy to rescue kidnapped children and to stop the theft of a mythical sword that can alter the world in which he lives.

Captain Blood - The History behind the Novel
Published 5 March  - 12 July 2009
One Christmas, my parents gave me Treasure Island. I tried several times to read it, but the book never captured my attention. Not until I watched an old film while in high school did pirates or perhaps I should say, one particular pirate and the actor who portrayed him stir my interest. Since then I’ve watched Captain Blood many times, but didn’t know until college that the film was based on Rafael Sabatini’s novel. My mother instilled in me a love of reading, so when I discovered several of his titles in a bookstore, I bought Captain Blood. Many years later, I did some pirate research that took me back to this novel. By then my first novel had been published, and I was well-versed in the Royal House of Stuart and James II’s flight from England that eventually led to the Jacobite Rebellions. (The Scottish Thistle portrays the last of these, known as the Rising of 1745.) As I reread Captain Blood in preparation for writing this article, I realized how much I hadn’t understood the first time

Captain Misson & Libertalia
Published 1 March & 20 April 2017
In The History of the Pyrates, Captain Charles Johnson tells the story of a Frenchman and a defrocked priest who declared war on European ships and set up a pirate utopia on the island of Madagascar. This is their story and an examination of the tale's veracity.

Fictional Pirates

Published 1 September 2005
Authors have done much to influence how we see pirates.  Prior to the eighteenth century, fictional pirates were ordinary men whose only importance came from how they impacted the lives of a story’s hero and heroine.  Since then, pirates have come in two varieties: heroic captains that fate has forced into piracy or depraved monsters with no regard for human live as they search for treasure.  A few--like Peter Blood, Long John Silver, and Jack Sparrow--have attained the same notoriety as real pirates of the past, such as Blackbeard or Bartholomew Roberts.

A Fun List of Pirate Movie Favorites by Guest Columnist Elise Schwartz
Published 4 November 2011
On cold, wintry nights when the wind howls and the snow glistens in the moonlight, what better way for a family to spend time together than seated before a roaring fire, watching pirates and imagining treasure-filled chests and warm, balmy nights on a Caribbean island? Schwartz shares her favorite swashbuckling films that will delight and entertain everyone from young pirate apprentices to dashing pirate captains.

The Greatest Pirate Story Never Told (Until Now) by Guest Columnist David K. Bryant
Published 20 March 2015
Perhaps one of the most enigmatic fictional pirates is Robert Louis Stevenson's Captain Flint, a man who died before the story began. But who was Flint and how did author David K. Bryant shape his depiction of this notorious pirate?

Jesamiah Acorne (Captain)by Guest Columnist Helen Hollick
Published 18 July 2016
Who is Jesamiah Acorne? Helen Hollick talks about the protagonist of her Sea Witch series. Includes an excerpt for the third voyage, Bring It Close.

Johnson vs. Defoe - Will the Real Author Please Stand
Published 3 August - 5 September 2010
Since its publication, A General History of the Pyrates has been a key resource for anyone searching for information about pirates in the first quarter of the 1700s.  While its author was named, he remained a mystery for more than two centuries. John Robert Moore, a college professor, claimed Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe. But was he?

The Lure of Piracy - Realty vs. Romanticism
Published 1 September and 1 October 2001
Once portrayed as frightening villains, pirates have become daring heroes we yearn to emulate. If real pirates were and continue to be bloodthirsty violent men, why do we romanticize them?  Literature and Hollywood have given us an image of pirates that is far different from the realty. How do they differ and why do we prefer to believe in the fictional version rather than the truth?

Sea Yarns Galore
Published beginning 20 November 2021

Each month, Irwin Bryan selects books from his Tall Ship Database to share with readers on a variety of topics related to piracy, privateering, and the maritime world.

Superstitions and the Sea
Published 1 April 2007

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote: Superstition is the poetry of life. Whether you believe in them or not, they make life interesting. Athletes on winning streaks follow the same routines to ensure that they keep winning. Children avoid stepping on cracks so as not to break their mothers’ backs. And what about breaking a mirror and having seven years of bad luck? Most pirates were sailors before going on the account, so their world was laced with superstitions. Their life might well have been short and merry, but if they could prolong that life even one day, why not pay heed to the superstitions of the sea?

