The history of pirates and privateers is linked to the navigation, exploration, and colonization’ s history. Through the adventure novels and thanks to its great charm, the pirates’ stories are still one of the privileged places where the imagination of everyone lives.
Over time, the pirates have been shown and nicknamed in different ways, such as "privateers". Actually, the only difference between "pirates" and " privateers" is that the privateers used to act in the maritime power that, in exchange for protection, asked them for a part of the booty. The privateers’ initiatives were always masked by political or religious pretexts and they represented one of the tools used by the nations in war. When they were caught, the privateers were treated as war prisoners, and they were subject to the sea rules. On the contrary, if caught, the pirates were summarily executed. Other terms used to indicate these groups of people were "buccaneers", derived from Boucan, and "freebooter", which derives from the French word Flibustier, or the Dutch one Vrijbuiter (vrij = free, Buiter = booty).
Piracy is so old that it is already documented in the Pharaohs’ Egypt. There are also examples concerning the pirates in the classical world among Greeks and Romans, and even the Etruscans were known as heinous pirates. In 100 BC, the historian Plutarch described the pirates as those who, without legal authority, used to attack not only merchant ships but also the seaside towns. These words represent the first specific definition of the piracy’s phenomenon. The Aegean Sea was an ideal place for pirates at the time, because they could easily hide among the thousands of islands and inlets and, from there, they could spot and plunder merchant ships passing through, especially the Phoenician ones.
In 67 BC, the Roman Senate assigned the general Pompey to rid the seas of this terrible scourge. Pompey wasn’t able to completely accomplish his mission because it is said that pirates captured even Julius Caesar in 78 BC on his route to Rhodes. Julius Caesar spent thirty-eight days in captivity on the island of Pharmacusa and he was freed only after paying a huge ransom. Immediately, he attacked the pirates’ haven with four galleys and five hundred soldiers, getting back the fifty talents he paid for his redemption, and making hundreds of prisoners. The establishment of two Roman fleets contributed for a long time to keep the pirates away from the sea. With the fall of the Roman Empire, and starting from the eighth century, new protagonists appeared, leaders who had the courage to make piratical raids on Byzantine territories, and that were the only ones to have an organized fleet: the Saracens. They conquered Sicily and were considered outlaws by the Arab Kingdom of Spain. In the Early Middle Ages the Vikings and the Danes made piratical actions against Christians. In the Late Middle Ages, the Latin Catholics used to act like pirates against Arabs and Byzantines, and once the Middle Ages ended, the Turks made piratical actions against Christians in general.
Modern piracy began in the sixteenth century, in the Caribbean Sea, when British, French, and Dutch wanted to reduce the absolute dominance of the Spanish in the Americas and in the Atlantic Ocean; for this reason, these populations financed pirate vessels in order to plunder Spanish merchant fleets. Thomas Cavendish, Francis Drake, and John Hawking were famous privateers. Moreover, there were also pirate women, i.e. Anne Bonny and Mary Read, the Scandinavian Alwilda, the Irish pirate Grace O'Malley, and the Chinese chief Mrs. Cheng.
The French privateers were the first to attack and plunder the Spanish galleons in 1522, two years before the discovery of the New York ‘s bay, when the navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano managed to capture three Spanish ships laden with treasures. In less than half a century, piracy spread on all continents, especially in the Caribbean Sea, the South China Sea, and the Persian Gulf. The Caribbean Sea remained the centre of piracy until the mid-nineteenth century, whether because pirates were able to enjoy a range of supports and favours on land, or because many islands were full of food, or even because the shallow ocean floor prevented them from being chased by the slow warships. Starting from 1722, the war against piracy became fiercer. On one hand there were executions and military expeditions against the pirates, and on the other hand the increasingly brutal violence practised by pirates.
With the hangings of the last freebooters, Gow, Fly, Lyne, and Low, in four years the piracy was wiped out. Actually, the pirates and privateers continued to act in the Atlantic Ocean at least until 1860, when the steamships replaced the vessels. The Paris Declaration of 1856 prohibited the warfare and considered the figure of the pirate outlaw, stating that the warships were the only ones that have the right to participate in hostilities.
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