PIRACY, defined as the act of attacking and robbing a ship or port by sea, had a long history in the ancient Mediterranean stretching from the time of the EgyptianpharaohAkhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE) and throughout the Middle Ages (c. 476-1500 CE). Piracy in the Mediterranean remains a persistent threat in the present day only with different kinds of ships and more advanced technology.
Historians sometimes telescope the history of piracy for narrative convenience and wind up implying or even claiming that piracy in the Mediterranean began with the decline of the Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century BCE and ended when Pompey the Great (l. c. 106-48 BCE) defeated the Cilician pirates at the Battleof Coracesium in 67 BCE when, actually, Egyptian records substantiate piratical activities in the Mediterranean centuries earlier and Roman accounts report its continuance for centuries afterwards.
Piracy was engaged in by governments and was often considered a legitimate act of war. Pirates were not always the “outsiders” flying under their own flag but were frequently employed by governments and were encouraged in their piracy by the slave trade which continued throughout antiquity. Long after Pompey had defeated the Cilician pirates, Rome continued to rely on them for slaves for the empire and, after that empire fell, piracy and the slave trade continued for centuries.
In 1829, a group of convicts seized the English brig Cyprus off of Tasmania, and sailed her to the Chinese city of Canton. After his capture, the convicts’ leader William Swallow claimed the ship visited Japan on their way to China. No one believed him because Japan was famously isolationist at the time.
But last year an amateur historian discovered Japanese records of a visiting “barbarian” ship in 1830 that flew a British flag. Curious local samurai visited the barbarian ship. Luckily for history, they wrote about what they saw, and even made some watercolors.
According to one of the samurai, the barbarians had “long pointed noses” and asked in sign language for water and firewood. One young barbarian put tobacco in “a suspicious looking object, sucked and then breathed out smoke.” These men “exchanged words amongst themselves like birds twittering,” and the ship’s dog “did not look like food. It looked like a pet.” Another samurai listed the gifts the crew offered, including an object that sounds like a boomerang – strengthening the idea that the ship with the British flag had been at Tasmania or Australia.
The Japanese refused to allow the mutineers to stay. They eventually scuttled the Cyprus near Canton, and worked their way back to England. Unfortunately for the adventurous convicts, they were arrested in England for piracy. They had stolen a ship, and they were convicts before that – and British law at the time was notoriously harsh. Swallow died in prison, and the rest became the last men hanged for piracy in Britain.
In 1795, nearly one-sixth of the entire United States federal budget was sent to Algeria as a ransom for 115 American sailors captured by Barbary pirates. The federal government had just been formed in 1790.
As Welsh privateer Henry Morgan approached the San Lorenzo Fort at the mouth of Panama’s Chagres River in 1671, several of his ships wrecked against the Lajas Reef, including Morgan’s flagship Satisfaction. Morgan’s ships ran afoul of a shallow reef and rough waves, on the way to raid Panama City in response to a Spanish attack on English Jamaica. Recently six cannons from one of those shipwrecks were raised.
Well, we are pretty sure that’s what was raised. The wreck was a violent one, strewing iron cannon debris across the reef. That matches with the rough seas we know Morgan’s ships were dealing with. And the varied weaponry found also points to pirates. Pirates used whatever weapons they could purchase or capture, and therefore would have had mismatches, unlike the standardized armory in any royal navy ship.