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Pirate Research

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Piracy is robbery committed at sea, or sometimes on the shore, by an agent without a commission from a sovereign nation. One who commits piracy by engaging in robbery, pillaging, or plundering at sea is known as a pirate.

Pirates - An Overview

A privateer or corsair used similar methods to a pirate, but acted while in possession of a commission or letter of marque from a government or king authorizing the capture of merchant ships belonging to an enemy nation. The famous Barbary Corsairs of the Mediterranean were privateers, as were the Maltese Corsairs, who were authorized by the Knights of St. John. The letter of marque was recognized by convention—for example, the United States Constitution of 1787 specifically authorizes Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal—and meant that a privateer could not technically be charged with piracy. This nicety of law did not always save the individuals concerned, however, as whether one was considered a pirate or a legally operating privateer often depended on whose custody the individual found himself in—that of the country that had issued the commission, or that of the object of attack. Under the Declaration of Paris of 1854, seven nations agreed to suspend the use of the letter of marque, and others followed in the Hague Conventions.



Oh To Be a Pirate


The Law They Followed...
And the Laws that Followed Them!

The Pirate Code?



Declaration Respecting Maritime Law Scroll Picture
Paris, 16 April 1856.

The Plenipotentiaries who signed the Treaty of Paris of the thirtieth of March, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six, assembled in Conference, --
That maritime law, in time of war, has long been the subject of deplorable disputes;
That the uncertainty of the law and of the duties in such a matter, gives rise to differences of opinion between neutrals and belligerents which may occasion serious difficulties, and even conflicts;
That it is consequently advantageous to establish a uniform doctrine on so important a point;
That the Plenipotentiaries assembled in Congress at Paris cannot better respond to the intentions by which their Governments are animated, than by seeking to introduce into international relations fixed principles in this respect;
The above-mentioned Plenipotentiaries, being duly authorized, resolved to concert among themselves as to the means of attaining this object; and, having come to an agreement, have adopted the following solemn Declaration:

  1. Privateering is, and remains, abolished;
  2. The neutral flag covers enemy's goods, with the exception of contraband of war;
  3. Neutral goods, with the exception of contraband of war, are not liable to capture under enemy's flag;
  4. Blockades, in order to be binding, must be effective, that is to say, maintained by a force sufficient really to prevent access to the coast of the enemy.

The Governments of the undersigned Plenipotentiaries engage to bring the present Declaration to the knowledge of the States which have not taken part in the Congress of Paris, and to invite them to accede to it.
Convinced that the maxims which they now proclaim cannot but be received with gratitude by the whole world, the undersigned Plenipotentiaries doubt not that the efforts of their Governments to obtain the general adoption thereof, will be crowned with full success.
The present Declaration is not and shall not be binding, except between those Powers who have acceded, or shall accede, to it.

Done at Paris, the sixteenth of April, one thousand eight hundred and fifty-six.

(Here follow signatures)

Source: Washburn University Archive of Foreign and International Treaties

Gavel Banging

International Chamber of Commerce-Commercial Crime
International Maritime Bureau


Captain Robert Surcouf, frenchprivateer

More on Surcouf


Sailors of the Empire


King of Corsairs and Napoleon's France

Privateering Under Napoleon




 Guerre de Course or Commerce Raiding

Commerce raiding or guerre de course is a naval strategy of attacking an opponent's commercial shipping rather than contending for control of the seas with its naval forces. The objective is to make the war too expensive for the opponent to continue it.

Usually, commerce raiding is chosen by the weaker naval power who has little chance to succeed against the naval forces of its opponent.

Napoleonic Wars
During Britain's wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France, the Royal Navy dominated the seas. France adopted a guerre de course strategy by licensing civilian privateers to seize British shipping.


Timeline of King of Corsairs & Napoleons France


Europe in 1798

BBC History

Project Guttenberg:The Influence of Sea Power on History

The main reason for the French guerre de course  in the Indian Ocean was the dominant rich British  trade with India. For the French, the most important  ships in warfare were the private ship-owners with civilian crews, who had from the government a special lettre de marque identifying them as ships of war and such ships were the corsairs, this same name designating the commander of the ship and his crew. For some years the corsairs managed to make Mauritius and La Réunion very rich. From 1794 to 1810 there were about 110 French privateers and they made 193 cruises around the Indian Ocean. Several privateers were based in Mauritius and the Seychelles, amongst the most famous where three brothers are Robert, Nicolas and Noël Surcouf of Mauritius and the Hodoul brothers, Jean-François, Bathélémy and Antoine of Seychelles.

In 1803 with the appointment by the little corporal  the first consul Napoleon Bonaparte (Napoleone Bounaparte) of Charles Mathieu Isidore Decaen as Captain-General of French establishments east of Cape of Good Hope and the expedition of Admiral Charles Alexandre Durand de Linois to the Indian Ocean. This marked the initiation and determined effort by the French to attack the British by means of warships. Isidore Decaen a hot tempered Norman, bright military man, a former law student, a lawyer’s articled clerk and extravagant in money matters. He later used his forte in law to write his famous Code Decaen which is still in use in Mauritius and Seychelles. Durand de Linois was a calm and polite Breton very economical and was a brilliant sea man. Both their names are engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

In 1808 France’s moves and tactics in despatching four newly armed frigates was very successful, Napoléon acted on the advised of Robert Surcouf by sending them individually they managed to capture large Indiamen and destroyed many British frigates. Their success and that of the corsairs forced Britain to build up a powerful force which later captured all the French possessions in the Indian Ocean. The main consequence for the French defeat was the failure of her high personalities (La Bourdonnais and Dupleix; Decaen and de Linois) to work together.   With strong forces from the Cape, Bombay and Madras the British first took the Island of Rodrigues, in 1809, then La Réunion, on 7th July 1810 where the British managed to take the battery and a post at Ste Marie. Their landing of 4,000 troops (including a detachment of Sepoys from Bombay) at Grande Chaloupe met little resistance. On the next day the French Colonel Sainte Suzanne together with Commodore Josias Rowley, Lieutenant-Colonel Keating and Robert T Farquhar signed the capitulation of La Réunion. Later the main base of Mauritius was taken on 3rd December 1810, Tamatave on February 1811 and lastly the Seychelles on 21st April 1811, even though the later was the first to capitulate.   from


Modern Pirates Terrorize Seas With Guns and Grenades

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
July 6, 2006

Piracy may seem like a romanticized scourge of the past.

