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A captured Spaniard bows before Welsh privateer Sir Henry Morgan as Morgan and his men sack the city of Panama in the 1670s. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Pirate bands have existed since human beings first began ocean voyages. And the public's romantic view of pirates existed long before Hollywood movies.

The pirates of the Caribbean made money for a writer using the pen name Captain Charles Johnson, when his book, A General History of Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, was published in London in 1724. The account of famous pirates, including Henry Morgan and William Kidd, became a bestseller. 

And 200 years before that, both Christian and Muslim chroniclers told the stories of pirates from both faiths, sometimes allies, sometimes enemies, who conducted raids across the Mediterranean in the 16th century.

What is a pirate?

The words "pirate" and "piracy" don not necessarily pertain to crime on the high seas. Whether someone is a pirate can depend on the point of view.

One of the most famous cases of clashing definitions involves Sir Francis Drake, considered a hero by the English after he was given free rein by Queen Elizabeth I to harass the Spanish. To the Spanish, of course, Drake and other English captains were pirates.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, governments would, in effect, privatize naval operations by granting captains letters of marque, or licences to raid enemy shipping. Often the privateers would exceed the instructions from their government and turn to general targets, thus becoming pirates. Capt. William Kidd was originally a privateer, until, like the fictional Capt. Jack Sparrow in the Disney movies, he ran afoul of the East India Company.

Other pirates, like today's Somali pirates, came from failed states, societies disrupted by war or natural disaster, or just poor coastal regions. They turned pirate for economic survival and then, when successful, became greedy criminals. Ancient Illyria, part of the modern Balkans, ran pirate raids on Italy and Greece for generations, before being conquered by Rome. A significant number of the pirates of the Caribbean were escaped slaves from the islands and from the colonies of southern North America.

Ancient pirates

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A replica of a Greek galley, built for the Warner Brothers movie production Troy, lies at anchor in Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, in the north of Malta, on May 13, 2003. ((Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters))

The ancient Phoenicians and Greeks were among the first seafarers and also the first recorded pirates. Trading missions would often take advantage of targets of opportunity and conduct raids for slaves and loot. Homer calls Odysseus a "sack of cities" and both his Iliad and Odyssey mention raids on coastal towns.

The most famous pirates of the ancient world were the Cilician pirates, based on what is now the southeast coast of Turkey. The Cilicians managed to control much of the eastern Mediterranean during the first century BC, a time when the Roman republic was wracked by civil war.

Rome's first attempt to take on the pirates was a disaster. A fleet under the command of Marcus Antonius, the father of Mark Antony, was defeated off Cydonia, Crete, and the senior Marcus Antonius died in a pirate prison.

The Cilicians are remembered for a famous hostage they held for ransom, a young Julius Caesar, captured in 75 BC and held on the island of Pharamacusa. Legend says the pirates demanded a ransom of 20 talents, but Caesar said it wasn't enough and suggested they raise the ransom to 50 talents. After the ransom was paid, Caesar led a campaign to take the pirate base and captured and executed the pirates.

That wasn't enough and in 67 BC, the Roman senate appointed the man who would later be Caesar's political rival to command a naval expedition to crush the pirates. Pompey offered an amnesty to many of the pirates who surrendered. Pompey's navy swept the eastern Mediterranean for those who didn't take the amnesty, finally forcing the remaining pirates to their stronghold of Coracesium, now Alyana in Turkey, where Pompey destroyed the fleet and took the clifftop fortress. Pompey's victory consolidated Rome's hold on the Mediterranean.

Corsairs and Barbary pirates

The struggle between Christians and Muslims for control of the Mediterranean brought piracy along with war.

The collapse of Byzantine naval power in the 12th century left a vacuum that was filled by trading city states such as Venice and Genoa, feuding barons and sultans and small independent groups of both Christians and Muslims that often turned to piracy, looking for slaves or loot.