The Unknown Survivor by Guest Columnist Laura Nelson
Published 21 June 2014

Cape Cod folklore suggests there was a third man who survived the wreck of Black Sam Bellamy's pirate ship. Guest columnist Laura Nelson explores the possibility and discusses the wreck of the Whydah in April 1717.

Who Drinks with Blackbeard? by Guest Columnist Calvin Z. Heyward
Published 19 August 2013
Calvin’s fascination with pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy was first sparked by conversations and stories told by merchants he met as a teenager in the Old Mart of Charleston, South Carolina. He was particularly interested in Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, because he employed many men of color within his crew, and their “kidnapping” of the entire city was riveting to him. He wrote this shanty as a writer’s challenge to give a light-hearted perspective to this infamous historical figure and his plight.

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Alexander Selkirk, the Real Robinson Crusoe
Published 1 June-July  2002

While Robinson Crusoe was a fictional character, Daniel Defoe based him on a real man. Alexander Selkirk never dreamed he would live on an uninhabited island. Yet when he signed aboard William Dampier’s privateering expedition, Selkirk found himself caught up in circumstances that would eventually lead to his marooning.  He departed England aboard the Cinque Ports, one of William Dampier’s privateers. Bound for the Pacific to prey on Spanish treasure galleons, problems soon surfaced between Selkirk and the ship’s incompetent captain. This conflict eventually resulted in the captain marooning Selkirk on an uninhabited island. After four and a half years marooned, Alexander Selkirk was rescued when Woodes Rogers dropped anchor off Juan Fernandez Island. Their meeting proved fortuitous, and Selkirk gained a form of immortality when Daniel Defoe based his most memorable character on Selkirk’s experience.

Canadian Privateers
Published 1 April 2001

By definition a privateer is either the ship, the crew, or the captain of a vessel licensed by a particular government during times of war to prey on enemy ships.  Canadian privateers played an important role in several wars, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries.  Most sailed from Nova Scotia because of its close proximity to the United States and the North Atlantic.  Often considered little more than legal pirating, “by mid 1700s [privateering] was carefully regulated, respectable and as law abiding as the navy,” according to Daniel Conlin, Curator of Marine History at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Dominique Youx, Intrepid Warrior
Published 5 August 2011

After I research a topic for my novels, I often find that the historical person who plays a key role as a minor player in the story isn't the person I initially thought it would be. Such is the case with my current work-in-progress, The Rebel and the Spy. Instead of Jean Laffite being this key player, the one who captured the spotlight is Dominique Youx, one of his lieutenants. Before Youx became an associate of Laffite and one of the heroes of the Battle of New Orleans, he was a corsair preying on ships in the Caribbean.

Fells Point and the Baltimore Privateers
Published 5 March 2008

Nearly thirty years ago, my husband and I moved into our first home – a “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” house that had three floors and such a narrow spiral staircase that the movers had to bring the furniture in through the upper story windows. We chose the location because it was the halfway point between our two jobs, rather than because it was in Fells Point, home of the legendary Baltimore clippers. This remained our home for only a short time and, when we moved, we never expected to return to Fells Point many years later to visit the new maritime museum on the waterfront. The entire exhibit area held a vast array of artifacts and information about the Baltimore privateers and the men who built and sailed them. A photograph of one of these men, a gunner aboard the Chasseur, captured my attention. I wanted to learn more about him, the privateers he sailed on, and the shipyard where the original “Pride of Baltimore” was built.

James Forten
Published 5 January and 5 February 2008

Privateers were instrumental in America’s fight for independence in the 18th century. Philadelphia, an important colonial port, produced a number of privateers – both ships and men. One man in particular chose captivity aboard a British hulk, rather than turn traitor. He survived his imprisonment and went on to become an important gentleman in Philadelphia’s maritime industry. He also fought for equal rights. When the war ended, some privateers turned to piracy. James Forten opted to return to Philadelphia and put the skills he acquired at sea to use on land. His knowledge and expertise helped him become one of the leading sailmakers of his day. He used his wealth and influence to help others, and he fought for equal rights for all men.

Jean Fleury
Published 20 August 2018

In the early decades of the sixteenth century, rumors spread through Europe about riches to be found in the Americas. If true, these treasures belonged to Spain, which made the neighboring nations also crave their share of the wealth. But a venture to the New World was no small undertaking and it was risky business to venture beyond the horizon to lands unknown. Not everyone wished to place his life and fortune in peril until such rumors were proven true.

