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What is a Pirate?

Diana Bocco
By Diana Bocco
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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A pirate is someone who commits robberies at sea, usually without being appointed to do so by any particular nation. While the word pirate brings to mind sea-fearing heroes of the last century, the truth is that piracy is still commonplace around the world. Moreover, a pirate has become a symbol of a commonplace criminal off the Somali and Singapore coasts and in the waters between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where pirates are responsible for losses of up to $16 billion per year.

In the past, a pirate was one of the most feared criminals. As early as 13th century BCE, pirates were already terrorizing the Aegean Sea, destroying vessels and pilfering riverside villages. By the Middle Ages, a pirate had become a symbol of an era plagued by violence, fear, and prosecution. The Golden Era of piracy, which extended from 1560 until well into the second part of the 18th century, was centered in the Caribbean. Tortuga Island and Port Royal were the two most famous pirate-centers in the Caribbean, mostly because the conflicts over colonization had made the area easily accessible to visitors and pirates alike.

A privateer, or privileged pirate, was a pirate commissioned by a king to capture foreign vessels. This was a common "commerce" practice between enemy nations, and it led to serious international battles, especially between England and France. According to the law, a privateer was not technically a pirate, which meant he could not be tried and convicted if captured.

The image of the classic pirate has little to do with reality. Most of them spent their life at sea, suffered from severe nutritional disorders, and died young. Water was a hard-to-come-by commodity, so beer was the drink of choice while at sea. In the waters, a pirate was a fighter, concentrated on surviving the boredom between attacks. Once back on land, however, a pirate spent much of his time in the local taverns, drinking and gambling.

In modern days, piracy has shifted from its original purpose of stealing to include kidnapping of people for ransom, sabotage, seizing of personal objects (rather than cargo), and murder. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of pirates in areas of political unrest, such as Somalia.

Some of the most famous pirates include Anne Bonny, Sir Francis Drake, William Kidd, Sir Henry Morgan, "Black Bart" Bartholomew Roberts, and Zack Edward black beard.

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Discussion Comments

By anon240824 — On Jan 16, 2012

There have been myths about pirates. Some people believe in them. There are some today who are not that kind of pirates. They are a little bit kinder and more helpful and we do not have that kind of pirates.

By chicada — On Nov 21, 2010

@ GiraffeEars- There are a clear set of International rules governing piracy on the high seas. The United Nations lists these rules in their Preamble to the Laws and Conventions of the High Seas. Articles 100-107 specifically cover piracy, identifying what constitutes piracy, who may seize a suspected pirate ship, and how pirates are allowed to be tried.

Most pirates do not fly the flag of a nation, so they are tried based on the laws of the nation whose flag flies on the pirated ship. Only military vessels and vessels sanctioned by governments may actually seize a suspected pirate ship. The laws also protect ships from being seized under false pretense of piracy, holding the nation whose flag flies on the seizing ship liable for penalties and damage done to the seized ship.

By Babalaas — On Nov 21, 2010

@ GiraffeEars- Piracy is still active in areas around Somalia and the Gulf of Aiden as well as near the Strait of Malacca and the shipping routes around the South China Sea. These are busy shipping routes that run near countries with small navies. Most of the pirates today actually take hostages and personal affects rather than commandeer ships.

When ships are commandeered, they are usually smaller vessels that can be brought to port in corrupt nations to be re-badged as a new ship with false papers. Sometimes aid shipments are commandeered in the waters surrounding war torn areas. Many modern pirates are also organized into groups and have the backing of organized crime syndicates.

By GiraffeEars — On Nov 21, 2010

There has to be pirates in other regions than Somalia. Where else on the open seas are there pirates, and how do nations try pirates that they catch in international waters? Do individual nations have the right to capture a pirate in international waters? I am not advocating piracy, but I think it would be hard to charge someone for a crime in the middle of the ocean where there are relatively no or few laws.

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