By the 15th century, the constant threat of piracy in the Mediterranean stifled trade and left people along the coasts in fear of slave raids. The two great powers of the era — the Habsburgs, who ruled much of Europe, and the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East — often used pirates as proxies, just as the powers of the late 20th century used guerilla movements in modern proxy wars.

The main pirate bases were along the Barbary Coast, today parts of Morocco and Algeria, named for the Berber people who lived in the region.

Thousands of Muslims expelled from Spain by the "reconquest" who resettled in North Africa, then allied with the Berbers, turned pirate and raided the Iberian Peninsula for both loot and revenge. The Spanish retaliated by attempting to conquer the northwest coast of Africa and with their own pirate raids.

Although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, the North African corsairs, as they were known, were, in reality, independent and looking after their own interests.

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The pirate Barbarossa, also known as Redbeard, is seen in a 1510 etching copied from a painting by Valaquez. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images))

 The most famous pirate of the era was Barbarossa Haydreddin, the Barbarossa nickname coming from his red beard. His heritage was European, his father a Janissary, the slave warriors of the Ottoman Empire. Barbarossa was born on the Greek island of Mytilene and eventually rose to be the ruler of Algiers. Barbarossa's ships were feared across the Mediterranean, especially after a series of raids on Italy in the 1530s, in which he looted towns and took thousands of slaves. (The romance of piracy is international; today a Turkish ferry is named for Barbarossa.)

His protégé and successor, Turget Reis (also known as Dragut), was born a Christian on the Aegean coast of Turkey and converted to Islam when he joined the Ottoman army at age 12. He soon rose to become one of the Ottoman Empire's greatest admirals, defeating a European fleet commanded by the Genoese Admiral Andrea Dorea at the battle of Preveza in 1538. Turget was also a major slave trafficker, capturing the population of the Maltese island of Gozo, and then taking another 7,000 slaves in a raid on southern Italy and 7,000 in a raid on Corsica.

The Christian rivals to the corsairs and Barbary pirates were the Knights of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, an order of crusaders also known as the Hospitalers. The Hospitalers were driven out of Jerusalem in 1291 and first retreated to Cyprus, before taking over the island of Rhodes for the next two centuries. From that base, the once holy order raided shipping and coast towns. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the Christian pirates on Rhodes refused to pay tribute and were driven from the island in 1522. The Habsburgs then granted the Hospitalers the island of Malta (in return for the tribute of the Maltese falcons, a legend that also pre-dates Hollywood).

The era of the pirate grand admirals faded, but raids along the North African coast continued. European and later American ships were intercepted entering the Mediterranean, their crews and passengers taken as slaves. Barbary pirates also raided across the Mediterranean and sometimes as far north as England and Iceland.

The European powers were becoming more powerful but, distracted by their own rivalry, did little to control the pirates, with the exception of the occasional punitive raids.

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A U.S. navy warship captures an Algerian corsair in the 1801-05 war with Barbary (Tripolitan) pirates. The pirates demanded protection money from all ships and the U.S. decided to go to war to release their hold on the area. ((MPI/Getty Images))

The Barbary pirates demanded their usual tribute from the new United States, seized American ships and turned U.S. sailors into slaves. Congress refused to pay ransom but later, fed up, the politicians passed the Naval Act of 1794 and ordered new frigates to take on the pirates. The U.S. fought two wars along the Barbary Coast, from 1801 to 1805 and again in 1815, and the role of the U.S. Marine Corps in those wars became part of the marine hymn, when it mentions "the shore of Tripoli."

The Hospitalers continued their piracy — and wars against Muslim forces — until 1798, when Napoleon took the island of Malta from the order. The British captured the island from the French two years later.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars freed up Europe's navies to take on pirates. In 1816, a combined Dutch and British force bombarded Algiers. The British Royal Navy repeated the bombardment in 1824. But piracy did not really abate until the French began their conquest of North Africa in 1830.

