Avast, me swabbie collectors o’ ye olde stamped paper booty! All landlubbers be tryin t’ speak like swashbucklers ever’ voyage on th’ 19th o’ Septembree on accoun’ o’ ’tis International Talk Like A Pirate Day. Aye, you buccaneers, pour a mug o’ grog an’ listen t’ me story o’ th’ history o’ ye sweet trade while gettin’ loaded t’ th’ gunwhales! I be singin’ a chanty to me hearties before long, me self! Fair winds an’ God’s speed then t’ ye olde collectors o’ stamped paper findin’ safe haven for thar loot.
What be a pirate? Savvy yonder and Cap’n Stampy be tellin’ ye:
The English word “pirate” is derived from the Latin term pirata (“sailor, corsair, sea robber”) and that from Greek πειρατής (peiratēs), literally “one who attacks (ships)”. Spelling was not standardized until the eighteenth century, and spellings such as “pirrot”, “pyrate” and “pyrat” were used until this period. Piracy is an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship- or boat-borne attackers upon another ship or a coastal area, typically with the goal of stealing cargo and other valuable items or properties. Those who engage in acts of piracy are called pirates. It’s reasonable to assume that piracy has existed for as long as the oceans were plied for commerce. The earliest documented instances of piracy were in the fourteenth century B.C., when the Sea Peoples, a group of ocean raiders, attacked the ships of the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations.
Narrow channels which funnel shipping into predictable routes have long created opportunities for piracy, as well as for privateering and commerce raiding. Historic examples include the waters of Gibraltar, the Strait of Malacca, Madagascar, the Gulf of Aden, and the English Channel, whose geographic strictures facilitated pirate attacks. A land-based parallel is the ambushing of travelers by bandits and brigands in highways and mountain passes. Privateering uses similar methods to piracy, but the captain acts under orders of the state authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation, making it a legitimate form of war-like activity.
The most widely known and far-reaching pirates in medieval Europe were the Vikings, seaborne warriors from Scandinavia who raided and looted mainly between the eighth and twelfth centuries. They raided the coasts, rivers and inland cities throughout western Europe as far as Seville, which was attacked by the Norse in 844. Vikings also attacked the coasts of North Africa and Italy and plundered the coasts of the Baltic Sea. Some Vikings ascended the rivers of eastern Europe as far as the Black Sea and Persia.
Toward the end of the ninth century, Moorish pirate havens were established along the coast of southern France and northern Italy. In 846, Moor raiders sacked the extra muros Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Rome. In 911, the bishop of Narbonne was unable to return to France from Rome because the Moors from Fraxinet controlled all the passes in the Alps. Moor pirates operated out of the Balearic Islands in the tenth century. From 824 to 961, Arab pirates in the Emirate of Crete raided the entire Mediterranean. In the fouteenth century, raids by Moor pirates forced the Venetian Duke of Crete to ask Venice to keep its fleet on constant guard.
After the Slavic invasions of the former Roman province of Dalmatia in the fifth and sixth centuries, a tribe called the Narentines revived the old Illyrian piratical habits and often raided the Adriatic Sea starting in the seventh century. By 642, they had invaded southern Italy and assaulted Siponto. Their raids in the Adriatic increased rapidly, until the whole Sea was no longer safe for travel. The Narentines took more liberties in their raiding quests while the Venetian Navy was abroad, as when it was campaigning in Sicilian waters in 827–882. As soon as the Venetian fleet would return to the Adriatic, the Narentines temporarily abandoned their habits, even signing a Treaty in Venice and baptizing their Slavic pagan leader into Christianity. In 834 or 835 they broke the treaty and again they raided Venetian traders returning from Benevento, and all of Venice’s military attempts to punish them in 839 and 840 failed. In 846, the Narentines broke through to Venice itself and raided its lagoon city of Caorle. In the middle of March 870 they kidnapped the Roman Bishop’s emissaries that were returning from the Ecclesiastical Council in Constantinople. This caused a Byzantine military action against them that finally brought Christianity to them. After the Arab raids on the Adriatic coast circa 872 and the retreat of the Imperial Navy, the Narentines continued their raids of Venetian waters, causing new conflicts with the Italians in 887–888. The Venetians futilely continued to fight them throughout the tenth and eleventh centuries.
