9/22/10 - pirates

In today's excerpt - pirates. Pirates have been present throughout history, have long been most numerous in the teeming shipping lanes of the Far East, but are best remembered in Western culture for the Caribbean pirates of the early 1700s:

"There has been piracy since the earliest times. There were Greek pirates and Roman pirates, and centuries of piracy when the Vikings and Danes were ravaging the coasts of Europe. The southern shores of England were infested with smugglers and pirates during Tudor times. A group of Dutch pirates called the Sea Beggars, or Watergeuzen, played a small but critical role in the history of the Netherlands. ...

"In the Mediterranean, pirates took part in the holy war which was waged between  the Christians and the Muslims for several centuries: Barbary corsairs intercepted ships traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar or coming from the trading ports of Alexandria and Venice, swooping down on the heavily laden merchantmen in their swift galleys powered by oars and sails. They looted their cargoes, captured their passengers and crews, and held them to ransom or sold them into slavery.

"The French played a major part in the history of piracy. Many of the most successful and most fearsome of the buccaneers who prowled the Spanish Main came from French seaports. Corsairs based at Dunkirk menaced the shipping in the English Channel in the mid-seventeenth century. Their most famous leader was Jean Bart, who was responsible for the capture of some eighty ships. He later joined the French navy and was ennobled by King Louis XIV in 1694.

"The Red Sea and the Persian Gulf were always notorious for pirates, and the Malabar coast on the western shores of India was home to the Maratha pirates, led by the Angria family, who plundered the ships of the East India Company during the first half of the eighteenth century.

"In the Far East there was piracy on a massive scale. The Ilanun pirates of the Philippines roamed the seas around Borneo and New Guinea with fleets of large galleys manned by crews of forty to sixty men, launching savage attacks on shipping and coastal villages until they were stamped out by a naval expedition in 1862. But the most formidable of all, in terms of numbers and cruelties, were the pirates of the South China Sea. Their activities reached a peak in the early years of the nineteenth century, when a community of around forty thousand pirates with some four hundred junks dominated the coastal waters and attacked any merchant vessels which strayed into the area. From 1807 these pirates were led by a remarkable woman called Mrs. Cheng, a former prostitute from Canton.

"[But] this book concentrates on the pirates of the Western world, and particularly on the great age of piracy, which began in the 1650s and was brought to an abrupt end around 1725, when naval patrols drove the pirates from their lairs and mass hangings eliminated many of their leaders. It is this period which has inspired most of the books, plays, and films about piracy, and has been largely responsible for the popular image of the pirate in the West today."


David Cordingly


Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates


Random House


Copyright 1996 by David Cordingly


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