“It is, it is a glorious thing/To be a Pirate King!” These lines from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Pirates of Penzance perpetuate the centuries-old myth of romantic ocean piracy. The image of a lusty bronzed Adonis, cutlass at hand, swinging back aboard his ship carrying a swooning, impossibly bosomed Venus, has adorned the covers of adventure novels for at least 50 years. But the myth and the fact have little in common.
The word pirate first appeared about 140 B.C., as the Latin word, peirato. But pirates seem to have been around for at least as long as sailors have been plowing the sea. In fact, piracy might just be the world’s second-oldest profession. Acts of piracy have been recorded in virtually every era, with clay tablets recording pirate raids on North African settlements during the reign of Pharaoh Ikhnaton (1350 B.C.). Even Homer’s Odyssey mentions piracy as well-established.
The Roman era saw Mediterranean sea commerce almost brought to a standstill by roving pirates. In the years from about A.D. 800 to 1100, the most notable European pirates were the Vikings, who plundered and pillaged as far east as the Baltic shores of Russia and south as far as North Africa. In Asia, as China’s empire fell into decline during the 13th to 16th centuries, pirate fleets were raiding ships and coastal towns along the Yangtze River Delta. The 15th and 16th centuries also saw the rise of North African corsairs who attacked vessels as far afield as Nova Scotia and Iceland.
But it was the late 17th and early 18th centuries that saw the rise of the truly classic age of pirating portrayed in novels like Treasure Island. During this time many future infamous figures began their careers as law-abiding mariners who obtained commissions (called letters of marque) from their respective monarchs to harass enemy ships during times of war. When the wars ended, many of these licensed pirates, or privateers, found it difficult to give up the easy money, and so fell into piracy, taking any vessel they pleased. The notorious Edward “Blackbeard” Teach became the scourge of the coasts of the Carolinas, while female pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonny raided Spanish, Dutch, and British vessels in the Caribbean with their shared lover, “Handsome Jack” Rackham.
Today, piracy has largely been eliminated in most of the world, but there are still sporadic reports of pirate activity, particularly on commercial vessels in Southeast Asia, where in September a band of masked pirates boarded a tanker wielding machetes and removed all cargo to a barge and slipped away. And like the following strange incident recently reported by both the Portuguese newspaper Publico and the U.S. Government’s National Imaging and Mapping Agency (NIMA): On Sept. 8, 2000, a French sailor aboard his disabled yacht L’Objectiv Lune was towed into the Madeira port of Funchal, by the Swiss yacht, Topas. The French boat had reportedly been drifting for two days when Topas took her in tow. Thierry Scheneider, a French citizen, told the Lusa News Agency that his vessel was attacked on two separate occasions while en route from the French port of Piriac to Madeira by young crewmembers of another unidentified vessel, and that he had been abducted and subjected to torture by electric shock.
Scheneider said he could not identify his assailants or their vessel, and said that his attackers may have mistaken him for someone else. He offered no explanation for the attacks. He was treated at a Funchal hospital for a deep neck wound, cuts to his head and wrists, and bruised legs. The Maritime and Civil Police Forces of Madeira are investigating the incident.
NIMA maintains a URL for reporting or reviewing modern acts of piracy against both private and commercial vessels in its Anti-Shipping Activity Message database. Find NIMA’s home page on the net at www.nima.mil, and in the right column select “About NIMA.” Select “Marine Navigation Home Page,” and then click on “Anti-Shipping Activity Messages.” Now you can check the ASAM Database, then have a look at the geographic locator for your area of interest. You can then search for pirate activity in that area by selecting its number code and inputting dates of greatest interest.
With occasional pirate attacks still occurring on both private and large commercial vessels in some parts of the world, a visit to the NIMA web site might be a good idea for those planning an offshore cruise. Any visit by pirates will likely not be as entertaining or amusing as that celebrated in Gilbert and Sullivan’s memorable lyrics.