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History Of Privateering: Pirates Essay, Research Paper

I will explore the history of the first pirates, giving background needed to understand piracy in early Europe. I will take you on a journey through the life of Pirates and Privateers in early Europe. I will look at how the roles of Pirates and Privateers have changed over time and how opposing governments used them to help fight their wars. I will also look at the changes in the technology used by Pirates and Privateers.

Recordings dating as far back as 4,000 years tell of the threat of pirate raids to merchant ships. These pirate raids occurred mainly in the Persian golf and Mediterranean Sea because substantial sea trade existed in this area. Pirates were credited with causing economic leading to inflation, famine and general misery. Laws to combat the problem of piracy were introduced by the Babloianian Cuneiform script as part of the code of Hammurabi (1948-1905B.C.). The code was simply a combination of laws from earlier time periods.

Egypt was one of the wealthiest countries at this time and so had the most to lose to piracy. Egypt had it’s own laws to combat piracy. A law issued by Hammurabi during his reign, 1350-1315 BC stated that, “If the poor man, in order to serve the pharaoh, made for himself a craft with its sails?.and he was robbed of the craft and the dues, the poor man stood reft of his goods and stripped of his many labors. This is wrong, and the pharaoh will suppress it by excellent measures.” . The need for laws to protect the citizens of Egypt demonstrates the urgency to combat significant loss that was taking place due to piracy. In 1200 BC most of the pirates were driven out of Egyptian waters because of the new laws led to a navel assault on pirate ships.

Over the years pirates have evolved and their numbers grown as populations increased leading to more trade via the sea. More trade meant more opportunities for pirates to flourish. This leads us to the last great era of piracy from the 1200’s to the 1800’s. I will focus my study on pirates who operated in the English Channel, Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.

The pirates from this era developed from Privateers. The English and French were in a bitter battle to control shipping in the English Channel separating the two countries. The English had lost Normandy and thus control of the Channel Islands, which were vital to England. England and France hired pirates to protect their commercial interests and encouraged looting ships of one another. The men who made up the ship crews were men who had broken the law and so offered their services to the king in exchange for a pardon. Licenses were granted to some pirates and thus they took on the title of “Privateers”. As a Privateer they were allowed to attack enemy ships and keep half the cargo giving the other half to the king. Letters of Marque were also issued allowing pirates the right to legally seize an enemy ship for their own as replacement for a ship that had been lost to the enemy or seized as goods owed to them for non payment. This was all legal and sanctioned by the British monarchy. These letters were often abused, as once marque was granted the guarantor would tend to take more than was rightfully his and thus amass a fortune. These actions were to be overseen by officials but this rarely happened as the officials were unwilling to risk their lives by embarking on a high seas battle. By 1293 large-scale pirate attacks were taking place mainly between the English and the French most of these were unauthorized and it became almost a free for all. Edward I was king of England at this time and he grew concerned that the French would retaliate to English pirate attacks by mounting a full-fledged war with England. Edward asked for an explanation from the barons of the Chinque Ports. The explanation given was that his people the English were innocent. They told him that the French were the aggressors and all that the English could do was defend their belongings. The French king, Philip IV, got news of these outrageous allegations and demanded that Edward appear before him. Edward at this time was busy fighting the Scots. Edward sent his brother Philip instead. This was not a satisfactory response for the French king, King Philip IV. In return Philip the IV declared that all English land in France was now forfeited. This led to war between England and France and for piracy to become legal. “There was no law imposed on sailors, but whatever one could carry off, he could call his own.”

This led to a rampant expansion of pirate activities in the Atlantic in the 1300’s with over 1,700 reported attacks on shipping in English waters alone. Pirates became notorious for their brutality, which included torture of their captives. Some pirates were even outlawed in England due to their brutal and vicious nature. The number of pirates estimated to reside in the English Channel during the reign of Edward II was over 7,000. This high number illustrated just how out of hand the situations had become. Travel by sea became extremely dangerous and caused a rise in the price of goods due to the expense of lost goods to pirates.

