Even if piracy may not be the oldest profession in the world, it certainly was among the first. Eighteenth and nineteenth century piracy in and around the Caribbean has been heavily romanticized in various novels and movies over the past century, but the actual act has been around for a very long time – probably ever since there was some sea plundering to be had. The word itself comes from ancient Greek, meaning “to attempt.”
Aside from people who illegally copy songs off of the internet, or those who broadcast radio shows without permission, a pirate refers to a person who engages in criminal activity while at sea; mostly stealing cargo and other valuables. With that being said, we’ll be taking a look at some of the most interesting facts about these real-life buccaneers, and see how different they were from Jack Sparrow and his crew.
10. The Sea Peoples
A group of maritime skirmishers, known to the Ancient Egyptians simply as the “Sea Peoples”, are the oldest ever pirates in recorded history, responsible for one of the most violent, sudden and culturally disruptive events in ancient times. They seem to have been a key element in the Late Bronze Age collapse of most of the east Mediterranean powers, and sparked the Greek Dark Ages that followed. The 13th century BC saw a period of relative peace and prosperity in the Aegean and Mediterranean, with many powerful kingdoms like the Mycenaeans in Greece, the Hittites in Anatolia and Syria, and the New Kingdom of Egypt and Canaan, all communicating and trading with each other.
Then, as if out of nowhere, all of it would change in a historical instant. In a timeframe of less than 100 years, between 1276 and 1178 BC, the Mycenaeans and Hittites would fall, while Egypt would be severely weakened and never again fully recover. Even though not all present-day scholars agree, it would seem that these Sea Peoples may have attacked and raided each of these kingdoms one by one, leaving little more than death and destruction in their wake. During this period, all coastal cities in Crete were abandoned, with people moving further inland, high up in the mountains. These dozens of mountainous settlements are consistent with frequent attacks coming from the sea, and people having little choice but to retreat into less hospitable regions.
Only when they reached Egypt did these Sea Peoples meet their match, with Ramses II and his two successors finally managing to defeat them. Nevertheless, Egypt too would suffer greatly and never truly recover to its former glory. With little historical and archaeological evidence available, nobody is sure from where they came from. Some speculate that the Sea Peoples originated in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), while others believe them to be from Sicily, Sardinia and Italy.
Whatever the case, their destructive presence, possibly coupled with drought and a prolonged seismic activity, caused the Greeks to revert culturally to the point of even forgetting how to write. With the exception of Athens, all coastal cities were abandoned, the population dropped significantly, and for the next several centuries they would live in small groups, following a pastoral lifestyle. This disruptive event, which marked the end of the Bronze Age in the region, gave way to the emergence of the Greek city-states that followed, and in a sense, to democracy as we know it today.
9. The Pirate Queen Teuta and the Romans
Right after defeating the Carthaginians during the First Punic War in 241 BC, Rome became the largest naval power in the west Mediterranean. However, its control of the seas was not absolute. Across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula, the Balkan Coast was home to the Illyrians and the Ardiaean Kingdom. And in charge of this kingdom was Queen Teuta. Besides enlarging their kingdom into the Greek-controlled Epirus, Corcyra (Corfu), Epidamnus and Pharus, the Illyrians were also notorious pirates, harassing and disrupting naval trade all across the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. Under Queen Teuta, Illyrian piracy intensified to the point where Rome was forced to intervene.
Concerned mostly with land conquests, the Romans weren’t eager to become the naval police of the Mediterranean. But when a shipment of grain destined for the Roman Legions was intercepted by these pirates, the Senate sent two envoys to the Queen. According to ancient sources, she disregarded the diplomats and even worse, assassinated one of them as they were preparing to leave. Hearing this news, the Romans declared war on Teuta. They sent a fleet of 200 ships and a land force of 20,000 men, taking one Illyrian settlement after another. In 227 BC she surrendered, being allowed to rule but only over a narrow region around Scodra, the kingdom’s capital. She is reported to have lived for several decades after, but what eventually happened to her is uncertain. There is an Albanian legend where, like any good pirate would, Queen Teuta hid a large treasure from the Romans, which is yet to be discovered.
