The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







This article is about sea pirates. For other uses see Pirate (disambiguation)

A pirate is one who robs or plunders at sea without a commission from a recognised sovereign nation. Pirates usually target other ships, but have also attacked targets on shore. These acts are known as piracy. Unlike the stereotypical pirate with cutlass and masted sailing ship, today most pirates get about in speedboats wearing balaclavas instead of bandanas, using AK-47s rather than cutlasses.

While boats off the coasts of South America and the Mediterranean Sea are still molested by pirates, the advent of the United States Coast Guard has nearly eradicated piracy in American waters, and it is also much reduced in the Caribbean Sea from days of yore. Seaborne piracy against transport vessels remains a significant problem (with estimated worldwide losses of $13 to $16 billion USD per year), particularly in the waters between the Pacific and Indian oceans, and specifically in the straits of Malacca and Singapore, used by over 50,000 commercial ships a year.

The concept of taking someone else's possessions and using them for your own pleasure or profit has been extended so that the term piracy also commonly refers to trademark and copyright infringement or unauthorized copying of software. Originally the use of the word 'piracy' in this sense referred only to the illegal manufacture or sale of copies. There is an increasing effort on the part of the industry to defend their intellectual property, such as in efforts to reduce the scope of fair use. This usage of the word could be considered a buzzword.


Other terms for pirates

Pirates who operated in the West Indies were known as buccaneers. The word comes from boucan, a wooden frame used for cooking meat (called a barbacoa elsewhere). These were used by French hunters called boucaniers. These hunters became pirates and took their name with them.

Dutch pirates were known as kapers or vrijbuiters ("plunderers"), the latter combining the words vrij meaning free, buit meaning loot, and the ending -er meaning agent. The word vrijbuiter was corrupted into the English freebooters and French flibustiers. It came back into English as filibusters, who were not pirates, but adventurers involving themselves in Latin American revolutions and coups and then finally came to mean the disruptive parliamentary maneuver of talking without stopping.

Pirates are called Lanun by both the Indonesians and the Malaysians who form the nations bracketing the Straits of Malacca. Originally a culture of seafaring people, their name became synonymous with piracy in the 15th century.

Pirates with commissions from a government are called privateers or corsairs, which in modern Arabic is قرصان from the Turkish Korsan, which seems to have been derived from the European word, which in turn comes from the mediaeval Latin cursa, "raid, expedition, inroad".

Piracy in the Caribbean

See: piracy in the Caribbean


Main article: Privateer

A privateer or corsair was similar in method but had a commission or a letter of marque from a government or king to capture merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation. The famous Barbary Corsairs of the Mediterranean were privateers, as were the Maltese Corsairs , who were authorized by the Knights of St. John. The letter of marque was recognized by convention and meant that a privateer could not be charged with piracy although this was often not enough to save them; whether one was considered a pirate or a legally operating business often depended on whether you were the commissioning country or the object of attack. Seven nations agreed to suspend the use of the letter of marque under the Declaration of Paris of 1854, and others followed in the Hague Conventions. The most famous privateer was Sir Francis Drake and England was the main nation in promoting them.

Commerce raiders

In wartime, disguised warships called commerce raiders or merchant raiders attack enemy shipping commerce. They approach by stealth and then open fire. The Germans in World War II made use of these tactics, both in the Atlantic and Indian oceans, but since they used naval vessels, these commerce raiders were not even privateers, much less pirates.

Piracy in international law

Effects on international boundaries

In the Straits of Malacca, during the 18th Century, the British and the Dutch controlled both sides of the Straits of Malacca. Some pirates carried on activities similar to armed rebellion with the aim of resisting the colonizers. In order to put a stop to this, the British and the Dutch drew a line separating the Straits into two sides. The agreement was that each party would be responsible for piracy in their respective area. Eventually this line became the separating line between Malaysia and Indonesia in the Straits.

International law

Piracy is of note in international law as it is commonly held to represent the earliest invocation of the concept of universal jurisdiction. Those committing thefts on the high seas, inhibiting trade, and endangering maritime communication were considered by sovereign states to be hostes humani generis (enemies of humanity). Since piracy, by definition, takes place outside the jurisdiction of any state, the prosecution of pirates by sovereign states represents a unique legal situation.

Pirate organization

Pirates are a popular modern representation of rebellious, clever teams who operate outside the restricting bureaucracy of modern life. In reality, many pirates ate poorly, did not become fabulously wealthy, and died young.

Yet there are some surprising facts about pirate organization. Unlike traditional Western societies of the time, many pirate clans operated as limited democracies, demanding the right to elect and replace their leaders. The captain of a pirate ship was often a fierce fighter in whom the men could place their trust, rather than a more traditional authority figure sanctioned by an elite. However, when not in battlestations, the ship's quartermaster usually had the real authority.