Pirates in east Asia

East Asia has also been a notorious area for piracy, ranging from the coast of China to the Strait of Malacca, still known for piracy today.

In the 13th to the 16th centuries, pirates from Japan known as Wokou raided the Korean coast and sometimes China.

From the 17th to the 20th centuries, during the Qing dynasty (also known as the Manchu or Ching dynasty), as China became weaker, its economy stalled and it came under pressure from European nations, piracy became rampant on the country's coasts. Pirates based in what is now Fujian and Guangdong provinces raided coastal junks carrying trade and passengers and occasionally dared to take on European ships.

The Qing pirates reached the heights of their power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries with a pirate confederacy that boasted a fleet of junks and more than 1,000 sailors who controlled parts of the south China coast from about 1800 to the 1820s, when a revitalized imperial navy crippled the pirates' operations.

Like the ancient Mediterranean, the narrow Strait of Malacca, between what is now Malaysia and Sumatra, has been plagued by piracy from the time human beings first began to sail.

The narrow strait has always been a choke point for shipping, and piracy is a problem there, even in the 21st century. Ships laden with spices and other goods, first traded between India, Southeast Asia and China, were always tempting to local villagers and later organized pirate gangs and local governments. Just like the pirates of the Mediterranean, states and empires often used pirates as a navy, allies or proxies.

The first major group of pirates in the Malaccan region came from a Mongol fleet (with crews mainly from southern China) defeated off Java in the late 13th century. The survivors settled along the coasts of Malaysia, Sumatra and Java, becoming allies and intermarrying with local people who had been pirates for centuries.

The Strait of Malacca and most of the South China Sea were a dangerous place from the 15th century well into the 19th century. In addition to pirates from Malaysia and Malacca, there were pirate gangs operating from the islands of Borneo and Sulwasi. The rewards for piracy grew as European ships came seeking spices. Some were also motivated by resistance to European colonization.

By the mid-19th century, the two colonial powers in the region, Great Britain and the Netherlands, had used their navies to control, if not eliminate, the pirate bands.

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A Thai coast guard ship, centre, is followed by a Malaysian police amphibious assault unit's boat, below, and a Japanese coast guard helicopter on an operation against a pirate ship during a joint anti-piracy exercise in February 2007. ((Andy Wong/Associated Press))

In the late 20th century, with the retreat of the colonial powers, wars of national liberation and other conflicts, piracy made a resurgence in the Strait of Malacca and among the islands of Indonesia. Modern boats, communications and weapons aided the pirates in their work, with attacks peaking around 2001. Since then, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and India have used police and naval forces to crack down on the pirates and attacks on shipping have dropped. However, pirates are allied with organized crime and possibly militant groups. Indonesia maintains it is almost impossible to police all of its thousands of islands in the search for pirates.

Pirates of the Caribbean

Piracy in the Caribbean has long been the source of romantic histories, novels, plays and movies — and in the late 20th century, theme parks and action figures.

Early pirates in the Caribbean were Elizabethan sailors who harassed Spanish treasure fleets. Men like Francis Drake and John Hawkins often worked with the approval of their governments. (It is said that Elizabeth I was a stockholder in some of the expeditions).  

The motivation for the raids were many and complex: resentment by European powers that the Pope had given Spain and Portugal a monopoly over the Americas; conflict between Catholics and Protestants; demand for new land from both aristocrats and common folk of Europe; and the attraction of the huge amounts of gold and silver that the Spanish had looted from the aboriginal civilizations of Central and South America.

Early attacks on gold fleets prompted the Spanish crown to order the ships to form convoys, called flota, and each year a convoy weighted with gold, silver, jewels and more ordinary commodities would sail from Veracuz, Panama or Havana, a tempting target for English and Dutch ships during their wars with the Spanish.