8. Julius Caesar was Kidnapped by Pirates
Even if the Romans managed to somewhat halt the Illyrian pirates after they conquered the region, piracy as a whole still occurred across the Mediterranean on a regular basis. In fact Rome relied on piracy for its steady influx of slaves. But as it happens, in 75 BC while sailing the Aegean Sea, the then 25-year-old Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and held for ransom. The story is related by Plutarch, a Greek historian, who accounts the pirates asking the sum of 20 talents of silver (about 1,370 pounds, and around $600,000 in today’s silver values) for his safe return. Hearing this, Caesar strait up laughed in their faces, saying he was worth at least 50 talents, and that they should ask for as much.
Caesar then sent out his men to collect the bounty while he remained behind with his captors. While there, instead of cowering away in fear he acted as their superior, issuing orders and even reciting them poetry. He even joked around, telling them he’d hunt them down and crucify them after his release. When the ransom finally arrived some 38 days later, Caesar was set free. Immediately after, he amassed a small fleet and returned for the pirates. He found them exactly where he left them, captured them, and took back his 50 talents and all of their property as spoils of war. And in keeping with his word, he had them all crucified.
7. How Pirates Doomed the Roman Republic
If Caesar’s kidnapping wasn’t enough, Cilician pirates then decided to attack Rome’s own port city of Ostia. In 68 BC a fleet of several dozen pirate ships suddenly entered the harbor, destroyed the 19 government-owned ships there, kidnapped two traveling Roman magistrates, and sacked the port of all its goods and valuables, before setting it on fire. The flames were so big and powerful that they could be seen from Rome itself. This unexpected turn of events scared the Roman citizens beyond measure, fearing either an imminent attack or a shortage of food. Moreover, reports came in that the pirates, bolstered by their easy victory in Ostia, began ransacking villages further inland.
Feeding off of people’s fears of these pirates, the up-and-coming general and politician Pompey seized the opportunity to consolidate his power in the Republic. By having his man, tribune Aulus Gabinius, push a bill through the Senate, Pompey was given absolute authority over Rome’s armies and its treasury. With an estimated 500 warships, 120,000 infantry, and 5,000 cavalry, he then set out to destroy most of the pirate strongholds in Cilicia, Crete, Illyria and Delos. And even if thousands of these raiders were killed during Pompey’s attacks, most were given a chance of pardon by moving inland and becoming farmers. Within several months the mighty Roman general defeated the seafaring raiders, and with his following success against the Mithridates, Pompey was awarded the agnomen “Magnus,” or “the Great.”
However, this new bill, Lex Gabinia as it was called, gave too much power to the hands of a few, and ultimately spelled the end for the Roman Republic. Its resolution came soon after with Julius Caesar, who initiated the Roman Civil Wars, leaving tens of thousands of Romans dead (far more than the pirates could have slain by themselves), killing Pompey in the process, and giving way for the Roman Empire to arise.
6. St. Patrick, Ireland, and Of Course, the Pirates
Made widely popular by modern media, St. Patrick is arguably the most famous saint there is, second only to perhaps St. Peter himself. St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, as he was responsible for converting the Irish to Christianity during the 400s AD. But what most people don’t know is that he was not a native Irishman, but a Roman citizen living in Britain. His name wasn’t Patrick, either; more likely Maewyn Succat, or something of the like. He took on Patrick only when he became a priest. Even if his father was a deacon, growing up he didn’t receive any real education, a fact that would later make him feel ashamed: “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education,” he wrote in his Confessio.
However, what ultimately led him to become a patron saint was a serious case of bad luck. When he was 16 he was abducted by Irish pirates, and sold into slavery in Ireland, and to a Druid no less. He was made a sheep herder, and for the next six years living in isolation he would spend his time tending to the animals and praying. While not particularly religious, he became deeply devoted to Christianity during his captivity, as the only connection he still had with his old life.
By following the advice of a voice he heard in his dreams, in 408 AD he managed to escape by heading to the coast and boarding a ship. After three days of sailing he was reunited with his family and in around 431 AD, he was consecrated as Bishop of the Irish. He would spend the rest of his life converting the islanders to Christianity. Being intimate with the country and its pagan rituals he found ways to incorporate them into the church practices. St. Patrick is renowned for coming up with the Celtic cross, by combining both Christian and sun-worshipping symbols into it.