The main method of attack at this time was for the two battling ships to pull up along side each other and the men to go at each other with whatever weapons they had on board. This was known as “in-fighting”. Later the method of “off-fighting” was developed and used after the invention of the cannon. The cannon allowed the ships to fire at eachother from a reasonable distance. The better your cannons, the further out of range of your enemies you could stay. The English also used the long bow to fire arrows at the opposing ship’s crew. Other common weapons and tactics employed were the use of sea grappling hooks. These hooks were thrown over to the enemy ship allowing the grappler to board that ship. Nets were also used in the same way, as one would catch birds. Ramming was used to disable ones enemy and hopefully sink his ship. In the end though most of the fighting was still hand to hand combat. Once a ship was captured the dead and wounded were thrown overboard. Prisoners that were taken and often tortured, the goods on the ship were seized and the ship itself became part of the pirate fleet or sold.

Piracy after the 1400’s began to spread and become global as it moved from the Channel into the Atlantic Ocean, then the Caribbean and finally into the waters off the American coast. It took on both names Piracy or Privateering depending on the time period and depending who was at war with whom. Pirates were usually called Privateers when one was at war making it all right to raid enemy ships. This was usually the case between the English, French or Spanish.

Because piracy was based on the looting and theft of trade goods and ships, it could only become global with the expansion of trade and the exploration of new areas of the world such as North America and the Caribbean. This exploration began with the Portuguese who, with new more advanced ships, were able to sail as far as Southern Africa and around The Cape of Good Hope. With Piracy now spreading to the vast open oceans, it was not a simple matter of attacking a ship and capturing it in a short period of time. The pirates now had to target a ship and follow it for days to catch up to it. Sometimes attempts were made to act as a friendly ship until they were close enough attack. Attacks could last for days, with the bombardment by cannon fire, the target ship was bombarded by the pirates who then killed and tortured the survivors. The target ship might also surrender in which case mercy may show to the captain and his crew. Pirates at this time not only used large ships but also small oared craft. These pirates were often organized gangs but sometimes the locals of small islands.

New advanced ships that were able to sail faster, further , hold more cargo and withstand the torture of the open sea were built. Advances were made in sail design and mast placement. These new ships had multiple sails, which made them faster and more maneuverable. They also had an upgraded rudder system enabling the ship to hold to the water better and withstand heavy seas. The two main types of ships at this time were: The Carrack a large merchant vessel having three masts and many types of defense mechanisms such as fighting castles; Second was the Galleon, which was a sleek, slender three-masted war-merchant vessel. With improvement in the ships came improvement in its armament. New cannons were developed using bronze, which were able to fire iron balls. Mortars gave way to these new cannons and archers gave way to gunners. In the 1400’s cannons were situated in the upper most deck in the portholes. By the 1500’s, cannons were placed inside the ships from stem to stern and sometimes on a number of decks. This allowed for the broadside firing of cannons at an opposing ship thus allowing for a great deal more power to be levied at an opposing ship. These advancements allowed for Europeans to have better control of their trade routes but also gave pirates a better chance to attack ships. With the advancements in these ships also came advancement in fighting tactics. A typical pirate ship had a well-trained crew of mercenaries. The first man to spot a target vessel would be rewarded. Once a vessel was spotted, the pirate ship would try and find the shortest way to catch up to it. They always wanted to head windward, because this would this was fastest and allowed the ships to run up against each other. A maneuver that defending ships used was to position their ship to force the pirate ship to board from the stern, the hardest point to board from and a point where the defending ship can do the most damage. If the pirates were able to board from the bow they would clear it with a number of weapons such as a fire pot, which exploded sending fiery material everywhere. All this made life as a merchantman was dangerous and very difficult.

Stories were told by merchant mariners of perils they faced on the open sea. Merchant ships were always on the lookout for pirate ships as once a merchant ships was spotted it was unlikely that it would get away as the cargo they held slowed them down. The merchant ships were also unlikely to be able to stave off an attack from a pirate ship as they were always outgunned and out numbered. Merchant ships were designed to transport goods; pirate ships were designed to attack merchant ships. The merchants who survived a pirate attack were taken as slaves and then ransomed off to their respective families of governments. Some were held as slaves for some 30 years.

