Strangers, who are ye? Whence sail ye over the wet ways? On some trading enterprise, or at adventure do ye rove, even as sea-robbers, over the brine, for they wander at hazard of their own lives bringing bale to alien men?
—Homer, Odyssey, book III (8th century BC, earlier oral tradition: translated by S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang)
For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates, under the conduct of their most powerful men; their motives being to serve their own cupidity and to support the needy. The would fall upon a town unprotected by walls, and consisting of a mere collection of villages, and would plunder it; indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace yet being attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.
—Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book 1, chapter 1 (5th century BC: translated by Richard Crawley, 1952)
[M]uch less would pirates coming to his land be let go scatheless for long, men whose care it was to lift their hands and seize the goods of others, and to weave secret webs of guile, and harry the steadings of herdsmen with ill-sounding forays.
—Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, book III (3rd century BC: translated by Robert Cooper Seaton, 1912)
For the Illyrians [the sea rovers of Queen Teuta] were not then the enemies of this people or that, but the enemies of all mankind.
—Polybius, The Histories, II:12 (2nd century BC: translated by W. R. Paton, 1922)
As if a man that lies at the mercy of common Pirates [praedonibus: of the robbers or plunderers], should promise them a certain Sum of Money for the saving of his Life: ‘Tis no deceit to recede from it, tho’ he had given his Oath for the performance: for we are not to look upon Pirates [pirata] as Open and Lawful Enemies: but as the Common Adversaries of Mankind [communis hostis omnium]. For they are a sort of men with whom we ought to have neither Faith, nor Oath in common.
—Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis 3:29.107 (44 BC: translated by R. l’Estrange, 1720)
Not contented that suddenly he was become rich, [as] of a needy [person] he practiced piracy [piraticam] against his own Country.
—Marcus Junianus Justinus, Trogi Pompeii Historiis, book XXII (2nd century AD?: translated by N. Bailey, 1732)
For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, ‘What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.’
—St. Augustine, The City of God (early 5th century AD, repeating a story told by Cicero in de Republica five centuries earlier.)
In the same year, the pagans [Danes, Vikings], coming from the northern regions to Britain with a naval armament, made descents in all quarters, plundering, ravaging, and slaughtering, like most cruel wolves, not only beasts of burthen, oxen and sheep, but priests and Levites as well, and multitudes of monks and nuns.
—Roger de Hoveden, Annals (post 1189?, of the year 793 AD: translated by Henry T. Riley)
Still they killed a great many people and made great depredations on the shore.
—The Saga of the Jómsvíkings (12th century AD, of the 10th century: translated by Lee M. Hollander, 1955)
…who the malefactors and disturbers of our peace were, who being in two cogs of Campen wickedly and craftily committed divers robberies, depredations, discords, and slayings of many of our lieges along the coasts of the aforesaid country…
—Patent Rolls, 48 Ed. III. Pt. I, m. 2 d. (1374: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea. The term pirate does not appear to be used in the Middle Ages in reference to the practitioners of piratical acts until the 15th century.)
I mene pyratys of the Se, Which brynge folk in pouerte.
—John Lydgate, The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man (1426: from the French of Guillaume de Deguileville, 1330, 1355)
…which notwithstondyng, divers and monyfold spoliations and robberies [have] been daily had, committed, an doon uppon the se unto the said subgettis of the said most high and myghty princes, his most dere cosyns, as well by their enemyes as by other pirattis and robbers…
—Patent Rolls, 6 Hen. VII, m. II d. (1490: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea.)
