Solving piracy over time

The definition of piracy has evolved over time through a series of legal acts and scholarly works. One of the earliest instances was the establishment of admiralty courts in 1340 to prosecute pirates, treating the captured as maritime bandits

 Solving piracy over time

The definition of piracy has evolved over time through a series of legal acts and scholarly works.  One of the earliest instances was the establishment of admiralty courts in 1340 by Edward III of England to prosecute pirates, treating those captured as the maritime equivalent of bandits.

However, few medieval or early modern era monarchs had the naval power required to control the seas around their coastlines, let alone the sea lanes used by their merchants and fishermen.  To overcome meager defense budgets, most issued letters of marque authorizing private ship owners to arm crews and conduct commercial warfare on specific enemies. Ship owners were paid from the goods confiscated, known as prize money.  Of course, owners of the prize ships (and their respective monarchs) considered these efforts illicit and referred to everyone else’s privateers as pirates.

Controlling private forces during times of hostility is not a new or even unique problem for governments, as many privateers often strayed from the rules, becoming predators on the high seas.  When Hernán Cortez conquered the Aztec empire in 1521 he sent three ships loaded with gifts to Isabela of Castille, booty from the conquest.  None made it to Spain:  French privateers captured them near the Azores.  In 1579 Francis Drake captured so much loot from the Spanish ship Nuestra Señora de la Concepción that it threatened to sink his ship.  Elizabeth I of England had issued him a letter of reprisal authorizing the capture of Spanish ships (technically valued up to 7,000 ducats) to compensate for losses incurred in San Juan de Ulúa ten years earlier.  Spanish authorities denied the technicality in both cases and offered bounties for the capture of these pirates.

Politicians commenting on recent events have tried to link piracy to terrorism.  But there is little evidence that the Horn of Africa pirates have a political agenda, the primary component of terrorism.  Early forms of piracy had some elements of terrorism, in that there were clear distinctions made in nationality and religion.  There are few cases of English pirates attacking English merchants or Protestants attacking other Protestants. For the most part, pirates and privateers attacked a designated national enemies’ shipping in an effort to capture prizes.  The authority issuing the letter of marque sought to deter an enemy’s access to specific sea lanes, but that is an issue for another study.  Any terrorist act took place in such an environment, where violence was used against the targets above and beyond the usual violent behavior normal to piracy.  For instance, Thomas Cobham was tried in 1564 (in London) for sewing 18 Spaniards from a captured prize into a spare sail and then throwing them overboard.  Such behavior was unusual and a reflection of Cobham’s inherent cruelty, though it stemmed from an overzealous effort to blend the private objective of profit with the military objective of deterring – terrorizing – future Spanish shipping in a specific area of the Atlantic.  Somali pirates have not employed such tactics, and it is doubtful they ever would; deterring targets through violence would serve primarily to dramatically cut their own income.

Piracy flourished globally over the centuries because of a lack of effective sea control by the reigning regimes, in many cases over their own nationals.  A pirate’s motivation is, of course, money, though how that money is taken from the victim varies.  During medieval and early modern times, pirates in the Mediterranean and Atlantic took hostages, holding them for ransom or selling them into slavery.  Cargo was stolen, of course, but was not the primary money-making venture.  Much of the selection of hostages had religious overtones, pitting Christians against Mahometans (as they were then referred to).  Pirates from the Ottoman Sultanate sailed as far north as Ireland, taking hundreds of thousands of Christians into slavery, which led to massive efforts throughout Europe to rescue them, primarily through payment of tribute, or the occasional use of force.  Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra was probably the most famous of such slaves to be ransomed by Catholic Trinitarian priests in 1580.

During the “golden age” of piracy (XVII and XVIII centuries) pirates preferred cargo over ransom.  Many targeted the huge volume of precious metal being shipped from the Americas to Europe and on to Asia.  The threat became so high that most shipping was required to sail in convoys, which interfered with merchants’ profit-driven interests and inconvenienced customers world-wide.  Pirates earned their fortunes by selling their prizes in ports where provenance was not questioned; privateers could sell anywhere, but found that selling in the same ports reduced their overhead by avoiding admiralty courts.

There are many solutions offered today for ending or preventing piracy, most of which have been tried at some time in the past with varying degrees of success.  Efforts to combat piracy in the XVI-XVIII centuries took many forms, in most cases very similar solutions to those discussed today – involving diplomacy, legal reform, military force, treating it as a law enforcement problem, and public/private partnerships.  But such efforts were subject to government control, working through bureaucracies that led to slow, ponderous and – usually – inflexible regulation that hindered as much as it helped.

The most prominent example of blunt force to stop piracy took place in the Indian Ocean.  Beginning in 1770, the Joasmee pirates held power over the Persian Gulf area, at one point assassinating the king of Oman to avenge his anti-piracy campaign.  Without any balancing state authority (Britain was the predominant naval power), these pirates expanded their control over all sea lanes and coastal areas between the Red Sea and India for almost 50 years.  The (new) king of Oman, the Royal Navy, and the East India Company finally joined forces to stop the violence, sending a small fleet of ships and an army of more than 7,000 men to destroy the pirates and their infrastructure.  Success came only after a multi-year concerted effort on land and at sea that forcibly destroyed the pirates’ infrastructure (the markets where they sold their prizes) as well as killing the majority of the pirates themselves.  Even then, coast guard patrols were developed, and ordered to impose severe reprisals on any Joasmee effort to re-group.  The threat finally subsided with the re-establishment of law and order by the king of Oman, who demonstrated the resolve to not let the Joasmees re-emerge as a threat to regional stability.

The global superpower of the time, Spain, led the effort, if only because its shipping was the primary target.  Surprisingly, the diplomatic effort produced the most positive results over the long term.  Spanish ambassadors actively protested individual acts of piracy;  sought to interfere with planned incursions before they left port in Europe;  lobbied for political restrictions on those who planned such incursions;  and pushed strongly for an international agreement to counter the use of privateers.  This diplomatic pressure led also the most effective tool for combating piracy, ruthless prosecution – in the sense of pursuing and destroying the perpetrators.  By signing the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, European powers agreed to take responsibility for their subjects’ behavior, irrespective of geographical location.  Piracy came to be defined as a crime against humanity, to be prosecuted by any state its practitioners were captured.  Interestingly, though, several countries still offered letters of marque to ship owners, this time to prosecute piracy.


James L. Zackrison is a former assistant professor for national security at the National Defense University. He is currently a D.Phil. candidate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University. His thesis analyzes the impact of smuggling on the 16-18th century Spanish Hapsburg dynasty’s grand strategy of empire.

Source: Sea News
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