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Summary Article: Piracy
from Contemporary World Issues: Global Organized Crime: A Reference Handbook

As long as seafarers have engaged in commerce on the high seas, groups have existed who desired to steal their goods by any means necessary. Phoenicians, Vikings, and pirates, like today's Somalian pirates off the coast of East Africa, have ranged the oceans since the Roman era. In the enormous archives of such lore, these men have been referred to as pirates, privateers, corsairs, and freebooters, to name only a few. The quantity of names is not unlike the modern attempts to affix a proper name to organized crime groups using nomenclature such as mafia, syndicate, cartel, mob, rackets, and gangs.

By the Middle Ages piracy was already an ancient occupation for some men (and a few women). As oceanic trade increased over the centuries, so did the volume of piracy. With the expansion of global markets during the commercial expansion of the 16th and 17th centuries, pirates, too, expanded their trade routes, following the plunder trail from the Old World to the New. Sometimes European competition for trade monopolies led to war between nations on the high seas as the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish carved out empires in the Americas. These wars were often marked by unconventional warfare and the use of piracy (Karraker 1953).

The tendency by recent scholars has been to divide the halcyon years of piracy, or the “Golden Age of Piracy,” into three distinct eras lasting from 1650 and 1730. Most pirates between 1650 and the 1680s were Protestant “sea dogs” from England, northern France, and the Netherlands, who typically targeted ships from Catholic Spain. Beginning in the 1690s, Captain William Kidd and others moved their base of operations into the Indian Ocean and built a pirate enclave on the island of Madagascar. The third and most familiar era, however, was the 10 years between 1716 and 1726, an age filled with larger-than-life characters such as Edward Teach and Bartholomew Roberts (Rediker 2004). This is the era that is so entrenched in the popular culture, featuring Long John Silver of Treasure Island, the black flag of the Jolly Roger, and the notorious Blackbeard. During this decade there were an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 pirates representing a host of ethnicities and races. Together and separately they disrupted trade in what was then considered a “strategic zone of capital accumulation,” referring to the West Indies, North America, and West Africa (Rediker 2004).

An examination of piracy's so-called Golden Age between 1650 and 1730 offers up some striking parallels with global organized crime activities in the 21st century. Both pirates and slave traders exhibited a number of the characteristics consistent with modern organized crime, including the use and threat of violence, having a hierarchical structure, the use of strict rules and regulations, engaging in entrepreneurial activities, the corruption of officials, and profit motivation. Other criteria, however, such as monopolization of a particular criminal activity, longevity, racketeering and infiltration of legitimate business, restricted membership, and self-perpetuating leadership reflect more complex and urbanized societies.

Geographically, piracy took place on a global scale. Illegal pirates as well as state-sponsored ones, called privateers, had vast economic incentives to participate in the looting of cargoes of gold, jewels, grain, and even wine and drugs. The import and export market for such items was usually heavily restricted; thus in order for the smuggling system to flourish, it needed the willing participation of corrupt officials and greedy merchants, especially when it came time for the pirates to launder their ill-gotten lucre.

Economic Factors

Between 1651 and 1696, the English Parliament passed a series of Navigation Acts. These were designed to control what goods were allowed into the English colonies in North America. By stipulating that no goods could be imported into England or her colonies unless on British ships manned by British subjects, it meant a number of luxury items from other countries were now prohibited. Organized gangs of smugglers, pirates, and black marketeers were only too happy to challenge these barriers for the right price. The Navigation Acts were to 17th-century organized piracy and smuggling what alcohol and drug prohibition was to the 20th century. Colonial Americans resented the British monopoly on both shipping and trade and had no compunction about trading with pirates, establishing in effect with them an unrestricted market for cheaper goods, undercutting legitimate markets in the process. One Navigation Act in 1663 mandated that virtually all European products bound for the colonies must be landed in England first and then reloaded on English ships for the conclusion of the voyage. Ultimately added customs duties pushed up prices on a number of essentials. Portuguese salt, Irish and Scottish horses and linens, and wines from the Madeira and the Azores were just some of the products that were marked up and in the process created a healthy smuggling economy (Hoffer 2000). During alcohol Prohibition in America between 1920 and 1933, politicians and officials alike were either unwilling or unable to enforce the 18th Amendment prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Likewise colonial officials and entrepreneurs in the New World were drawn into the orbit of the smuggling system. So, although colonial governors were expected to enforce the Navigation Acts, more often than not they participated in the smuggling and corruption behaviors that exemplified organized crime more than 200 years later. By the 18th century, smuggling and black markets were a way of life in America. One estimate suggested that five-sixths of the tea consumed in most colonies had been smuggled in (Williams 1961).