Jean Laffite, Enigma and Legend
Published 18 February 2000

Six feet tall.  Coal black hair.  Piercing dark eyes.  Clean-shaven with sideburns.  Handsome.  Benevolent and cool-headed.  Frightful temper. Debonair.  Chivalrous.  Swashbuckler.  Rogue.  Enigma. This was Jean Laffite, a privateer who operated a vast smuggling network in and around New Orleans during the first two decades of the Nineteenth Century.  Some called him pirate.  Others called him friend.  After the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, all called him hero.

Pirate or Privateer, Rogue or Hero? by Guest Columnist Mark M. McMillin
Published 28 November 2012

For thousands of years pirates and privateers have roamed the seven seas. A pirate, as we all know, is a villain, an outlaw, who cruises the oceans to plunder and kill for booty and, if caught, will dance at the end of a rope. A privateer, however, is a paid mercenary, licensed by a government to – lawfully – plunder and kill his enemies during times of war and, if caught, will end up as a prisoner-of-war. That sounds fairly cut and dry, but the distinction between the two callings over the years has often been blurred beyond recognition. In this article, McMillin focuses our attention on privateers. Or, more specifically, we will focus our attention on one particular privateer, on one little-known hero, who operated out of Dunkirk during America's War of Independence.

The Privateers - an Introduction
Published 1 December 2002 - 1 February 2003

The English: “Know that we have granted and given license…to [person’s name]…to annoy our enemies at sea or by land…so that they shall share with us half of all their gain.” With these words, Henry III of England paved the way for the legalization of piracy.

The French: The French considered “la course,” their word for privateering, a family business where sons followed in their fathers’ footsteps.  Known as corsairs, French privateers plagued English shipping for more than a century. This second article in a series examines the French privateers.

The Americans: The war that demonstrated the superiority of privateers over naval ships was the American Revolution.  This third article in a series examines the American privateers.

Privateersman Jonathan Haraden by Guest columnist James Masciarelli
Published 18 June 2018
During the war that gave birth to the United States, American privateers took over 3,000 British vessels and captured much-needed muskets and gunpowder, which they delivered to the Continental Army. The deeds of one particular privateer stand out because of his audacity. One day he came alongside an English ship and demanded her immediate surrender. With a lit fuse in one hand, he waited for five minutes beside a gun. The enemy ship soon struck her colors. Unbeknownst to the English, Haraden had bluffed. Had he fired the gun, it would have been his one and only shot. He had not additional shot or powder with which to reload. Guest columnist James Masciarelli shares more about Captain Haraden and other equally bold members of his family.

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Ships & Maritime History

Curious Pirate Ships
Published 16 February 2020
Close your eyes. Think back to days of yore. Picture a ship. What do you see? Most likely the image is of a wooden sailing ship with high masts, square sails filled with wind, and a ship’s wheel. If I insert the adjective “pirate” before “ship,” the only differences may be the black flag fluttering in the wind and a ragtag crew vaporing insults and threats while slashing the air with an array of weapons. This is an image of the buccaneers and pirates of the western world, those who prowled the Caribbean and Atlantic, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But piracy is a world-wide phenomenon, and outside this sphere and time span, sea marauders have sailed in what we can describe as “unusual” pirate ships.
A Fateful Voyage: The Story of the 1715 Treasure Fleet, Pirates, and a Tercentenary
Published 23 February 2015
2015 marks the 300th anniversary of one of the greatest maritime disasters, the sinking of the 1715 Treasure Fleet off the coast of hurricane. This article explores this voyage, the salvage operations, the pirates who preyed on the salvage camp and wrecks, and Daniel Carr’s cobs that commemorative this event.
Galleys to Junks
Published 1 September 2002
No matter the time period, pirates required three things from their ships: (1) speed and maneuverability, (2) space for prize crews, armament, and plunder, and (3) shallow drafts.  This article explores the various ships pirates used throughout history.
Pirate Ships
Published 20 January 2016
The primary tool that differentiated a pirate from a highwayman or a thief was his sea-roving vessel. While he wasn’t particular about the type of conveyance he used, she needed to possess certain traits. The faster the better, since sometimes he needed to flee pursuers or run down prey attempting to escape. She required a shallow draft and should sail well. After all, the less water she needed under her keel to stay afloat, the easier it was for her to escape into water where a larger ship could not go. Join me in this exploration of pirate ships, inside and out.
Pirate Ships of the West
Published 20 June 2019
Pirates have many different weapons at their disposal, but the most important and the one that sets them apart from an ordinary highwayman is their ship. This article explores those used in the west, particularly during the 17th and 18th centuries. Part one examines the three traits pirates sought in their vessels.
Shipwrecked Treasure Galleons
Published 1 November 2003 - 1 January 2004