The role of pirates gradually began to change. There were two classes of pirates: the brutal who only wanted to plunder and kill all aboard ships that they captured and in some instances to attack other pirate ships , the Privateers who fought only opposing country’s ships. The Privateers tended to be more organized and ordered. They used such tactics as flying the flags of the enemy in order to draw enemy ships in and then attack when close enough. Privateering was considered to be honorable, as they were fighting in order to save their country. This led to a Privateering war against Spain and Portugal in the Americas. This was because the Pope declared that Portugal and Spain could only be the ones to trade with the New World. In the late 1500’s the English naval fleet was in shambles and so Privateering was encouraged. Companies financed sailors and then organized Privateering raids in the New World. The spoils of their raids were rich and England became a clearinghouse for stolen property. This became somewhat of an industry in England and many financiers backed these expeditions which made many of them very wealthy. Queen Elizabeth I was also happy as it enabled England to slow the expansion of Spain into the New World. Privateering continued strongly until the mid 1700’s, this was again due to the lack of naval power that the British government had at the time and thus needed the help of the Privateers. Spain, Holland and France had far superior navies than the British and they all controlled islands in the West Indies. This lead to a huge Privateering and pirate war between them until the mid 1700’s, in which the British were able to dominate. It was almost a free for all at this time. Trade was rampant and the allure of wealth allowed for many eager men to take up arms on pirate and Privateering ships.

The wind of change for the Pirate and Privateers began to blow in the 1700’s. The British began to control more of the Islands in the West Indies and also began to also expand their navies thus elevating the need for Pirates and Privateers. A crack down was made on Pirates and Privateers; they were no longer allowed to run a muck as they were in the last century. The allure and respect that pirates once had was now gone and anchorage at islands was disallowed. Ironically the last strong hold of pirates was in Cuban waters but the American navy kept regular patrols of the area, which helped eliminate their presence.

The last chapter in the Pirate and Privateers history was in 1793 when France declared war on Britain. The United States declared neutrality but the French were still using their ports. The United States had a problem. If they continued to support the French they would lose ships to the British but if they supported the British they would lose ships to the French Privateers. The United States eventually sighed a treaty with Britain allowing them the use of some of the outer islands that they controlled and also disallowed the French Privateers to sell their goods on American shores. This dried up the Privateering business in the United States. The French felt betrayed by the Americans and in retaliated French Privateers attacked American ships. This was quickly stopped when the American navy was sent out to patrol the waters and destroyed over 50 enemy ships. Privateers and Pirates still roamed the seas but in much decreased numbers. In the early 1800’s Privateers had the support of the American people as they felt that they played a vital role in America winning its independence. Support later waned with the American press heavily covering pirate trials. In 1829 the American navy captured over sixty pirate vessels and stepped up patrol of the seas eventually eliminating pirates and making Privateering illegal. In Europe pirate and privateering sentiment was the same and privateering was outlawed in France in 1856.

Their respective governments used pirates and Privateers when they were in need of naval support. These governments would only allow piracy and endorsed Privateering during this time of need. It was a cost-effective way to fight wars and control their colonies. When governments no longer needed their help they were treated as outcasts, betrayed by their governments. Pirates and Privateers helped shape the history of the world and played a crucial role in allowing Britain to be able to maintain and support her colonies.

Cordingly, David. Under The Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among The Pirates. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.

Frank Sherry. Raiders and Rebels : The golden Age of Piracy. New York: Hearst Marine Books, c1986.

Grey, Charles. The Merchant Venturers of London : A Record of Far Eastern Trade & Piracy During The Seventeenth Century. London : Witherby, 1932.

Rayner Thrower. The Pirate Picture. London : Phillimore ; Totowa, N.J. : Rowman & Littlefield, 1980.

Ritchie, Robert C. Captain Kidd and The War Against the Pirates. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c1986.

Ward, Ralph T. Pirates in History. Baltimore : York Press, 1974.

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