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Are all Pirates bad? Revisiting Piracy in historic times

Revisiting the Terrifying Pirates

Many portrayed pirates as devious, excessively violent and thirst for blood. They kill for pleasure, feast like savages, and inflict great pain and cost to people involving in seafaring lives. We see literature, or mere descriptions, particularly in folk stories, and occasionally in paintings, that show pirates as pig-legged drunk addicts; they are often called the anarchists, normally quite ‘murderous’ and ‘cunning’. We were told by movies, cartoons, and mainstream belief that all pirates like to destroy sea-bounding watercraft and loot precious cargos, and they were mostly portrayed as behaving in an uncivilized way. They give us the impression of convicted-felon-in-escape, with their ship lifting the all-intimidating skull-and-crossbones flag before an attack.


Infamous examples of some ‘terrifying pirates’ are, for instance, the English white heterosexual Blackbeard in the 18th century, notorious for his voodoo-practice and thirst for kill. His decapitated head was said to have hung on the bowsprit as shown in the illustration of The Pirates Own Book, first published in 1837.

Image (1) : Blackbeard’s Death; image retrieved from ‘The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Pirates Own Book’
Image (2): Blackbeard’s head hanging on the bowsprit; image retrieved from ‘The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Pirates Own Book’

The Cheng’s Legacy

Or that of the merchant-turned-pirate Zheng Zhi-long from China in the 17th century: he who was eminent for working with the East India Company, in particular for pressuring the Ming dynasty imperial ruler for opening up sea-trades; or even the so-called most successful female pirate leader in Southern China, Cheng I Sao (or Zheng I-sao, Chinese: 鄭一嫂), from the 19th century, whose fame humbly survived in today’s children’s book in Hong Kong, as well as the Chinese horizontal scroll-painting titled ‘Pacifying the South China Sea’ (1809) within the Hong Kong Maritime Museum’s collection. 

Image (3): The red lady in the middle is mostly like Cheng I Sao. The description of the museum is shown here, ‘The chief’s wife, Zheng Yisao frequently sprinkled the men with garlic-water, a ritual among the pirates that they believed would help them avoid being shot’, the author fails to see any description on the stories of Cheng as a pirate leader upon her husband’s death.

Are Pirates Terrorists?

‘Pirates were terrorist of a sort’, but ‘in truth, the keepers of the state in this era were themselves terrorists of a sort…and yet we do not think of them in this way. They have become, over the years, cultural heroes, even founding fathers of sorts’. These were the two quotes retrieved from Rediker’s book titled ‘Villains of All Nations’. This leads us to the following debates on what in essence are pirates and whether they are the actual evils here.

Are Pirates Runaway felons?

Another common perception related to piracy is that they are always people of low ethics and have no respect for loyalty, government, law and social orders. But the author argues that piracy might not be as barbaric as we would imagine. Rather, I argue that some pirates were, at least in part, the creation of the ruling powers for military expansion and regional dominance, whereas some, due to an array of preconditions they emerged to become an alternative power, or social order, that mimics the ruling strategy of the more ‘official’ states.

Why would Anyone Choose to Become a Pirate?

We will attempt to locate piracy in the spectrum of violent activity at sea by revealing why anyone will choose to become pirate in the first place. Sailors from the Mediterranean regions who turned to piracy were, in many cases, simply trying to survive in a relatively better condition, where food and booty were adequately disseminated, navigation risks were evenly spread and all members of the crew were treated fairly and with minimal, if not none, class distinction – something that they were deprived of when working for their captains and merchants in ill-treated royal navy or cramped mercantile ship (Rediker talked greatly about the seaman’s fight for labour rights in mercantile ships).

In Asia, too, pirates were often fishermen who tried to rob mercantile vessels in their small boats and with bamboo pikes because each ‘mission’ they partook get them earnings that would otherwise have taken them more than three months to gather. The ruling powers, which were greatly affiliated or sometimes exploited by the self-interested businessmen, dominated the narratives on pirates as ‘law-breakers’ and was said to have cost tremendous trade losses, To refute such saying, it is worth remembered that there was only about 11 percent of the identified 545 captured English vessels were considered ‘severely damaged or destroyed’ by pirates during 1716-1726 (see Rediker’s book for the data).

Definition of Pirates by Lawmakers

Does piracy entail great violence? One of the definitions of piracy in English law, as suggested by Professor Batt from Wharton’s Law Lexicon in 1911, is ‘the commission of those acts of robbery and violence upon the sea, which, if committed upon land, would amount to felony’.

In Hall’s definition, ‘an act of violence done upon “the ocean, or unappropriated lands, or within the territory of a State through descent from the sea, by a body of men acting independently of any political organized society”’ (Barclay, 1915). Barclay continues to discuss the definition of piracy by citing from Professor von Liszt, where piracy is ‘an act of unlawful violence committed on the high sea by the officers and crew of a private ship against another ship’.

Pirates’ deeds

This then led us to another evaluative layer that concerns the level of violence performed by pirates – what they might have done for a living.