In 937, Irish pirates sided with the Scots, Vikings, Picts, and Welsh in their invasion of England. Slavic piracy in the Baltic Sea ended with the Danish conquest of the Rani stronghold of Arkona in 1168. In the twelfth century the coasts of western Scandinavia were plundered by Curonians and Oeselians from the eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, pirates threatened the Hanseatic routes and nearly brought sea trade to the brink of extinction. Until about 1440, maritime trade in both the North Sea and the Baltic Sea was seriously in danger of attack by the pirates.
Zaporizhian Sich was a pirate republic in Europe from the sixteenth through to the eighteenth century. Situated in Cossack territory in the remote steppe of Eastern Europe, it was populated with Ukrainian peasants that had run away from their feudal masters, outlaws, destitute gentry, run-away slaves from Turkish galleys, etc. The remoteness of the place and the rapids at the Dnepr river effectively guarded the place from invasions of vengeful powers. The main target of the inhabitants of Zaporizhian Sich who called themselves “Cossacks” were rich settlements at the Black Sea shores of Ottoman Empire and Crimean Khanate. By 1615 and 1625, Zaporozhian Cossacks had even managed to raze townships on the outskirts of Istanbul, forcing the Ottoman Sultan to flee his palace. Don Cossacks under Stenka Razin even ravaged the Persian coasts.
Though less famous and romanticized than Atlantic or Caribbean pirates, corsairs in the Mediterranean equaled or outnumbered the former at any given point in history. Mediterranean piracy was conducted almost entirely with galleys until the mid-seventeenth century, when they were gradually replaced with highly maneuverable sailing vessels such as xebecs and brigantines. They were, however, of a smaller type than battle galleys, often referred to as galiots or fustas. Pirate galleys were small, nimble, lightly armed, but often heavily manned in order to overwhelm the often minimal crews of merchant ships. In general, pirate craft were extremely difficult for patrolling craft to actually hunt down and capture. Using oared vessels to combat pirates was common, and was even practiced by the major powers in the Caribbean. Purpose-built galleys (or hybrid sailing vessels) were built by the English in Jamaica in 1683 and by the Spanish in the late 16th century. Specially-built sailing frigates with oar-ports on the lower decks, like the James Galley and Charles Galley, and oar-equipped sloops proved highly useful for pirate hunting, though they were not built in sufficient numbers to check piracy until the 1720s.
The expansion of Muslim power through the Ottoman conquest of large parts of the eastern Mediterranean in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries resulted in extensive piracy on sea trading. The so-called Barbary corsairs began to operate out of North African ports in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Morocco and Morea (modern-day Greece) around 1500, preying primarily on the shipping of Christian powers, including massive slave raids at sea as well as on land. The Barbary corsairs were nominally under Ottoman suzerainty, but had considerable independence to prey on the enemies of Islam. The Muslim corsairs were technically often privateers with support from legitimate, though highly belligerent, states. They considered themselves as holy Muslim warriors, or ghazis, carrying on the tradition of fighting the incursion of Western Christians that had begun with the First Crusade late in the eleventh century.
Coastal villages and towns of Italy, Spain and islands in the Mediterranean were frequently attacked by Muslim corsairs and long stretches of the Italian and Spanish coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants; after 1600 the Barbary corsairs occasionally entered the Atlantic and struck as far north as Iceland. Between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary corsairs and sold as slaves in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. A few Barbary corsairs were renegade European privateers who had converted to Islam.
Piracy off the Barbary coast was often assisted by competition among European powers in the seventeenth century. France encouraged the corsairs against Spain, and later Britain and Holland supported them against France. However, by the second half of the seventeenth century the greater European naval powers began to initiate reprisals to intimidate the Barbary States into making peace with them. The most successful of the Christian states in dealing with the corsair threat was England. From the 1630s onwards England had signed peace treaties with the Barbary States on various occasions, but invariably breaches of these agreements led to renewed wars. A particular bone of contention was the tendency of foreign ships to pose as English to avoid attack. However, growing English naval power and increasingly persistent operations against the corsairs proved increasingly costly for the Barbary States. During the reign of Charles II a series of English expeditions won victories over raiding squadrons and mounted attacks on their home ports which permanently ended the Barbary threat to English shipping. In 1675 a bombardment from a Royal Navy squadron led by Sir John Narborough and further defeats at the hands of a squadron under Arthur Herbert negotiated a lasting peace (until 1816) with Tunis and Tripoli.
