Maritime piracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ships and goods of uncountable value have been lost to piracy from the colonial days to modern times.

Piracy affected American business almost as soon as it existed. Pirates were criminals who stole goods and ships that they captured at sea.PrivateersPrivateers, by contrast, were commissioned by sovereign nations in times of war to attack and steal goods from the vessels of enemy nations. Privateers carried letters of marque authorizing their actions, and they often gave a portion of their bounty to the countries issuing those letters.Piracy, maritime

Early Piracy

Pirates stole goods from any ships they encountered and sold them at ports. Ships in American waters carried valuable trading resources such as medicine and commodities, as well as the profits of their trade (money and goods). Many were laden with gold, silver, and jewels taken from the continents. They also carried the spoils of the Aztec and Incan civilizations. As a result, American shipping lanes were particularly ripe for piracy.

Shares of the loot were divided among the crew members of a ship. Pirates also ransomed individuals for profit. In one instance, the pirate BlackbeardBlackbeard (Edward Teach) kidnapped prominent South Carolinians and blockaded the wealthy port city of Charleston, South Carolina. He threatened to bombard the city if he was not delivered a valuable chest of medicine. The city complied, but Blackbeard was hunted down soon afterward. Slaves were also run for huge profits by some, but not all, pirates. Jean Laffitte, JeanLaffitte ran a piracy ring based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and at one point provided roughly one-tenth of the employment in the city through his various illegal activities. He was outlawed for trading slaves but was pardoned when he defended New Orleans from attack in 1812.

Pirates brought a lot of money into a port when they landed. The goods that they traded were valuable to the port city, but even more lucrative for the port was the money that pirates spent on recreation and gambling. Skilled shipbuilders became wealthy for the quality of the ships they could provide and kept the pirates coming back to specific ports. Pirates and privateers helped make port cities the largest and wealthiest cities of the times with a combination of trading, carousing, shipbuilding, and ship support services.

The castle of Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard, on the Island of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.

(Library of Congress)

Privateers both were militarily useful and saved the American government vast amounts of money fighting against the British in the Revolutionary War. During the war, the Continental Navy numbered well under seventy ships, so letters of marque were issued to merchants, and their ships were outfitted for battle. These letters caused the naval fighting force to grow to well over twenty times its original size. Philadelphia was the largest port at the time, and it supplied the privateers. British trading was cut off, and valuable supplies intended to reach British troops were instead delivered to American troops who were sorely lacking in such supplies. Gold was plundered as well, and individual ships came to port with prizes worth millions of dollars. The same tactic was used in the War of 1812. The American navy had a mere 23 ships at the time, but it mustered 150 privateers to its cause. Privateers captured British supplies and prizes worth over $40 million and caused around the same amount in damage to the British navy.

Modern Piracy

Modern pirates have traded the cannon of their early brethren for automatic weapons. They generally fall into three types: small pirates who break onto ships–usually in port–solely to rob the crew and passengers; pirates who board a ship, rob the crew, and steal the cargo; and pirates who capture the ship itself and either sell it or reflag it. Reflagging ships allows them to take on cargo, and the pirates can then steal any that gets consigned to them. Modern ship crews are much smaller than they were during the age of sail, and they rarely carry firearms, so pirates remain mostly unchallenged when they attack. The most prevalent form of piracy in the United States is small pirates. The U.S. Coast Guard pursues pirates and keeps them in check in American waters, at a cost to taxpayers.

Most attacks against American ships happen as they travel through foreign shipping lanes. It is difficult to assess how widespread this problem is, since ships that have their cargo stolen often choose not to report it. It is estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of attacks are unreported. In many cases, the cost of higher insurance premiums resulting from reported cases is simply greater than the cost of writing off the lost cargo. The average loss comes out to pennies on every $10,000 worth of goods that are shipped. The more important aspect of combating piracy is preventing injury to the crew. Although piracy and its effects have diminished in modern times, they still have an impact on many industries, including insurance and trading.

Further Reading
  • Bradford, Alfred S. Flying the Black Flag: A Brief History of Piracy. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2007. History of piracy from its beginning to modern times.
  • Burnett, John S. Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas. New York: Dutton, 2002. Journalist’s look at modern piracy, including firsthand accounts.
  • Exquemelin, A. O. The Buccaneers of America. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2000. Eyewitness account of piracy on the Spanish Main.
  • Lehr, Peter. Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism. New York: Routledge, 2007. Studies links between piracy, terrorism, and organized crime; details efforts to combat piracy, as well as new trends and developments.
  • Roland, Alex, W. Jeffrey Bolster, and Alexander Keyssar. The Way of the Ship: America’s Maritime History Reenvisioned, 1600-2000. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2008. History of shipping in America focusing on American merchant marines.

Colonial economic systems

Insurance industry

Revolutionary War

Shipping industry

Slave era

War of 1812

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