The history of pirates have been a problem since the days of ancient Rome, and piracy boomed in the 16th century. English privateers were renowned for their attacks on Spanish shipping, while in North Africa pirates continually attacked and looted ships. Off the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar in the 18th Century pirates passed their booty to the French royalty.
Off the Barbary Coast in North Africa, it became known as the ultimate destination for pirates. In the period from the 16th through to the 19th century, the Barbary Coast was controlled by the Islamic states which fell under the powerful and extensive Ottoman Empire. In reality the Barbary pirates were sponsored by wealthy and influential backers who received a handsome 10% of the overall pirate takings. Not so different to piracy activities in the 21st century it may be argued. That ended with the United States and the Barbary Wars.
The United States Navy has a long history of pirates when it comes to battling pirates. The two Barbary Wars in 1801 and 1815 on the coast of North Africa came about when the United States decided it would no longer make tribute payments to pirates, and when they were victorious in 1815 these payments ceased.
It is perhaps little known that the United States Marine Corps were also a major part of these battles. The Marine Hymn opening line is “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” with the shores of Tripoli directly referring to the Barbary pirate wars. These actions also earned the Marines that famous nickname of leathernecks as the Marine uniform had a leather high collar to protect them against the swinging cutlasses of pirates when they were boarding ships.
The history of pirates is also about punishment. There was a time a couple of hundred years ago where pirates were spared no quarter and punished with extraordinary brutality. Way back in 75 BC Cilician pirates kidnapped Julius Caesar while he was on a voyage across the Aegean Sea. He was held for ransom at the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa. They initially demanded a ransom of 20 talents, and Caesar had them up it to 50 talents as he thought it undervalued him. On payment and his release, he then raised a fleet of ships and hunted down, captured and then crucified all of the pirates.
There was never too much dissent when pirates were punished by dancing the hempen jig (hanging), beheading and more. There is a reason why the place of execution in London was known as Execution Dock. In the 19th century, British naval vessels were responsible for nearly eradicating piracy.
In fact the death penalty for piracy on the high seas remained on the statute books until as late as 1998. William Teach or Captain Blackbeard as he is known, had his head summarily chopped off after a fierce fight to the end and this was displayed on the bowsprit of the naval commander’s ship as a deterrent. In fact it was Blackbeard’s piracy tactics in blockading the South Carolina port of Charleston that come closest to the current Somali problem. The history of pirates is not a happy one.