We mentioned that only one over ten identified captured English vessels were being damaged or destroyed by pirates, which signals a relatively lower level of violence. As Evans and De Marre 2019 state, ‘while violence may often be concomitant it is worth observing that predation can be extremely nuanced in its application.’ They argue that pirates were, in most cases, after booty but not blood, and they will, by all means, avoid fighting because they just wanted to get what is necessary for their survival and escape as soon as possible.

Pirates avoid fights to survive

For pirates, they ‘use terror for several reasons: to avoid fighting; to force disclosure of information about where botty was hidden; and to punish ship captains. The first point to be emphasized is that pirates did not want to fight, no matter how bloodthirsty their image was in their own days and in ours’. To put it simply, a bloodbath might deprive them of that ease of life.

Also, pirates focused on looking for food and drink, things that could enable them to survive, and the reason why they dispose of the cargos or sink the ships were simply because that they normally have no markets to sell off them and that they didn’t want their whereabouts being recognized.

What about shanghaiing?

Even when they conduct the sinister business of kidnapping (shanghaiing), some historical accounts indicate that pirates tend to keep their promise to release the captives upon the reception of ransom, ‘one of the thieves takes a letter to the prisoner’s friends demanding a certain sum for his liberty. If the sum demanded can be paid, a person accompanies the thief to the place appointed; and on his depositing the money, the prisoner is set at liberty. They never fail in their engagement when the sum is delivered’ (see Dodwell, 1819).

Pirates as Professional Seamen

Another way of viewing their level of violence is to take their level of seamanship into consideration. Because having good seamanship was the prerequisite, where they have to be good at maneuvering the vessels in harsh conditions, but also to have abundant nautical and geographical knowledge over the ‘plundering routes’ they were involved in, it could then be suggested that they would most likely had opted for, or at least had a better chance, to simply rolled away as fast as they could after getting what’s needed. Plus, pirates often used small vessels and humble equipment given their short of funding and preference for ease of mobility. Simple principle of economic opportunity costs will also reveal that pirates killing another sailor on a mercantile vessel, where the captives might not even be voluntary sailors due to crimping, would offer them no good but a waste of energy.

We could then infer that the emphasis on seamanship is indirect proof over the relatively low level of violence performed by pirates, especially when we compared the kinds of violence conducted by the ruling powers, which includes public hanging and beheading.

Are you telling me that pirates are innocent?

That is not to say that pirates were completely innocent – but we argue that most of the time they were conditioned to kill or engage in high level of violence, such as torturing of all sorts, because their life was threatened – and similar level, if not greater degree, of violence are deployed by the ruling power. According to Rediker, the number of pirates being hanged drastically increased from 1718 to 1722 since these ‘pirates were killed in military actions or on the gallows as merchants and governmental officials set about exterminating robbery by sea and the alternative way of life it represented. Those pirates who remained at sea, in response, became more desperate and more violent and killed more of their captives, as they knew that they faced almost certain death for their actions. The year 1722-26 were a time when pirates fought less for booty than for their very survival’ (2004: 37).

Rediker proposes that piracy could be interpreted as a way of rejecting the dominating authority by means of terrorization, and similar terrorization strategies were adopted by people of power at the state during those periods. So, in other words, both pirates and ruling powers were using the same strategy of terrorization to reinforce their power. To say pirates as violence will also mean that the ruling powers were violent too.

Licensed Pirates

To add to the interpretation of pirates’ level of violence, one important thing to consider is the very existence of commissioned pirates. Already in the Hellenistic periods, ‘the ancients called those latrones who performed military service for pay from the Greek term λατρεία (“service for hire”)’.

Privateering existed from ancient times and even till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries happened, with one hilarious example about British fighting against the Spanish in 1719, where they tried recruiting pirates as privateers, sadly ‘many did come in, did accept commissions, and did go back out as privateers – in the employment of Spain, to attack British ships’.

Similar cases existed in Vietnam in 1785-1802, where both the ruling power (North Vietnam’s king) and the uprising group (Tayson, the so-called ‘three brothers’ from the South that went against the ruling power of that time) did recruit pirates from East Asian countries as privateers to supplement their own naval forces. All examples here attempt to justify that the existence of pirates are at some point promoted by power states for purposes much related to the desire for regional dominance and the fight for greater power – therefore violence incurred from these cases of licensed pirates were as simply a transaction and bears less resemblance of our perception of the evil pirates who ‘kill for fun’.

Alternative layer to Pirates

In fact, much of the discussion on pirates were either from records that were written by people of powers, or as stories, so to evaluate the actual level of violence committed by pirates will be immensely challenging given our state of knowledge and source of evidence.

But there could be two tentative conclusions drawn on the evaluation of pirates’ level of violence. First, pirates might not be as violent as we thought they were due to conditions that are economically, socially and politically-preset. Also, either the evaluation of the level of violence committed by pirates is high or relatively not as high as we expected, the state did play a role, consciously or unconsciously, in cultivating that and at times was much more violent than these sea-bounding pirates in the name of social orders.