5. The Viking Age
Without a shadow of a doubt, Europe’s most feared and relentless pirates of the Middle Ages were the Vikings. Pushed by the harsh conditions, possibly even overpopulation and a definite lack of agricultural lands back home in Scandinavia, the Norsemen developed a society based to a large extent on raids and plunder, attacking first and talking trade later. Even the Norse word “Viking” itself translates to either pirate or warrior, being indistinguishable and meaning the same thing. Aboard their small, slender vessels, the Norse would go all around the coasts and upstream rivers, sacking, pillaging, killing and enslaving every settlement they encountered along the way. They sometimes even settled there. Only the mightiest of cities or fortresses could withstand them, in which case the Vikings would suddenly turn into peaceful traders. One such example could be seen between the Viking Rus in present-day Ukraine and the Byzantine Empire to the south.
Known ominously as the Viking Age, this period in time between the 8th to 11th centuries had seen a steep increase in Viking incursions all across Europe and beyond. In their many travels the Norsemen reached as far away as present-day Iran, across the Caspian Sea, and all the way to the northeast coast of North America. Their reign of terror would end with them becoming more and more Christianized, due to their frequent contacts with other European nations. Nevertheless, the most reliable accounts we have about them don’t come from the Europeans or the Norsemen themselves, but from Arab emissaries sent up north. Since the Christians had an innate fear and hatred towards them, and the Vikings only had runes to write with, the Arabs were the only ones far enough away to not worry about their raids, but still so close as to get in direct contact.
4. Koxinga, a Pirate Turned National Hero in both China and Taiwan
Even though the Mediterranean was without question the most pirate-infested body of water up until the 19th century, that doesn’t mean that buccaneering wasn’t common in other parts of the world as well. One such instance can be found in China during the 17th century, around the period of a dynastical overthrow when the Qing succeeded the Ming. During this period of war and turmoil, one man by the name of Zheng Chenggong, or more commonly known here in the West as Koxinga, became the fiercest supporter and leader of the resistance in favor of the Ming Dynasty. Born to a Japanese mother and a Chinese father, part trader and part pirate, Koxinga was enrolled into the Imperial Academy of Learning at Nanjing in 1644. That same year the Qing rose to power, and both he and his father retreated to Fujian, the stronghold of the Ming resistance, on the southeast coast.
When Fujian was finally captured by the Qing, the Ming pretender to the throne was killed and Koxinga’s own father turned sides. Nevertheless, Zheng Chenggong vowed to restore the Mings, even disregarding his father’s orders to renounce his lost cause. Over the next 12 years, while the Qings were busy with larger Ming remnants in the southwest, Koxinga managed to build a strong position on the Fujian coast, across the strait from Taiwan, and harass the Qings at every occasion. Even though he received numerous other offers of rank and power from the Qing, as well as his father, Koxinga maintained his position. In a daring offensive he gathered 100,000 men and sailed up the Yangtze River, initially achieving remarkable success. However, after breaching the capital city’s first line of defense, a fatal strategic error led to an overwhelming defeat.
Still unbeatable while at sea, Koxinga retreated back to his stronghold at Fuijian, and from there in 1661, together with 25,000 troops, expelled the Dutch from their colony on the nearby island of Taiwan. The Dutch were allowed to leave safely along with their personal belongings. After installing an effective civil administration on the island, Koxinga devised new military plans of expansion. They went unfulfilled, however, when he died unexpectedly in 1662. His son took up his reins and led the resistance for another 20 years. After his death, however, the Qing invaded the island in 1683.
Even though he was once their most feared enemy, the Qing court recognized Koxinga as an outstanding example of loyalty and in 1875 they built him a temple in Taiwan. In Japan he became the subject theatrical plays, being regarded as a national “Othello” of sorts. Thanks to the mercy he showed to the Dutch, Zheng Chenggong became one of the very few Chinese historical figures to bear a Latinized name. With the rise of nationalism in the early 20th century China, Koxinga was again put in front as one of the country’s heroes in his fight against the imperial power, the Qings. Later he became a national hero for Communist China as a victor against Western (Dutch) imperialism, and in Taiwan for his determination to restore proper Chinese rule.
3. The Barbary Corsairs and the Knights Hospitaller
By the 16th and 17th centuries, Empires had become global, but the Mediterranean was still a hotbed for sea incursions. Most historians go as far as calling this time period as the Golden Age of Piracy. This was also a time of power shifting around the Mediterranean basin. Once the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the Portuguese began exploring the world’s oceans starting in 1419, the Mediterranean lost much of its seafaring importance in world affairs. But trade and especially looting were still in abundance. In this period of turmoil, as Venice too lost much of its influence, four large pirate groups emerged. First were the Uskoks, a group of Croatian refugees stationed in Dalmatia (a.k.a. Illyria), and who harassed both Venetian and Ottoman vessels wherever they found them. Next were the English and the Dutch, who by this time were world empires in their own right, and saw banditry in the Mediterranean as a supplement to their other international activities.