After the flota reassembled in Havana, Cuba for the return trip to Spain, they sailed north and east until they reached the latitude of forty degrees before crossing the Atlantic Ocean.  The journey lasted approximately two months. The later they departed the New World for Spain, however, the greater their risk of encountering a hurricane somewhere along the narrow passage between Bahama Bank and the Florida reefs.  When one of the oldest and richest of the treasure galleons sank in 1641, more than forty years passed before the wreck was discovered.  During the Golden Age of Piracy, a rich treasure fleet departed Havana in late July bound for Spain.  The Spaniards kept watch for pirates, but it was a hurricane that ravished the fleet, killing over 700 people and sinking a cargo worth more than 14,000,000 pesos.  Salvagers recovered one third of the treasure before bad weather and rough seas wiped away all traces of the sunken ships.  More than two centuries passed before treasure hunters rediscovered the lost Treasure Fleet of 1715.

Published 4 May 2011
Like pirates, smugglers are romanticized. Who hasn’t seen The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, where Doctor Syn, the Vicar of Dyme Church, leads a secret life as the leader of a gang of smugglers known as “The Scarecrow?” If asked, most people will respond that a pirate and a smuggler are synonymous, as Alan Karras discovered as he researched his recent book, Smuggling. In actuality, they are not the same, as we learn in this article.
The Spanish Galleons
Published 1 September - 1 October 2003
Clumsy and slow, but seaworthy, this ship above all others fired a pirate’s imagination. Galleons guarded the treasure bound for Spain and the king’s coffers. A single captured prize could make a pirate rich--if he caught her. Yet as stalwart as the galleon appeared, she was actually quite fragile when pitted against Mother Nature, who succeeded in wrecking the galleons, which sank to the ocean floor with their precious cargo.  With Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, Spain gained control of a vast overseas empire with great riches. The king needed this treasure to fund the frequent wars that depleted the royal coffers. In time the area Spain controlled became known as the Spanish Main. Between 1492 and 1830 the New World produced 4,035,156,000 gold and silver pesos. Carried in the holds of the treasure fleets, these riches drew pirates to them like a magnet draws metal.
Trading Companies: An Introduction
Published 21 April 2020
Silk. Cinnamon. Pepper. Porcelain. Cotton cloth. A shopping list of luxuries. Traders had sold these high-priced items to wholesalers in Europe for centuries. But such commodities traveled from Asia to the Middle East via overland trade routes or through a series of intermediaries before they reached their final destination – the merchants who sold them to customers for personal use. This meant supplies were limited, which jacked up prices. Yet demand outpaced supply.

After Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a quicker way to reach the East Indies – and ended up discovering the West Indies instead – new lands opened up to explore and to settle; exotic products might lure buyers to part with hard-earned coins; and untold riches might fill royal coffers and raise the status of men daring enough to venture into the unknown.

Such journeys required vast sums money, often more than one man or one monarch dare risk. How might the start-up costs to build or lease ships, pay men to sail these vessels, purchase food and supplies – enough to last for at least six months to a year or more – and to minimize the risk of catastrophic loss be raised? The answer was the joint-stock trading company with a charter that granted the organization a monopoly. The best known of these were the East India companies, but they were not the only ones established. Some grew to be quite successful; others fizzled with scandalous results. A few extended a nation’s power and sphere of influence until the original country grew to be an empire. But the commodities these companies imported and exported proved too enticing to ignore, which is why many fell victim to predators of the sea.

To set the stage, this first article in a series on trading companies and pirates covers the rise of trading companies, where they traded, and the products in which they dealt.

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© 2003-2008 Cindy Vallar

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