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Capt. Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, became feared as he plundered the coasts of the West Indies, North Carolina and Virginia. His hair is woven with flaming fuses to increase his fearsome appearance. ((Hulton Archive/Getty Images))

 As aboriginal people in Central and South America died from imported diseases, the Spanish turned to the African slave trade to get labour for their mines and plantations, and this lucrative trade so became so profitable that piracy in the Caribbean diminished for the next half century.

War and social disruption brought the revival of piracy in about 1660. The time remembered as the Golden Age of Piracy, with captains like Edward Teach, also known as Blackbeard, lasted just 10 years, from 1715 to 1725. Other famous captains of the era were Henry Morgan, Charles Vane, Bartholomew Roberts and two women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

In the late 17th century, the European powers, especially England, privatized naval operations by granting letters of marque to captains, giving them the power, as private citizens, to raid enemy shipping. Often the temptation was too much and privateers would go after any target that could provide a profit. The rise of new colonies also brought to the Caribbean independent men and women who would strike out on their own.

Henry Morgan was a transitional figure between the older privateer pirates like Drake and his more criminal successors. Morgan led privateering on behalf of England against the Spanish for about 30 years. His most famous exploit was leading an expedition through the jungle to attack the city of Panama in 1670. Morgan was rewarded with an estate on Jamaica and became the island's governor, dying a respected citizen.

The War of Spanish Succession, from 1701 to 1714, which was fought both in Europe and the New World, resulted in thousands of men volunteering or being pressed into naval service. Ships that traded between Europe and the New World would have to be on the lookout for enemy naval vessels or privateers. Sometimes those merchant vessels would also become privateers.     

The end of that war suddenly left hundreds of experienced sailors and officers without much to do, and often with no desire to go home to Europe, a taste for adventure and a greed for gold. At the same time, some English and Scottish pirates were former allies of the lost Stuart cause against the Georgian rulers of the United Kingdom. The freedom offered by pirates attracted runaway slaves from the islands and the plantations of the English and Spanish colonies. Some estimates say as many as one-quarter or one-third of the pirate crews were former slaves or indentured servants — and generally, pirates did not discriminate on the basis of race in crewing their ships.

In the years after the war, the officers and crews who turned pirate quickly became a power in the Caribbean, taking over and ruling the main islands of the Bahamas as their main base. The pirates, as depicted in the movies, were much more democratic than the authoritarian navies of the day, another attraction for both naval and merchant sailors. Captains and officers were elected and often deposed if they didn't measure up.

The continuing disruption of trade between Europe and North America, the capture and ransoming of well-off passengers (and the desertion of poorer passengers as well as crew to the pirates) brought political pressure to control the pirates, just as their attacks were becoming more and more brazen, with pirate ships blockading ports in the colony of South Carolina and raiding the Leeward Islands and as far north as Massachusetts and Newfoundland.

The one Royal Navy ship that tried to control piracy, the 22-gun frigate HMS Seaford, withdrew because, as its captain reported, the ship was in danger of being overwhelmed by superior pirate forces.

Even then, pirates were regarded as folk heroes. In some cases, juries would not convict, towns looked the other way during jailbreaks, and ships were given safe haven in ports.

But the excesses of Edward Teach — Blackbeard — turned the tide. With his 200-tonne ship the Queen Anne's Revenge and smaller vessels, his raids and terror tactics went too far and, at least in Blackbeard's case, government and public demanded an end to his raids. In 1718, the governor of Virginia, Alexander Spotswood, organized a secret expedition to go after Blackbeard. He bought two armed sloops, crewed by Royal Navy personnel and disguised as coastal traders, that could navigate the North Carolina barrier islands where Blackbeard was known to hide. Blackbeard was trapped on one of the islands and killed in the attack.

The Royal Navy and the American colonies began to crack down on the remaining pirates. Spain sent troops to its colonies and beefed up the garda costa that patrolled the islands and coasts of its colonies. Within a few years, the pirates were dead, killed in battle, hanged or, as happened to many who accepted amnesty, retired to shore or back in legitimate ocean commerce.