France, which had recently emerged as a leading naval power, achieved comparable success soon afterwards, with bombardments of Algiers in 1682, 1683 and 1688 securing a lasting peace, while Tripoli was similarly coerced in 1686. In 1783 and 1784 the Spaniards also bombarded Algiers in an effort to stem the piracy. The second time, Admiral Barceló damaged the city so severely that the Algerian Dey asked Spain to negotiate a peace treaty and from then on Spanish vessels and coasts were safe for several years.
Until the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, British treaties with the North African states protected American ships from the Barbary corsairs. Morocco, which in 1777 was the first independent nation to publicly recognize the United States, became in 1784 the first Barbary power to seize an American vessel after independence. While the United States managed to secure peace treaties, these obliged it to pay tribute for protection from attack. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual expenditures in 1800, leading to the Barbary Wars that ended the payment of tribute. However, Algiers broke the 1805 peace treaty after only two years, and subsequently refused to implement the 1815 treaty until compelled to do so by Britain in 1816.
The classic era of piracy in the Caribbean lasted from circa 1650 until the mid-1720s. By 1650, France, England and the United Provinces began to develop their colonial empires. This involved considerable seaborne trade, and a general economic improvement: there was money to be made — or stolen — and much of it traveled by ship. French buccaneers were established on northern Hispaniola as early as 1625, but lived at first mostly as hunters rather than robbers; their transition to full-time piracy was gradual and motivated in part by Spanish efforts to wipe out both the buccaneers and the prey animals on which they depended. The buccaneers’ migration from Hispaniola’s mainland to the more defensible offshore island of Tortuga limited their resources and accelerated their piratical raids.
The growth of buccaneering on Tortuga was augmented by the English capture of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The early English governors of Jamaica freely granted letters of marque to Tortuga buccaneers and to their own countrymen, while the growth of Port Royal provided these raiders with a far more profitable and enjoyable place to sell their booty. In the 1660s, the new French governor of Tortuga, Bertrand d’Ogeron, similarly provided privateering commissions both to his own colonists and to English cutthroats from Port Royal. These conditions brought Caribbean buccaneering to its zenith.
A new phase of piracy began in the 1690s as English pirates began to look beyond the Caribbean for treasure. The fall of Britain’s Stuart kings had restored the traditional enmity between Britain and France, thus ending the profitable collaboration between English Jamaica and French Tortuga. The devastation of Port Royal by an earthquake in 1692 further reduced the Caribbean’s attractions by destroying the pirates’ chief market for fenced plunder. Caribbean colonial governors began to discard the traditional policy of “no peace beyond the Line,” under which it was understood that war would continue (and thus letters of marque would be granted) in the Caribbean regardless of peace treaties signed in Europe; henceforth, commissions would be granted only in wartime, and their limitations would be strictly enforced. Furthermore, much of the Spanish Main had simply been exhausted; Maracaibo alone had been sacked three times between 1667 and 1678, while Río de la Hacha had been raided five times and Tolú eight.
At the same time, England’s less favored colonies, including Bermuda, New York, and Rhode Island, had become cash-starved by the Navigation Acts, which restricted trade with foreign ships. Merchants and governors eager for coin were willing to overlook and even underwrite pirate voyages; one colonial official defended a pirate because he thought it “very harsh to hang people that brings in gold to these provinces.” Although some of these pirates operating out of New England and the Middle Colonies targeted Spain’s remoter Pacific coast colonies well into the 1690s and beyond, the Indian Ocean was a richer and more tempting target. India’s economic output was large during this time, especially in high-value luxury goods like silk and calico which made ideal pirate booty; at the same time, no powerful navies plied the Indian Ocean, leaving both local shipping and the various East India companies’ vessels vulnerable to attack.
Between 1713 and 1714, a succession of peace treaties was signed which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. With the end of this conflict, thousands of seamen, including Britain’s paramilitary privateers, were relieved of military duty. The result was a large number of trained, idle sailors at a time when the cross-Atlantic colonial shipping trade was beginning to boom. In addition, Europeans who had been pushed by unemployment to become sailors and soldiers involved in slaving were often enthusiastic to abandon that profession and turn to pirating, giving pirate captains for many years a constant pool of trained European recruits to be found in west African waters and coasts.
