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piracy, robbery committed or attempted on the high seas. It is distinguished from privateering in that the pirate holds no commission from and receives the protection of no nation but usually attacks vessels of all nations.

As the line between privateering and piracy is often hard to draw, any act of doubtful legality committed on the seas is apt to be characterized as piracy. Thus the sinking of merchant vessels by the Germans in World War I was characterized by some as piracy, although the act was done on the authority of a national state. However, at the Washington Conference of 1921 a treaty was concluded that declared that improper visit and search (see search, right of) by one in the service of any power would constitute piracy.

Since piracy is a crime against humanity, those practicing it may be tried in any competent court, regardless of nationality. To the forms of piracy defined by international law, however, a nation may add offenses committed on board its own vessels or in its own territorial waters.


Because it is often the result of failure or laxity in patrolling sea routes, piracy flourished in times of unrest, or when navies ordinarily protecting commerce were engaged in war. Pirates found their most suitable base of operations in an archipelago that offered shelter together with proximity to trade routes. Pirates preyed upon Phoenician and Greek commerce and were so active in the 1st cent. B.C. that Rome itself was almost starved by their interception of the grain convoys.

Pompey swept piracy from the Mediterranean, but with the decline of the Roman empire it revived there and was prevalent until modern times. Muslim pirates infested the W Mediterranean; the Venetians, who ostensibly policed the E Mediterranean, preyed upon the maritime trade of rival cities; and the Barbary States got much of their revenue from piracy. In the North, the Vikings harassed the commerce of the Baltic Sea and the English Channel. Emerging in the 13th cent., the Hanseatic League succeeded in curbing the piracy of its era.

New trade routes opened during the Renaissance, e.g., the shipment of precious metals from the Spanish colonies, the rich trade with the East, and the development of the slave trade, that made piracy especially lucrative. At this period no great stigma was attached to piracy because maritime law had not been systematized. This fact, together with the increasing colonial rivalry of the powers, led states to countenance those pirates who promoted the national cause by attacking the commerce of rival nations. With the tacit approval of the provincial authorities, the West Indies became a pirates' rendezvous, and the English buccaneers of the Spanish Main in the 17th and 18th cent., who despoiled the Spanish treasure armadas and pillaged Spanish-American coast settlements, returned to England to divide their spoils with the crown and to receive the royal pardon.

The development of national navies caused the decline of piracy. Beginning in 1803, the United States endeavored to crush the corsairs of Tripoli. In 1815 and 1816 the United States, the Netherlands, and Great Britain wiped out the Barbary pirates, who had exacted tribute under the threat of capturing ships and imprisoning their crews. In 1816, Great Britain and the United States began operations against pirates in the West Indies, particularly those on the Cuban coast, and in 1824 the United States sent David Porter to complete the task. The power of the pirates along the Straits of Malacca and the China seas was broken after the Opium Wars in the late 19th cent. During the Spanish Civil War the major powers agreed (1937) at the Nyon Conference on an antipiracy pact after mysterious attacks on merchant ships in the Mediterranean. Small-scale piracy has persisted in some regions, particularly in the Gulf of Guinea off W Africa, off Indonesia and SE and S Asia, in South American, Caribbean, and Mexican waters, and in the Red Sea and off Somalia. In the early 21st cent. the lawlessness in Somalia led to the rise there, initially mainly in the Gulf of Aden but subsequently over much of the NW Indian Ocean, of more significant organized piracy for ransom. Several nations stationed warships offshore to combat it and protect the Suez shipping lanes, and merchant ships traveling in the region began carrying armed guards, leading to a large drop in ship seizures by 2012. In the late 2010s piracy and kidnapping for ransom by militants in the Philippines's Sulu Archipelago affected shipping in the Sulu and Celebes seas, but by 2019 the Gulf of Guinea was the site of the greatest number of crew kidnappings and other incidents.

Famous Real and Fictional Pirates

Famous names appearing in the long history of piracy include Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins, the Elizabethan buccaneers, Edward Mansfield, Henry Morgan, Jacques Nau, Jean Laffite, and Edward Teach (Blackbeard). There is some doubt as to whether the activities of Captain Kidd constituted piracy.

The pirate is a frequent figure in literature, especially in books written for children. Perhaps the most famous fictional pirate is Long John Silver in R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper each wrote a novel entitled The Pirate, Charles Kingsley wrote of buccaneers in Westward Ho!, and Sir William Gilbert ridiculed pirate stories in his Pirates of Penzance.


