How European Powers Started and Ended the Era of Pirates


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In 1799, Napoleon seized control of France, and during a short-lived peace between European powers, attempted to reestablish control in Haiti. Napoleon would finally concede defeat in Haiti in 1804, but war again broke out in Europe, and Napoleon, open about his imperial plans, occupied Spain in 1808, which gave an opening to the Spanish Latin American colonies to revolt against European control.

Portrait of Napoleon in Elba
Napoleon’s exile to Elba led to European powers funding privateers to prey upon European shipping. (Image: Joseph Beaume/Public domain)

They Started It

The new Latin American governments began augmenting their navies with privateers to fend off and prey upon European shipping. 

Good Mariners were available on the cheap after 1815 when Napoleon was permanently exiled to Elba and naval forces began to stand down all over. Further, privateers would sometimes try to hold commissions from multiple governments if possible, so as to have as many potential targets as possible. This is how, in the early 19th century, you ended up with privateers from Louisiana, operating out of Texas, Mexico, and Cuba.

You can probably predict what happened next. While at first the privateers followed their commissions, the more chaotic and crowded the corsairing field grew, the more neutral vessels were preyed upon as well. By 1818 or 1820, there was a pretty bad Atlantic pirate problem going on as a direct result of European imperial ambitions and their frustration.

Pirates and mutineers threatened the Baltimore coastline, they were based once again in the Caribbean, in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. They had names like the Diabolito and Cofresi, particularly frightening to the race of Europeans with the Haitian privateers, who were often black or mixed-race mutineers. 

The Image of Pirates

Why it is better to be tortured or killed by white than black or Latino pirates, is not clear at this distance. But the notion of black pirates was portrayed in white media as especially terrifying. These were the pirates who, according to newspaper accounts, sometimes employed walking the plank as a terroristic weapon.

Illustration of a battle between pirates and Dutch navy
The situation of pirates existing as a local threat to European powers didn’t last so long. (Image: Mary Harrsch/Public domain)

Some historians, such as Peter Earl, argue that the 19th-century pirates were more consistently cruel and murderous than their ancestors. This is debatable. All pirates steal people’s valuables and employ torture when they can’t find enough of them. But they were depicted this way in news media and by politicians seeking resources to address their depredations. 

Lurid stories of pirates hanging their victims up by their intestines, as the Nile’s Weekly Register claimed in 1821, were more likely to sell than stories of pirates who stole everyone’s money and shoes and ate all the food, then set them free. Also, the big marine insurance houses like Lloyd’s of London had gotten much better at tracking and centralizing information about pirates. So, it was in general, easier for the public to track the scale and frequency of attacks.

This heightened attention is why so many pirates in 20th-century movies seem to have giant mustaches and Spanish accents, those that don’t have British West country accents, that is, are a general American cultural memory of the Cuban pirates who launched raids from their coastal land bases and were protected by local politicians and merchants.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The World against Pirates

Meanwhile, back in the Mediterranean, the long Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire had begun in 1821. Small-scale Greek piracy among the islands already had a long history, because the lion’s share of Greek piracy was directed against Ottoman shipping, the Greeks were willing to regard it as patriotic, much the way that the British had long admired their anti-Spanish cruisers. And since Western European nations generally favored Greek independence, the Greek pirates met with little determined opposition from elsewhere either.

At the start of the war predictably, many of these pirates joined the naval and legal privateering forces. Several years into it, however, the Greek navy suffered supply problems and began to fail, particularly once Egypt sent naval reinforcements to the Ottomans. At this point, the pirates went a bit wild, attacking British, French, Italian, and any other ships in their pathways.

They brought the stolen goods back to their various island communities, which helped to protect them from hunters. Travel became all but impossible, except in large armed convoys. Rumors of beating, torture and sexual assaults against piratical prisoners began to circulate as well. The backdrop was, after all, an extraordinarily violent war.

The End of Piracy as a Real Threat

A vintage map of the Mediterranean sea
As the pirates went wild, European powers didn’t let the situation get out of hand and put an end to piracy in the Mediterranean. (Image: Richard William Seale/Public domain)

However, the situation did not last long. The Western European presence in the Mediterranean was different from what had been a century and more before. Malta had been under British control since 1800, and as a result of both imperial expansion and Napoleonic wars, Britain and France now kept a considerable naval presence in the Mediterranean waters. 

In the battle of Navarino, in 1827, a joint force of British, French, and Russian ships massacred the Ottoman Fleet. In the 19th century, most British encounters with piracy would thereafter take place in the far east, pirates were no longer remotely a local threat.

Common Questions about How European Powers Started and Ended the Era of Pirates

Q: How did piracy change after Napoleon was exiled to Elba?

Privateers would try to hold multiple commissions at the same time, attacking the enemies of European powers. As the number of enemies grew things got complicated. Because of the high number of privateers and crew, many neutral vessels were being attacked in the Atlantic. The pirate problem got worse.

Q: Why do pirates have giant mustaches and Spanish accents in 20th-century movies?

When pirates were becoming a huge problem in the Atlantic for the European powers, the media showed black pirates as somehow more terrifying. Even some historians believed that 19th-century pirates were more vicious than their predecessors. The Spanish accents and giant mustaches are part of a giant American cultural memory of Cuban pirates.

Q: How did 19th-century piracy in the Mediterranean end?

In the 19th century, European powers were present in the Mediterranean. Because of different historical events. Both Britain and France had a considerable amount of navies in the Mediterranean. Their fleets managed to make sure that piracy would no longer be a local threat and only cause problems in the far east.

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