Because, upon the relation of some of our lieges we are informed that many spoilers, pirates, exiles, and outlaws, arrayed in warlike fashion on the sea, have there assaulted out subjects and faithful lieges, spoiled their ships, goods, and merchandise, and are daily busying themselves and intending with all their strength to assault, rob, and spoil them…
—Patent Rolls, 3 Hen. VIII, pt. I, m. 7 (1511: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea)
Her Majestie, understanding by the grevious and sondrie complaints made by her subjects of the great spoiles by them dailie sustained at the hands of such as now of late hath so infested the narrowe seas…Wherefore her Majestie’s pleasure and commandment is that, yf you shall finde any notorious pyrates at the seas, you do apprehend them…
—Landsdowne MSS. 155, f. 166 (1576: from Marsden, Documents Relating to the Law and Custom of the Sea)
Pirate: [the word] signifies one who goes to sea for adventure [daring enterprise or hazardous exploit]…the word was not in ancient times one of ugliness and vituperation, being piracy exercised by industry and right, a private war of the strongest against the weakest.
—Nicot, Thresor de la langue française (1606: author’s translation)
Moreover, pirates are those who range the seas without licence from their prince; who when they are met with, are punished more severely by their own lords, then when they fall into the hands of strangers.
—Sir Richard Hawkins, The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knight (1622: regarding his South Sea voyage of 1594)
And the pyrate pillaged Phillipps’ bark…And there were aboard Morgan Phillipps’ bark divers men passengers, whereof the pyrate too but one, and 12 or 14 women, all which were ravished [raped] by the pyrate’s company…
—“The examination of Hugh Baker” in The Council Book of the Corporation of Youghal (1623: published 1878)
Yea, and many times a Pirat who are commonly the best manned, but they fight only for wealth, not for honour or revenge, except they bee extremely constrained.
—John Smith, A Sea Grammar (1627)
[A]nd therefore in England, a pirat is called a rover and robber upon the sea.
[P]irata est hostis humani generis… [A pirate is an enemy of all mankind…]
—Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England, chapter 49 (1644)
‘Tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a prince, aboard his little wooden world.
—Aphra Behn, The Rover (1677: the pirate or sea rover has long been a popular romantic image)
[I]n their Company sailed also a small Algierman of 14 Guns, pitifully manned wth about 40 Moors he hath been out of Algier these two yeares, and all his Slaves being escaped from him, dares not returne, so resolves to turne Pyrat, and take every Vessell…she can master.
—Thomas Baker, Journal (1679)
Then Sir T. P. [Thomas Pinfold] said it was impossible they should be Pirates, for a Pirate was hostis humani generis, but they were not Enemies to all Mankind; therefore they could not be Pirates: Upon which all smiled, and one of the Lords asked him, Whether there ever was any such thing as a Pirate, if none could be a Pirate but he that was actually in War with all Mankind? To which he did not reply, but only repeated what he had said before. Hostis humani generis, is neither a Definition, nor so much as a Description of a pirat, but a rhetorical invective to show the odiousness of that crime.
—Matthew Tindall, An Essay Concerning the Laws of Nations (1694: concerning the trial of privateers commissioned by the exiled James II.)
Pirate: a sea rover [escumeur de mer, écumeur de mer, “a skimmer or parasite” of the sea], one who sails the sea without a commission from any Prince, to steal, to pillage.
Forban: a pirate, a sea rover [escumeur de mer], who takes from all Nations without any commission.
Corsaire: a pirate, a sea rover [escumeur de mer], who roves [va en course] with a commission from a State or a sovereign Prince.
—Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 1st Edition (1694: author’s translations)
They [the buccaneers in the South Sea] scare shew’d one Instance of true Courage or Conduct, tho they were accounted such fighting Fellows at home.
—Privateer, Bahamas governor, and pirate hunter Woodes Rogers, A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712)
They villify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of Law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own Courage.
—attributed to pirate Samuel Bellamy by Charles Johnson in A General History of the Pirates (1726, of events of 1717: the quote is almost certainly invented by Charles Johnson, and inspired by the exchange between the pirate Dionides and Alexander the Great, as reported by St. Augustine, Cicero, and others.)
[B]ut now that war was declared against Spain, they [the pirates] would have an opportunity of enriching themselves in a legal way by going a privateering, which many of them had privately done.
—William Snelgrave, A New Account of Some Parts of Guinea and the Slave Trade (1734, in reference to events of 1719)
That pirates had no God but their money, nor Saviour but their arms.
