Pirate 101: A Brief History of Piracy

Video highlights from Yankee Pirates

By Patrick J. Kiger

  • 1400-1200 BC: The earliest known pirates, the Lukkans, who were based what is now southeastern Turkey, became a major thorn in the side of the Egyptian empire.
  • 1000-500 BC: The Cretans become the scourge of mariners in the Hellenic world. Cretan cities such as Cydonia and Eleutherna become thriving marketplaces for slaves—mostly women and children—captured by raiders.
  • 75 BC: According to Plutarch, young Julius Caesar is captured by pirates in the eastern Mediterranean. When Caesar learns that his captors are demanding a ransom of 20 talents for him, he reportedly bursts into laughter, and tells them he is worth 50.
  • 800 AD: A Viking band sails south to the island of Lindisfarne, off the coast of England, where they pillage a monastery and slaughter its inhabitants. It is the first in a 50-year-long campaign of brutal attacks on the British coast by Scandinavian pirates.
  • Late 1200s: The pirate Eustace the Monk, also known as the Black Monk, is such a force in the English channel that he is secretly hired by both the French and English kings to be a privateer against the other.
  • Early 1400s: The Victual Brothers, a brotherhood of German privateers, attack Danish and Norwegian ports and ships.
  • Late 1500s: Queen Elizabeth I unleashes Francis Drake and other “sea dogs” to harass Spanish ships traveling to and from the New World. Sensing easy pickings, the French and Dutch launch their own privateers as well.
  • 1700s: Pirates based on Caribbean islands victimize British and colonial ships. Pirates sometimes frighten their victims into surrendering without a fight by flying a blood-red flag, a message that no quarter would be given to anyone who resisted.
  • 1800s: Pirates based on the Barbary Coast of North Africa harass ships and demand tribute. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson instead sends the U.S. Navy and Marines to attack pirate bases. It is not until the 1830s, however, that the pirates are completely defeated.
  • 1900s: Piracy never really vanishes, but it starts to become rampant again in the waters of Southeast Asia. In 1992, pirates capture a tanker, the Nagasaki Spirit, seize the crew, and set it adrift on autopilot. The tanker eventually rams into the container ship Ocean Blessing in the waters off Malaysia, killing almost the entire crew of the Blessing.
  • 2000s: Pirates based in the failed state of Somalia terrorize cargo ships and yachtsmen in the Indian Ocean.

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