Suddenly, across the green-foam waves a ship’s sail is sighted across the rolling waves. No country’s flag flaps atop the ship’s mast. Is this a pirate ship? The very word—Pirate!—stirs fear. Pirates are thieves. They swoop in blasting their cannons, fighting with swords and pistols. Pirates attack towns as well as ships.
Pirates are enemies of all countries. A pirate captain and his crew work outside the law. Any country may capture a pirate and put the culprit on trial for piracy.
HOW LONG HAVE PIRATES BEEN AROUND?
Pirates have been a threat since ancient times. Pirates gathered wherever a country could not protect its trade ships.
Thousands of years ago, pirates sailed the Mediterranean Sea in search of valuable cargo. The ancient Romans spent an entire year sweeping the Mediterranean clean of pirates. In the 1000s, Viking raiders looted villages along the coast of Western Europe.
In the 1500s and 1600s, pirates called buccaneers attacked ships and towns in Spain’s colonies in the Americas. Buccaneers got their name from the French word for smoked meat. Buccaneers stole cattle, smoked the meat, and traded it for gunpowder, bullets, knives, and clothes.
Most buccaneers were English, Dutch, or French. Many were escaped criminals, runaway slaves, or adventurers. The tiny Caribbean island of Tortuga, near Haiti, served as the buccaneers’ headquarters and hideout.
From the 1600s into the early 1800s, pirates cruised northern Africa’s Barbary Coast. They attacked from the coastal cities of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. The pirates demanded that a country pay them a ransom not to attack that country’s ships!
The United States also paid the Barbary pirates ransom. But eventually, President Thomas Jefferson sent U.S. Navy ships to the region. By 1815, the United States had forced many of the Barbary pirates to sign treaties or surrender.
In the past, when countries were at war they sometimes hired pirates to attack their enemies. These men were called privateers.
One of the most famous privateers was Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman. Drake attacked Spanish ships and towns in the 1500s. He returned to England with chests of treasure he divided among his investors. One of Drake’s investors was Elizabeth I, the queen of England.
WHO WERE SOME FAMOUS PIRATES?
Sir Henry Morgan, an Englishman, was a famous buccaneer in the Caribbean Sea. In the late 1600s, the English governor of Jamaica hired Morgan to fight the Spanish. Morgan attacked settlements in Cuba, Panama, and Venezuela. When England and Spain made peace, Morgan was captured and taken to England. But King Charles II of England believed Morgan was a loyal subject. He knighted Morgan and named him lieutenant governor of Jamaica!
The name Blackbeard was feared along the East Coast of the United States. An English pirate, Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Teach. Blackbeard wore his beard in braids tied with ribbons. He armed himself with a sharp cutlass (sword), daggers, and six loaded pistols. In 1718, Blackbeard blocked the port of Charleston, South Carolina. He seized ships and held passengers as hostages. British ships eventually tracked Blackbeard down and killed him in battle.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read were ruthless female pirates who sailed in the early 1700s. Both women dressed like men and fought in battles. Bonny and Read were captured together in 1720. Read died in prison. No one knows what happened to Bonny.
William Kidd was born in Scotland and raised in New York. Captain Kidd began as a privateer, but he soon went to work for himself. He attacked merchant ships off the coasts of India and Africa. Kidd was captured, tried in London, and hanged in 1701. Some of his buried treasure was later found on Gardiners Island, near the eastern end of Long Island, New York!
By the 1800s, pirates were having a harder time. Countries built better navies, and navy ships gained steam power, which made them faster. Countries made a point of hunting down pirates. But pirates, and piracy, still exist today. Armed robbers attack ships along coasts or at sea and steal their goods.