—a pirate in Ned Low’s crew, quoted in The Four Years Voyages of Capt. George Roberts (1726: the quote dates to 1722, and might be invented)
The Pyrates, tho’ singly Fellows of Courage, yet wanting such a Tye of Order, some Director to unite that Force, were a contemptible Enemy, neither killed nor wounded us a man in taking them, and must ever, in the same Circumstances, be the Fate of such Rabble.
—John Atkins, A Voyage to Guinea, Brazil, & the West Indies (1735: of the capture of Bartholomew Roberts’s Royal Fortune and his crew in 1722. Roberts was killed in the action.)
“A Pirate is a Sea-Thief, or Hostis humani generis [Enemy of all mankind], who to enrich himself, either by surprise or open force, sets upon Merchants and others trading by Sea, ever spoiling their Lading, if by an possibility he can get the master, sometimes bereaving them of their Lives and sinking their Ships; the Actors wherin, Tully calls Enemies to all, with whom neither Faith nor Oath is to be kept.”
—Charles Molloy, De Jure Maritimo Et Navali (1722: Tully is a common period nickname for Cicero.)
Pirate, Corsaire ou Forban: A thief of the sea, a sailor who cruises the seas with a vessel armed for war, to steal the vessels of friends or enemies, without distinction. He differs from a privateer [armateur] in that the latter makes war as an honest man, attacking and stealing only the enemy’s vessels, and in that he is authorized by a commission from the admiral.
— Alexandre Savérien, Dictionnaire historique, théorique et pratique de marine (1758: here a privateer is referred to as an armateur, the term for one who fits out a privateer, and not as a corsaire. Author’s translation.)
Forban: a corsair, who practices piracy without a commission from any Prince, and who attacks both friend and enemy.
—Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 4th Edition (1762: the definition of pirate is unchanged from the 1694 edition)
Lastly, the crime of piracy, or robbery and depredation upon the high seas, is an offence against the universal law of society, a pirate being, according to sir Edward Coke, hostis humani generis…The offence of piracy, by common law, consists in committing those acts of robbery and depredation on the high seas, which, if committed on land, would have amounted to felony there. But by statute, some other offenses have been made piracy also…
—William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, vol. 4 (1769)
[I]f any person, upon the high seas, or in any river, haven, or bay, out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, commit murder or robbery, on board a vessel, he shall be deemed a pirate and a felon, and shall suffer death.
—Act of Congress (1790)
As therefore he [the pirate] has renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature, by declaring war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him.
—The Trial of the Twelve Spanish Pirates (1834: government quoting from Blackstone’s Commentaries in the indictment.)
Noncommissioned vessels of a belligerent nation may at all times capture hostile ships, without being deemed, by the Law of Nations, Pirates. But they have no interest in the prizes they take, and the property so seized is condemned…
—Byerley Thomson, The Laws of War, Affecting Commerce and Shipping (1854: notwithstanding this reasoning, many rovers were hanged by an enemy as “pirates” in past centuries simply because they lacked a commission.)
Privateering is nothing more than piracy organized and legal.
—Théodore Ortolan, Règles internationales et diplomatie de la mer (1864)
Piracy: depredation without authority, or transgression of authority given, by despoiling beyond its warrant. [Then repeats Blackstone’s definition.]
Pirate: a sea robber… Also an armed ship that roams the seas without any legal commission, and seizes or plunders every vessel she meets.
—W. H. Smyth, The Sailor’s Word-Book (1867)
It is because a pirate is dangerous to everybody that he bears a caput lupinum, may be seized by anybody, and punished anywhere.
—Montague Bernard, A Historical Account of the Neutrality of Great Britain During the American Civil War (1870: “caput lupinum” means “wolf’s head,” and indicates an outlaw who may be killed on sight, like a wolf)
Those only are considered as principal or real pirates who use violence, or who go below to rummage for plunder, or who take part in frightening the persons robbed.