Similar to attempts to define organized crime, an exact definition of piracy universally accepted over time and between places has eluded academics, government officials, and law enforcement over the centuries. During the preindustrial era most pirate organizations lasted only as long as their captains, with few demonstrating any pattern of leadership continuity. They did share, however, a number of attributes with modern international syndicates—corrupting officials, operating sometimes with state support, and selling stolen lucre to legitimate businessmen in a type of premodern money laundering system.

During the last several decades a broad definition of piracy has emerged that equates it with the taking of property with violence on the high seas. In 2005, the International Maritime Bureau, which is a clearinghouse for piracy data, defined piracy as: “Any act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act” (Walters 2007, 10).

Piracy in the 21st Century

No form of global organized crime illustrates the continuum of organized crime past and present like the ancient crime of piracy. Few observers would disagree that we are in a new “golden age” of piracy; however, technology has changed many of the pirate's tactics and strategies. During the first decade of the 21st century, pirate syndicates received millions of dollars in ransom for crews and ships. In contrast to their ancient forebears, today's pirates have access to high technology, bases in failed nation states, potential alliances with transnational terrorists, and a global economy dependent on secure commercial shipping. When the world's news organizations focused on the Indian Ocean face-off between an $800 million U.S. Navy destroyer and a handful of pirates in a lifeboat in April 2009, it became apparent that even the world's superpower had few options when confronted with low-tech pirates on the high seas (Mazzetti 2009). This incident was the first time in 200 years that pirates had captured a U.S. vessel for ransom (Gettleman 2009). In the infancy of the American republic, President Thomas Jefferson sent Marines to the shores of Tripoli to free sailors taken hostage by the Barbary pirates (today's Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya).

Most suggestions for countering piracy have revolved around sea marshals, SEAL snipers, and punitive expeditions to destroy pirate strongholds. In 2009, however, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained that what created the pirate business off the coast of Somalia was a malfunctioning government faced with anarchy. Although the country has a national government, the Transitional National Government, it controls little territory. For centuries pirate networks have exploited ungoverned voids. Three hundred years ago, however, nation states operated without the restrictions that accentuate complex international law. Nation states and their navies were unimpeded in their hunt for pirates while today's world is a tangled mess hampered by jurisdictional and sovereignty issues, and human rights laws.

Ocean-going piracy is most prevalent on the fringes and coasts of the world's failed and failing states. Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, has not had a stable government for more than 20 years. In 2008, more than 90 vessels were attacked, more than one-third successfully. Ransoms have harvested millions and millions of dollars.

Each year some 20,000 merchant ships opt for the shortest route from Asia to Europe by taking the Suez Canal (Meyer 2008). Unfortunately for them at some juncture of a round trip through the canal, they will have to pass through the most active pirate freebooters who ply the waters of the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia (Keath and Quinn 2008).

In December 2008, Somali pirates accepted a ransom for a Ukrainian ship bearing tanks and other heavy weapons. In that year alone pirate attacks off the coast of Africa had risen 75 percent over the previous year (Gutterman 2008). Although there have been no substantiated connections between pirates and Islamic militants in Somalia, what worries Western nations most is that this plundered cargo in the form of weapons might be removed and sold to hard-line Islamic extremists. Fears of the Talibanization of the region by armed groups, where no stable government has ruled for more than 20 years, is a constant concern.

Piracy is considered the biggest moneymaker in Somalia, which The Economist referred to as Africa's most failed state in 2008, when pirates plundered an estimated $30 million of cargo for ransom (Economist, Nov. 22, 2008). The impact on global world trade has been felt in a number of ways. Ransoms mean higher insurance premiums and delays for customers as more ships opt for the longer path around the Cape of Good Hope. This in turn means lower revenues for the Suez Canal and another variable to be taken into account by the oil exporting nations and their markets.

In a failed state such as Somalia, there is no lack of recruits for pirate life. Armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, small groups of pirates have been able to hijack sophisticated sea craft the size of multiple football fields and carrying cargoes in the tens of billions of dollars.