And then there were the Barbary Corsairs. Operating from the northwest coast of Africa, these Muslim marauders took advantage of the weakened control Christians now had over the “inland sea.” They began raiding coastal settlements and ships, mostly in the Western Mediterranean; so much so that at their height in the 17th century almost all coastal villages in Europe were abandoned. They also began operating in the Atlantic at this time, reaching as far away as Iceland and the Netherlands. Besides plundering for goods, they also excelled at taking slaves. Though incomparable in size to the Transatlantic Slave trade happening at the same time, over 1.25 million Europeans were taken into bondage.
The final pirate group here was none other than the Holy Order of Saint John, or more commonly known as the Knights Hospitaller. Contrary to popular belief these Knights’ main occupation was that of plundering and enslaving the Eastern Mediterranean. Sometimes accompanied by another group of bandits, the Order of Saint Stephen, these “holy orders” were a spitting image of the Barbary Corsairs, but against Muslims. Operating from Malta since 1530, the Knights Hospitaller had a considerably smaller fleet than the Arab corsairs, but nevertheless, their ships were the best equipped in the whole Mediterranean. They also employed many privateers, mostly from Italy and France, to raid and enslave Muslims on their behalf. Even to this day, the order is mostly seen as a humanitarian organization, keeping the sea safe from piracy, but in reality they were the “sea wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
2. The Origins of the Pirate Eyepatch
It’s almost a guarantee for people to associate eyepatches with pirates. But eyepatches weren’t a “pirate trait,” at least up until the 1800s. This doesn’t mean that pirates weren’t losing an eye now and again, especially with the life they were leading. But up until the early 19th century nobody ever mentioned it. The first pirate to have ever been described as wearing an eyepatch, a trait that would forever be attributed to this particular profession, was none other than the infamous Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah. Who? “The most successful and the most generally tolerated pirate, perhaps that ever infested any sea,” according to James Silk Buckingham, an English contemporary, author, journalist and traveler.
Rahmah lived through a period of English domination of the Persian Gulf, in which most of the nations and tribes living throughout the region fought against each other for control and survival, as well as engaging in piracy around the coast. In fact, the region between Khasab and Bahrain was known to the English as “The Pirate Coast” as early as the 17th century. His life and actions were based on opposing the Al Khalifa clan, now ruling family of Bahrain. He died in 1826 aboard his ship while fighting against his longtime enemies. Instead of surrendering when his ship was being boarded by Al Khalifa soldiers, he decided to light the gunpowder kegs, killing everyone on the ship, his 8-year-old son included.
1. The Pirate City
No pirate list can ever be complete without at least once mentioning the Pirates of the Caribbean… the real pirates of the Caribbean. And the best way to talk about them is to take a look at “the wickedest city on earth.” That’s right, pirates had their own city: Port Royal, in Jamaica. For over a century and a half, the Spanish held almost total control over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Throughout this time they transported riches from the Americas to Spain, almost unencumbered. The British were obviously jealous and desired above all else to replace the Spanish, or at least to hinder them as much as possible. That’s why they hired privateers. Privateers were basically pirates, but in the service of the Queen.
In any case, the English decided to take over the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) in 1655, failed, and then decided to take Jamaica instead. On its southern coast they built Port Royal, which by the end of the century became the largest European city in the New World, second only to Boston. It was also home to all of those pirates and privateers that attacked the Spanish. And the city was world renowned for its lewdness and overall “wicked behavior.” It is said that one in four buildings was either a tavern or a brothel. It is also said that within just seven years of Port Royal’s establishment, so much gold and silver poured into its coffers through piracy that there was more cash there in proportion to its population than in London. The city was so cosmopolitan that one could find anything the world could offer; from slaves to distant Asian works of art.
Then in 1692 a terrible earthquake hit the town with such a force that it almost completely destroyed it. Built largely over sand, Port Royal instantly suffered from liquefaction, with buildings, roads, and citizens sucked into the ground. The catastrophe was so large and devastating, many believed it was a punishment from God. Today most of the pirate city is under 40 feet of water, and is a Unesco World Heritage site. Who knows what treasures may lie beneath the waves there?