See H. A. Ormerod, Piracy in the Ancient World (1924); P. Gosse, The History of Piracy (1932, repr. 1968); C. H. Karraker, Piracy Was a Business (1953); A. L. Hayward, The Book of Pirates (1956); R. Carse, The Age of Piracy (1957, repr. 1965); H. Cochran, Freebooters of the Red Sea (1965); A. G. Course, Pirates of the Eastern Seas (1966); D. Heller-Roazen, The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations (2009); J. Bahadur, The Pirates of Somalia (2011).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



robbery at sea; in international law, the illegal seizure, robbing, or sinking of merchant and other civilian vessels on the high seas by privately owned or state-owned ships. During wartime an attack on the merchant vessels of neutral countries by warships, submarines, and combat aircraft is equivalent to piracy.

Historically, as long as there has been navigation there has also been piracy. For example, in ancient Greece piracy was regarded as a legal way of getting rich, on a par with maritime trade. During the Middle Ages pirates (especially the corsairs) engaged in more than robbery: they seized bondsmen, traded in slaves, plundered coastal cities and settlements and demanded ransom from them, and even collected tribute. Some countries used piracy in the struggle to rule the seas and seize new lands. In the 17th century, for example, England and France used pirates (flibustiers) to fight against Spain and to seize colonies in America.

From the mid-17th century to the second half of the 19th century, legalized robbery at sea (in Russian, kaperstvo) was widely practiced by the major sea powers. For a long time, this infringed on the interests of other nations and undermined the principle of freedom of navigation on the high seas. Attempts to restrict piracy and categorize it as an international crime date from the Roman period.

In modern international law, customary norms have developed, according to which pirate ships and their crews are not to be protected by any state. A pirate ship may be pursued on the high seas, and, if it offers resistance, it may be sunk by the warships of any country. The crew of a pirate ship is subject to criminal prosecution and punishment; the ship itself may be confiscated, under the laws of the country that captures it. Warships of any state have the right to stop a vessel if they have sufficient grounds to suspect that it is engaged in piracy.

The problem of combating piracy by states emerged during the period of the Italian-German intervention in Spain (1936— 39), when German and Italian submarines made piratical attacks on merchant ships of the USSR, Great Britain, France, and other countries. On Sept. 14, 1937, the participants in the International Conference to End Submarine Piracy in the Mediterranean signed the Nyon Agreement, which called for collective measures against piratical acts by submarines. After World War II (1939–45), Chiang Kai-shek’s forces made a number of piratical attacks on the merchant ships of various countries (1953–54). In the 1960’s and 1970’s instances of piracy against small merchant and fishing vessels have become more common in the South China Sea, the Andaman Sea, and the Philippine Sea.

The customary norms of international law on combating piracy were codified in the Geneva Convention on the High Seas (1958).


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


(aerospace engineering)
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


Plague (See DISEASE.)
Barbary Coast Mediterranean
coastline of former Barbary States; former pirate lair. [Afr. Hist.: NCE, 229]
Blackbeard (Edward Teach,
d. 1718) colorful, albeit savage, corsair. [Br. Hist.: Jameson, 495]
Conrad, Lord
proud, ascetic but successful buccaneer. [Br. Lit.: The Corsair, Walsh Modern, 104]
Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596) British
navigator and admiral; famed for marauding expeditions against Spanish. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 793]
mythical, prehistoric, giant pirates who raided and pillaged Irish coast. [Irish Legend: Leach, 409]
Hawkins, Sir John (1532–1595) British
admiral; led lucrative slave-trading expeditions. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1206]
Hook, Captain
treacherous pirate in Never-Never Land. [Br. Lit.: Peter Pan]
Jolly Roger
black pirate flag with white skull and crossbones. [World Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 926]
Jonsen, Captain
boards ship taking seven children to England, seizes its valuables, and sails off with the children, who have their own piratical plans. [Br. Lit.: The Innocent Voyage (High Wind in Jamaica) in Magill II, 488]
Kidd, Captain William (1645–1701) British
captain; turned pirate. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1476]
Lafitte, Jean (1780–1826)
leader of Louisiana band of privateers and smugglers. [Am. Hist.: NCE, 1516]
Morgan, Sir Henry
(1635–1688) Welsh buccaneer; took over privateer band after Mansfield’s death. [Br. Hist.: NCE, 1832]
Silver, Long John
one-legged corsair; leads mutiny on Hispaniola. [Br. Lit.: Treasure Island]
Singleton, Captain
buccaneer acquires great wealth depredating in West Indies and Indian Ocean. [Br. Lit.: Captain Singleton]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Brit robbery on the seas within admiralty jurisdiction
2. a felony, such as robbery or hijacking, committed aboard a ship or aircraft
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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Sabotage and vandalism. See software piracy and Internet piracy.
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