How the Menace of Piracy Was Eradicated

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Pirates

By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In the 18th century, piracy was effectually cured by keeping up a wholesome state of war. This was so that the privateers would remain busy enough to maintain the decent appearance of virtue, most of the time. In just one example, the North American Continental Congress commissioned some 2,500 privateers to assist in the rebellion against the British. Predictably, they found themselves stuck with a pirate problem when the war was over, as they struggled to find the considerable resources for setting up a regular navy.

An oil painting depictting decatur boarding the Tripolitan gunboat during bombardment.
The pasha of Tripolitania declared war when president Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the demanded tribute in exchange for freedom from attacks by corsairs and US shipping. (Image: Dennis Malone Carter/Public domain)

Capitalistic Post-Napoleonic Era

For Guy Chet, what actually worked in driving down piracy was increasing free trade policies. Lower prices and more open commerce, which became possible in the capitalistic post-Napoleonic era, drove down the profitability of the kind of international black market activity that had made piracy worthwhile. Most pirate booty was not treasure or money, but goods and prisoners that the pirates needed to sell.

Besides turning to capitalism, there are other semi-peaceful solutions to piracy. Pardons can work, but can also be subject to major recidivism. The 1717 to 1718 offer of amnesty to pirates, the so called ‘Act of Grace’ authorized by King George I, and delivered by Woodes Rogers, did bring many of the pirates into the fold of legality, although sometimes temporarily.

A painting showing King George I.
King George I had authorized the offer of amnesty to pirates, the so called ‘Act of Grace’. (Image: GeorgeIofGreatBritain/Public domain)

Acts of Amnesty

Unlike the successful Chinese acts of amnesty, which incorporated pirates into military service, or allowed them to hold on to their profits in setting up a new life on land, this one did not clearly provide for the pirates to retain their ill-gotten gains. For many of those who didn’t have a lot of ill-gotten gains, amnesty looked preferable to death by hanging.

And yet again, it was a deal breaker for some of the most successful pirates, Rovers and Vein being the obvious case in point. Other pirates returned to the account once they drunk through their pocket money, or had difficulty finding employment, or in Racheal’s case, got involved in messy relationship drama.

It certainly helps reduce the pirate population, if, in addition to rehabilitating the pirates, the state stops creating them in the first place. Peter Lair has posited that, while the era of free trade has mattered enormously, the single most important action in eradicating piracy is to stop using privateers, period.

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

Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law

Privateering was outlawed by a group of 55 nations in 1856, in what was called, the Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law. Although some major powers, including the US and China, refused to sign on, most have largely abided by the agreement even so. During the US Civil War, the Confederacy issued letters of marque. Abraham Lincoln, initially ordered that such privateers be treated as pirates, but under international pressure, had to reverse course, and recognize them as different from the hostis humani generis.

Another solution to dealing with the violence of piracy, if not the fact itself, is to use diplomacy, to cut out the middle steps. This was a fairly successful tactic for coping with Barbary production. Most of the European nations interested in Mediterranean trade negotiated treaties, or tried to with the major powers like Algiers, Tunis, and Morocco. In this way the government simply bought protection for their shipping, by paying an agreed upon sum, obviating the necessity for the unpleasant hostage taking part of the process. But, as with acts of amnesty, diplomatic solutions to piracy could be unreliable.

These treaties were often broken, or needed re-negotiation, and so every now and then, Europeans would include a coastal bombardment, as an encouragement to anti-piracy measures. And, indeed, the problem was worsened by the wrinkle that European states were often encouraging the Barbary powers to break their words with others.

The First Barbary War

After 1776, the new bond, cash strapped United States discovered that Britain was no longer offering protection to shipping, to and from its former colonies. The new states would have to negotiate their own understandings. Long story short, this is how the hem of the US Marine Corps comes to include a line about ‘the shores of Tripoli’.

Yusuf Karamanli, the pasha of Tripolitania, and present-day Libya, demanded tribute from the US in exchange for freedom from attacks by corsairs and US shipping. When President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay, the pasha declared war, a conflict that came to be known as, the First Barbary War.

Ultimately, the war was decided when parties agreed to a treaty with more modest terms. And yet, it was not until 1816, the end of the Second Barbary War, that the European and American states stopped fighting each other long enough to concentrate on really reducing the agency of the corsairs. After the 1827 battle of Navarino Bay and the 1830 French invasion of Algiers, however, corsairs gradually ceased to be a major factor in Mediterranean shipping.

Gunpowder Empires

The Mogul, Ottoman, and Safavid states were economic powers to be reckoned with through the end of the 18th century. But the rise of the major European empires came at the expense of these so called gunpowder empires, a term that is itself of European, imposition.

Widespread European, especially British and French imperialism, came along with the advent of steam technology at sea, meaning that state sponsored piracy was running out of sponsors. And the true stateless pirates, always a minority to begin with, had few safe havens to shelter him.

In conclusion, though small-scale piracy persists to this day, large, organized pirate operations have few resources. And one way or another, just like in the story of Alexander the Great, or the Pirates of Penzance, in the end, all the pirates end up working for the government.

Common Questions about Eradicating Piracy

Q: What was the impact of the ‘Act of Grace’?

The so called ‘Act of Grace’ brought many of the pirates into the fold of legality.

Q: What did the Chinese acts of amnesty allow?

The successful Chinese acts of amnesty incorporated pirates into military service, or allowed them to hold on to their profits in setting up a new life on land.

Q: When did corsairs cease to be a major factor in Mediterranean shipping?

After the 1827 battle of Navarino Bay and the 1830 French invasion of Algiers, corsairs gradually ceased to be a major factor in Mediterranean shipping.

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