Were Pirate Forces a Real Threat to Governments?


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

About the subject of pirates, there are two main ways in which history intersects with imperial ambition. One is that they’re used as proxies for nations trying to dispute each other’s colonial prowess or expansionist goals. The other lies in the fabled idea that pirate forces might grow to become a serious threat to the nations that had birthed them. These two lines of narrative often intersect.

Pirate flag, sword and gun on a wooden background
When pirates would morph into larger organized groups that set their sights on a home base, it was not welcome news to the imperialists around them. (Image: Popksr Studio/Shutterstock)

Pirate Forces against the Roman Empire

We’ll start with an example of the second more dubious notion. Captain Johnson’s A General History of The Pyrates uses his introduction to repeat a famous story from Plutarch about how Mediterranean pirates, their ranks swelled by war refugees, grew to threaten the Roman Empire until Pompeii patriotically suppressed them. 

While Rome was busy having civil wars, the pirates built fortifications, diversified their fleet, and enlarged it with thousand glorious scallions with purple sails, and silver ores. He’s also a description of something akin to plank walking. Whenever the pirates captured a Roman, General History asserts, “They hung out the ladder of the ship, and coming with a show of courtesy, told him he had his liberty, desiring him to walk out of the ship, and this in the middle of the sea.” Then they tossed him overboard.

The Real Danger of Pirates

Mosaic of a Roman ship
Some accounts suggest that Roman fleets had to contend with the threat of piracy that existed at Rome’s doorstep. (Image: Mathiasrex/Public domain)

Interesting atrocities aside, the warning being given here, is that “While Rome was mistress of the world, she suffered insults, and affronts almost at her gates from these powerful robbers,” until Pompey raises a forest to crush them. Actually, what Pompey did was take away their ships, and execute some. But he offered many of the pirates, amnesty and resettled them in areas of the Roman outskirts that needed more human capital. 

Captain Johnson concludes that, “This is proof of how dangerous it is to governments to be negligent, and not take an early care in suppressing the sea banditti, before they gather strength.” The thing is, of course, that individual acts of piracy happen all the time, and are committed by rogue parties from all nations, often during the course of more sanctioned warfare, or police actions. 

Inevitably, pirates as individual agents, and small groups have been key forces in both propagating and resisting imperial powers. But on the occasions that pirates start to morph into larger organized groups, that set their sights on a home base, it’s not welcome news to the imperialists around them.

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

Life of a Pirate

We like to think of pirates as swimming atop piles of golden treasure, and jewels, that might have supported greater ambitions, and perhaps some pirates like to think this way as well. But the reality of most piracy was that it was much more quotidian, much more about day-to-day existence, than this. The proverbial short and merry life wasn’t typical. 

Image of a treasure chest with jewelry in it
Contrary to popular belief, a pirate’s life wasn’t just sitting on a treasure chest. In fact, it was far from it. (Image: Grafvision/Shutterstock)

As Mark Hanna, a historian who argues for piracy as an engine of imperial expansion has put it, “English piracy was not tied to stateless renegade sailors, but to England’s initial attempts to expand the state westward.” The state didn’t have the juice, or the will to support its colonies without the infusion of money, materials, and human prisoners, supplied by the pirates who vested them away from the Spaniards.

From the 16th century onwards, piracy for Europeans was a fact of life at edges and boundaries, port towns, colonies, and the emergence of the empire. In these places, merchants and market conditions, which relied heavily on protectionist policies and monopolies, encouraged piracy. Piracy is a short-term, locally oriented solution to bad market conditions, and one that has major opportunity costs. But it’s only profitable if land-based societies will go along with it. Pirates need harbors.

In the early modern period, it was not the pirates who set up the conditions under which piracy flourished. That was the governments and the merchants. Building empires necessitated legal and moral flexibility.

The Dark Truth behind Piracy

Another reason that we like to imagine pirates as hoarding gold instead of selling newly Calicos, and other commodities like, common unromantic merchants is that the myth of the treasure chest allows us to avoid coming to terms with an unavoidable fact, namely, that enslaved people were one of the most common, and most popular commodities that pirates stole. 

That first 1562 voyage with John Hawkins and Francis Drake, the trip that happened before they were even really considered pirates, involved not only capturing black people but also capturing so many that they also had to steal a Portuguese ship to hold them all in.

The growing 18th-century resistance to pirates came about because pirate incursions were threatening the bottom lines of England’s big colonial corporations, instead of just annoying those of rivals. They also encouraged the independence of colonial cultures. The home government had to learn to break apart the interests of pirates, and others who lived on the edges of European influence before it would become possible to suppress deep-sea piracy.

Common Questions about Pirate Forces, a Threat to Governments

Q: How did Pompeii deal with the pirates that threatened the Roman Empire?

To deal with the pirate forces, Pompeii took away their vessels and executed some of them. But most of the pirates were offered amnesty and a chance to settle in areas of the Roman outskirts with low human capital.

Q: How was the everyday life of a pirate different from what we imagine?

Even though we might think of those who were part of pirate forces sitting on chests of treasure and leading merry lives, the truth was far from it. Pirates led day-to-day lives always living on the edge both figuratively and literally.

Q: What is the relation between piracy and slavery?

The most common and most popular commodity that pirates sold were enslaved people. The first pirates who enslaved black people weren’t even considered pirate forces when they committed these atrocious acts.

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