—Ernest Alabaster, Notes and Commentaries on Chinese Criminal Law (1899)
Piracy: commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911: definition originally published between 1881 and 1906)
The submarine warfare did not mean only the sinking of ships, but it was a crime against humanity in that it sank thousands of harmless merchantmen. In the whole history of warfare between nations that had never been sanctioned. It is rank piracy, and the pirates must receive the punishment.
—Lloyd George, quoted in the New York Times (1918: legal opinion was largely against the Prime Minister’s sentiment.)
Piracy suits my master, and that is all there is to it. His ship is his kingdom, he comes and goes as he pleases, and no man can command him. He is a law unto himself.
—Daphne du Maurier, Frenchman’s Creek (1942: again the popular view of a pirate as independent free-roving operator.)
Yes I am a pirate//Two hundred years too late//The cannons don’t thunder//There’s nothing to plunder//I’m an over forty victim of fate…
—Jimmy Buffet, A1A, “A Pirate Looks at Forty” (1974)
Piracy: Those acts of robbery and depredation upon the high seas which, if committed on land, would have amounted to a felony. Brigandage committed on the sea or from the sea.
—Black’s Law Dictionary, 5th Edition (1979: this definition is essentially Blackstone’s)
Piracy consists of any of the following acts: (a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft; (ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State; (b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft; (c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).
—United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Article 101 (1982/1994: current international law, originally drafted in 1958 as part of the UN Convention on the High Seas)
Pirate: One who robs and plunders on the sea, navigable rivers, etc., or cruises about for that purpose; one who practices piracy; a sea robber.
Piracy: The practice of the crime of robbery and depredation on the sea or navigable rivers, etc., or by descent from the sea upon the coast, by persons not holding a commission from an established civilized state.
—The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition (1989)
Pirate: an adventurer who sails the seas to pillage merchant ships or the coasts.
Piracy [Piraterie]: an act of maritime brigandage conducted by pirates.
—La Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (2002)
Pirate: one who commits or practices piracy.
Piracy: an act of robbery on the high seas: also: an act resembling such robbery.
—Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (2003)
Whoever, on the high seas, commits the crime of piracy as defined by the law of nations, and is afterwards brought into or found in the United States, shall be imprisoned for life.
—18 USC §1651 (2007, current US law: unchanged since 1909, and little changed since 1819 except for the substitution of life imprisonment for the death penalty. See UNCLOS above for current law of nations.)
Whoever, being a seaman, lays violent hands upon his commander, to hinder and prevent his fighting in defense of his vessel or the goods intrusted to him, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.
—18 USC §1655 (2007, current US law: largely unchanged since 1790.)
Whoever, upon the high seas or other waters within the admiralty and maritime jurisdiction of the United States, by surprise or open force, maliciously attacks or sets upon any vessel belonging to another, with an intent unlawfully to plunder the same, or to despoil any owner thereof of any moneys, goods, or merchandise laden on board thereof, shall be fined under this title [Piracy and Privateering] or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
—18 USC §1659 (2007, current US law: penalty increased from that of 1909, otherwise essentially unchanged)
Whoever, being engaged in any piratical cruise or enterprise, or being of the crew of any piratical vessel, lands from such vessel and commits robbery on shore, is a pirate, and shall be imprisoned for life.
—18 USC §1661 (2007, current US law: largely unchanged since 1909, and very similar to law enacted in 1820)
So began a tense five-day standoff in which the pirates repeatedly threatened to kill the captain.
—New York Times (2009: regarding the Somali pirate attack on the cargo ship Maersk Alabama and the taking of her captain, Richard Phillips, hostage.)
We can finally do it! We can leave this crappy town and live the life we’ve all dreamed of…Haven’t you heard? Haven’t you been watching the news? Pirating is back, my friends, swashbuckling adventure on the high sea, the stuff we’ve all dreamed about, and it’s all happening right here: Somalia.
—Cartman, in South Park, “Fatbeard” (2009)
Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Posted 7 June 2017.
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