In 1715, pirates launched a major raid on Spanish divers trying to recover gold from a sunken treasure galleon near Florida. The attack was successful, but contrary to their expectations, the governor of Jamaica refused to the pirates to spend their loot on his island. With Kingston and the declining Port Royal closed to them, the group founded a new pirate base at Nassau, on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas, which had been abandoned during the war. Until the arrival of governor Woodes Rogers three years later, Nassau would be home for these pirates and their many recruits.
As part of the peace settlement of the War of the Spanish succession, Britain obtained the asiento, a Spanish government contract, to supply slaves to Spain’s new world colonies, providing British traders and smugglers more access to the traditionally closed Spanish markets in America. This arrangement also contributed heavily to the spread of piracy across the western Atlantic at this time. Shipping to the colonies boomed simultaneously with the flood of skilled mariners after the war. Merchant shippers used the surplus of sailors’ labor to drive wages down, cutting corners to maximize their profits, and creating unsavory conditions aboard their vessels. Merchant sailors suffered from mortality rates as high or higher than the slaves being transported. Living conditions were so poor that many sailors began to prefer a freer existence as a pirate. The increased volume of shipping traffic also could sustain a large body of brigands preying upon it. Among the most infamous Caribbean pirates of the time, was Edward Teach or Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and Bartholomew Roberts. Most of these pirates were eventually hunted down by the Royal Navy and killed or captured; several battles were fought between the brigands and the colonial powers on both land and sea.
Piracy in the Caribbean declined for the next several decades after 1730, but by the 1810s piracy along the East and Gulf Coasts of North America as well as in the Caribbean increased again. Jean Lafitte was just one of hundreds of pirates operating in American and Caribbean waters between the years of 1820 and 1835. The most successful pirates of the era were Lafitte and Roberto Cofresi. Jean Lafitte is considered by many to be the last buccaneer due to his army of pirates and fleet of pirate ships which held bases in and around the Gulf of Mexico. He and his men participated in the War of 1812 battle of New Orleans. Cofresi’s base was in Mona Island, Puerto Rico, from where he disrupted the commerce throughout the region. He became the last major target of the international anti-piracy operations.
The United States Navy repeatedly engaged pirates in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and in the Mediterranean. Cofresí’s El Mosquito was disabled in a collaboration between Spain and the United States. After fleeing for hours, he was ambushed and captured inland. The United States landed shore parties on several islands in the Caribbean in pursuit of pirates; Cuba was a major haven. By the 1830s piracy had died out again, and the navies of the region focused on the slave trade.
About the time of the Mexican–American War in 1846, the United States Navy had grown strong and numerous enough to eliminate the pirate threat in the West Indies. By the 1830s, ships had begun to convert to steam propulsion, so the Age of Sail and the classical idea of pirates in the Caribbean ended. Privateering, similar to piracy, continued as an asset in war for a few more decades and proved to be of some importance during the naval campaigns of the American Civil War. Privateering would remain a tool of European states until the mid-nineteenth century’s Declaration of Paris. But letters of marque were given out much more sparingly by governments and were terminated as soon as conflicts ended. The idea of “no peace beyond the Line” was a relic that had no meaning by the more settled late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Today, pirates armed with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades use small motorboats to attack and board ships, a tactic that takes advantage of the small number of crew members on modern cargo vessels and transport ships. They also use larger vessels, known as “mother ships”, to supply the smaller motorboats. The international community is facing many challenges in bringing modern pirates to justice, as these attacks often occur in international waters. In the 2000s, a number of nations have used their naval forces to protect private ships from pirate attacks and pursue pirates. As well, some private vessels are taking steps to defend their vessels and their crews from piracy, such as using armed security guards, high-pressure hoses or sound cannons to repel boarders, or using radar to avoid potential threats.
Scott #206 is the lowest denomination in a set of 17 stamps issued by the Leeward Islands dual-island nation of St. Kitts-Nevis on February 1, 1970 (Scott #206-222), celebrating late seventeenth and early eighteenth nautical lore with a heavy piracy theme. Stamps were inscribed St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla from 1952 until mid-1980, and either St. Kitts or Nevis thereafter. The ½ cent portrays pirates burying treasure in Frigate Bay which is actually two bays close together on the island of St. Kitts southeast of the capital Basseterre. The stamp was printed by lithography and is perforated 14.