Many groups of pirates shared in whatever booty they seized, according to a complicated scheme where each man received his alloted share of the prize. Pirates injured in battle might be afforded special compensation.

Pirates readily accepted outcasts from traditional societies, perhaps easily recognizing kindred spirits, and they were known to free slaves from slave ships and welcome them into the pirate fold.

It would seem, however, that such egalitarian practices within a pirate clan were tenuous, and did little to limit the brutality of the pirate's way of life. Then again, to a particular individual, there were often few better alternatives. Serving in a Navy in particular was no way to improve lifestyle at the time.

Modern piracy

Piracy in recent times has increased in areas such as South and Southeast Asia (the South China Sea), parts of South America, and the south of the Red Sea, with pirates now favouring small boats and taking advantage of the small crew numbers on modern cargo vessels. Modern pirates prey on cargo ships who must slow their speed to navigate narrow straits, making them vulnerable to be overtaken and boarded by small motorboats. Small ships are also capable of disguising themselves as fishing vessels or cargo vessels when not carrying out piracy, in order to avoid or deceive inspections.

In South East Asian waters, seaworthiness may not be rigidly enforced by all nations, as such losses of vessels and crew may be common. Therefore, statistics indicating incidence of piracy may not be accurate.

In most cases, modern pirates are not interested in the cargo and are mainly interested in taking the personal belongings of the crew and the contents of the ship's safe, which might contain large amounts of cash needed to pay payroll and port fees. In some cases, the pirates force the crew off the ship and sail the ship to a port, where it is repainted and given a new identity through false papers.

Modern piracy is simplified by the fact that a large amount of commerce occurs over sea-borne traffic. For commercial reasons, many cargo ships move through narrow bodies of water such as the Suez Canal, the Panama canal and the Straits of Malacca. As usage increases, many of these ships have to lower cruising speeds to allow for navigation and traffic control making them prime targets for piracy.

Modern definitions of piracy include the following acts:

Pirate attacks tripled between 1993 and 2003. The first half of 2003 was the worst 6-month period on record, with 234 pirate attacks, 16 deaths, and 52 people injured worldwide. There were also 193 crew members held hostage during this period.

182 cases of piracy were reported worldwide in the first 6 months of 2004. Of these incidents, 50 occurred in Indonesian waters.

The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated in 2004 that most pirate attacks in that year occurred in Indonesian waters (70 of 251 reported attacks). Of these attacks, a majority occurred in the Straits of Malacca. They also stated that of the attacks in 2004, oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers were the most popular targets with 67 attacks on tankers and 52 on bulk carriers.

In modern times ships, as well as aeroplanes, are also hijacked for political reasons. The perpetrators of these acts could be described as pirates (for instance, the French for plane hijacker is pirate de l'air), but in English are usually termed hijackers or terrorists. An example is the hijacking of the Italian civilian passenger ship, the Achille Lauro.

Modern pirates also utilise a great deal of technology. It has been reported that crimes of piracy have involved the use of mobile phones, modern speedboats, and AK-47's. There is also speculation that modern pirates are involved with eavesdropping on satellite communication networks such as Inmarsat to determine cargo and the degree of risk involved with an operation. Typically during a pirate raid, all the passengers are killed. Sometimes the ship is repainted and renamed as well to conceal the crime.


Environmentalist and yachtsman Peter Blake was killed by pirates in 2001.

Popular Culture

In popular culture, pirates are associated with a stereotypical manner of speaking and dress. This tradition owes much to Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in the 1950 film adaptation of Treasure Island. September 19 is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Many stereotypical pirates have accents which are apparently from Cornwall, or Devon in England. The popularity of pirates recently rose when the movie Pirates of the Carribean was released.

A recent Internet meme, "REAL Ultimate Power," has Pirates being the hated enemies of the Ninja. Not only are the two ripe for stereotyping in a humorous fashion, but their antithetical outlooks on life make them obvious opponents (even if there is no basis in reality for such opposition); pirates are loud, flashy, rude, crude extroverts who clash swords on the high seas, and ninja are quiet, reserved, polite, refined introverts who work from the shadows.

Stereotypical piratical dress

Stereotypical piratical expressions

Along the lines of 'you there'
Arr Matey
Stop, take notice.
Blow me down
Expression of surprise (as in being blown off one's feet by a strong gale)
Keelhaul the swabs
Tie the scrubber off the ship's deck to the keel of a boat
Shiver me timbers
Expression of surprise (as in having the wooden timbers of one's ship "shivered" by a cannonball, in the archaic sense of the term shivered)

Notable pirates

Notable privateers

Sir Walter Ralegh, who spent little time at sea but organised many pirate expeditions. See Derek Parker, 'The Queen's Pirates', a dual biograph of Drake and Ralegh. London, Scholastic, 2004

Fictional pirates

See also

External links

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