What distinguishes today's pirates from earlier incarnations is that they use minimal violence against hostages and rarely steal cargoes, preferring to wait for ransoms. The hijacking of the Saudi-owned tanker the Sirius Star—as long as an aircraft carrier—exemplifies the global transnational scale of modern shipping and piracy. Built in South Korea, flying the Liberian flag, and with a multinational crew counting citizens from Great Britain, Poland, Croatia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, the tanker carried $100 million worth of crude oil when it was captured in November 2008. Spurred by the world oil markets, it was still an audacious attack that was noteworthy for several reasons. It was the largest ship ever attacked and officials were notably surprised that such low-tech pirates could operate so far out at sea. Typically working within 200 miles of the coast of East Africa, this attack took place 450 nautical miles from the port of Mombasa, Kenya. By all accounts it was a highly organized attack in which several high-speed inflatable rafts containing four to six gunmen were launched from a mother vessel (Daraghi and Sanders 2008). When the pirates reached the ship, it seemed like a scene out of Hollywood as they threw ladders with grappling hooks onto the ship's rails before making a beeline for the bridge in order to capture the vessel's nerve center and engine room. But instead of swords and pistols they carried modern automatic weapons.

As for the pirates themselves, they are much less organized than in previous eras. Their access to modern communications technology, however, is probably more important than sheer numbers and structure. Experts assert that the pirates were merely “foot soldiers” who were paid a previously agreed on fixed amount. Ransom negotiations were conducted by middlemen conversant in English who have access to satellite phones. In case a ship is held for a long period, the middlemen may put together a group of investors who raise cash for supplies and other costs that will be recouped with interest once the ransom is paid (Houreld 2008).

Despite all attempts to tar all pirates with the same brush, as disorganized and amateurish, this still belies the fact that a sophisticated criminal network operates somewhere behind the army of poorly trained buccaneers. One Kenyan maritime official has even compared the pirates to an incarnation of the American Mafia, as some extensive and wealthy organization buttressed by high-level informants inside various East African governments (Axe 2009).

Piracy Then and Now

One of the most obvious characteristics of organized crime groups today is the willingness to use violence in pursuit of their operations. Pirates played a role in creating their sinister image by the way they dressed, sometimes treated prisoners, and flew the skull and crossbones (but there is no evidence anyone was ever forced to walk the plank!).

What few original pirate rules and regulations that survive reveal a number of parallels with modern organized crime groups. Pirates, for example, described how to divide up plunder, choose officers, and enforce discipline, as well as what behavior would be tolerated (Rediker 1987). By agreeing to these rules, new members cemented their loyalty to the pirate subculture. Rules that most closely parallel the rules of traditional organized crime groups are intended to preserve harmony in the pirate crews and confederations by specifically detailing how to resolve quarrels and by prohibiting gambling, cowardice, desertion, drunkenness, and certain disrespect to female hostages. In like fashion modern criminal syndicates from the Mexican Mafia and the Aryan Brotherhood to the Chinese Triads, Russian syndicates, and the Italian Mafia adhere to distinct rules and regulations, with well-understood prohibitions against substance abuse and mistreating women. Some modern crack houses in America's inner cities even post rules and potential punishments on their walls. In other organizations there are often unwritten rules that are meant to maintain discipline, such as not fighting among themselves. In some pirate crews, new members were expected to swear an oath over a Bible to obey the rules, not unlike the initiation ceremonies of the Neapolitan Camorra, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and the Sicilian Mafia.

Piracy flourished for decades in the New World because of the complicity of colonial politicians, business merchants, and the colonies themselves. Modern criminologists have asserted that for piracy to flourish it needed the corruption of officials, customs agents, and the merchant class (Mueller and Adler 1985). In fact corruption sometimes existed at every level of the fledgling colonial economies. Merchants dined with pirate captains, governors sold special government commissions to pirates that allowed them to plunder enemy ships, customs officers were bribed, and leading citizens sold pirates rum, weapons, and provisions. One observer even commented on how politicians and merchants in 1699 obstructed the efforts of honest officials along the Atlantic seaboard. Others point out that the “pirate industry” was the foundation for the economic prosperity in some colonies. In 2009, corruption continues to flourish, facilitating the growth of global and international crime syndicates. This is just the latest chapter in a continuing saga that has been playing out around the world for centuries.

Copyright © 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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