In reality, piracy is flourishing from Sumatra to Somalia, and today's pirates are far from the lovable rogues who populate swashbuckling movies like the new Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.

Somalian gunman guarding against pirates photo

"There's nothing romantic about piracy," said Capt. Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), based in London, England.

"These are ruthless people who are heavily armed and prey on people that are weaker than them."

IMB is a division of the Paris, France-based International Chamber of Commerce, which combats all types of business-related crime and malpractice.

According to IMB, pirate attacks around the world tripled in the decade between 1993 and 2003.

In 2003 alone there were 445 actual or attempted attacks in which 16 people were killed.

In the first three months of 2006, there were 61 successful or attempted attacks, compared to 56 incidents in the same period last year.

At least 63 people have been taken hostage this year—twice the number of hostages taken in the same period last year.

World's Most Dangerous Waters

Modern pirates prey mostly on cargo ships but also on fishing vessels, according to IMB.

Low-end pirates may not be interested in the cargo being transported. Instead they will board a ship and hold up the crew long enough to steal the large amounts of cash that many ships carry for payroll and port fees. More sophisticated pirates are usually members of organized gangs that may commandeer ships and hold crews for ransom.

In some cases, pirates have forced the crew off a ship and sailed it to a port, where they repaint the vessel and give it a new identity through false papers.

Somalian gunman guarding against pirates photo

Another type of attack involves a coordinated effort by several boats that target a single ship.

"One boat may attack from the front," Mukundun said. "While the bridge is busy trying to avoid a crash, two other boats can sneak up from behind and board the ship."

According to IMB, the waters around Indonesia continue to be the world's most dangerous, with 19 pirate attacks in the first three months of this year.

These waters are among the most heavily trafficked in the world, and organized crime gangs hold sway over parts of them.

"Indonesia represents 25 to 30 percent of the attacks," Mukundun said.

Many attacks occur while ships slow their speeds to navigate narrow straits, such as the Strait of Malacca, a narrow stretch of water between western Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra .

Slowing down makes the ships vulnerable to being overtaken and boarded by armed men traveling in smaller motorboats.

Until recently, none of this year's attacks had occurred in the Strait of Malacca.

But within the last week three ships were attacked in the area, two of them ships carrying United Nations food aid to Aceh—an Indonesian city still suffering the ill effects of the December 2004 tsunami.

Now a crackdown on piracy by the Indonesian authorities appears to be paying off. The Indonesian navy has so far arrested numerous pirate gangs in several intelligence-led actions.

"It still remains to be seen if the situation in the Strait of Malacca has been improved in the long-term," Mukundun said.

Pirates of Somalia

If the situation has improved somewhat in Indonesia, it has gotten far worse in the waters off Somalia.

 The country, which sits on the East African coast, has seen attacks shoot up from 1 in 2004 to 19 in 2005.

In June last year a ship named Semlow was transporting rice to northeastern Somalia for the UN World Food Program the New York Times reported.

Heavily armed pirates attacked the boat in the middle of the night. The ten-man crew was held hostage for 101 days before being released in October.

"These pirates are worse than the pirates we read about in history books," one of the captured crew members, Juma Muita, told the newspaper.

"These Somali pirates are better armed, and they want ransom, not just our goods."

In another Somalia incident, pirates lured a vessel close to shore by setting off distress flares.

And late last year a luxury cruise liner with some 300 tourists came under attack by Somalian gunmen in speedboats.

The pirates fired automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades at the cruise ship but were unable to board.

"Law-Enforcement Vacuum"

In most cases prosecuting pirates is particularly difficult, because many of the attacks take place outside the territorial waters of any state.

But attacks off Somalia are likely increasing because more pirates are taking advantage of the lack of a functioning government in the African country.

"There's a law-enforcement vacuum in Somalia into which pirates and other criminals have moved in," IMB's Mukundun said.

What's more, some of the private groups professing to fight piracy are instead reportedly engaged in it.

One such group, calling itself the National Volunteer Guard, intercepts small boats and fishing vessels in southern Somalia.

A similar group operating around the capital city of Muqdisho (Mogadishu) is known as the Somali Marines.

The problem has become so bad that IMB sends out daily signals to ships to steer at least 200 miles (322 kilometers) clear of the Somalian coast.

Mukundun says pirates usually seek to take boats within 12 miles (19 kilometers) of the Somalian coast, because the criminals know no rescue vessel from another country can legally follow beyond this border.

The U.S. Navy, however, recently started patrolling the international waters off Somalia as part of its broader antiterrorism activities in the region, according to the New York Times.

In January the U.S. destroyer Winston S. Churchill intercepted an Indian vessel far off the Somalian coast. The vessel had been secretly taken over by pirates some days before and was being used as a base for pirate attacks.

The pirates were taken into custody and transferred to Kenya, where they face trial.

Their lawyer reportedly maintains that his clients are just fishers who became stranded at sea and sought the aid of the Indian vessel.