PART SIX: PIRACY’S END AND BEGINNING
With the round-up of the major British pirates in the 1720s, piracy was relegated to the status of minor nuisance. European governments made efforts to keep privateers in line by limiting letters of marque and demanding bonds for assurance of good behavior. Quite likely the major restraint on piracy was the increased presence of European navies in remote areas, a side-effect of the constant European wars.
As ever the rise and fall of empire spurred sea-raiding. From 1775 to 1822 the Americas and Europe were convulsed by revolution. American, French, and Latin American revolutionaries found themselves desperately short of sea-power. Their answer was privateering. Predictably, the lure of loot undermined adherence to strictly patriotic motives.
The French Revolutionary Wars generated one of the United States’ first international crises. French and English privateers had hunted each other’s sea-trade to near extinction. Consequently merchant sailors from the United States stepped in to fill the gap. In due course the rivals began seizing vessels suspected of carrying a belligerent power’s merchandise. By 1798 attacks by French privateers on American vessels sparked a brief war at sea. In 1800 the new dictator of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, decided one global enemy was enough and adopted a conciliatory line towards Washington ending the Quasi-War.
No sooner than the Quasi-War had ended than a new crisis arose in Africa. The Barbary corsairs were taking an interest in American sipping. While Morocco took a decidedly friendly approach to the U.S., the bashaw of Libya tried to squeeze more money by declaring war in 1801. The U.S. Navy began by bungling badly and losing a frigate and its crew. But U.S. forces re-grouped and were soon shelling the bashaw’s palace.
Meanwhile a group of U.S. Marines, Greek mercenaries, and a rebel Libyan prince were making their way across the desert to enact a bit of regime change. This, perhaps more than the rather lumbering U.S.N. vessels, alarmed the bashaw sufficiently to cause to make peace in 1805 with a minor discount in blackmail. The prince was unceremoniously abandoned in the desert to make his way home.
Back in the West Indies the erstwhile French privateers found new employment as corsairs for the Latin American republics. The revolutionary juntas were suitably lax in their oversight to make privateering profitable. In time honored tradition, the raiders preferred to loot more profitable American or British vessels rather than the relatively low-profit Spanish shipping.
Although slavery was still legal throughout the Americas, there was an increased international opposition to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While slavery remained in force, importing slaves from Africa was illegal. Though perhaps it was the best that could be done at the time, the effect was to shoot prices for slaves sky-high and make slave smuggling highly profitable.
The focus of both privateering and slave smuggling was the thriving port of New Orleans. A pair of brothers, Jean and Pierre Lafitte, managed to unite the smugglers and the corsairs in an enormously profitable alliance from 1810 to 1817. Jean also dabbled in covert operations, alternately fomenting conspiracies against Spanish rule and reporting on them to Spanish authorities.
The end of the Napoleonic Wars saw the U.S. and Britain, lately enemies, deliver a one-two punch to the Barbary corsairs (Morocco excepted). In the 1820s they tackled the growing menace of West Indian piracy. Pirates, devoid of even the fig-leaf of rebel privateer commissions, had proliferated. Many found Cuba a friendly haven. The colonial authorities had a push-pull effect of compensation from pirate loot and the pleasure of seeing their American and British rivals discomfited. By 1825 most of the pirates had been swept up. The Lafittes were out of business, but slave smuggling remained highly lucrative until abolition in the 1860s.
The Pax Britannica of the 19th century was the death-knell for piracy. In the 1850s sea-raiders swarmed in Eastern waters from the Red Sea to China. They were diverse in their origins and motivation. They included the Arab corsairs of the Red Sea, the Angrians of India, the Ilaununs of Sulu Sea and other Malay raiders, and outlaws from China. These groups ranged in type from Vikings to privateers to out-and-out pirates. By the 1840s few were left. The Royal Navy, along with the expansionist Spanish and Dutch empires, swept the seas. The Age of Empire imposed a lockdown.
Privateering had its last flings in the Texas War of Independence (1835-36) and the American Civil War (1861-65). The new era called for centralization and control. Advanced military technology was no longer marketed to privately owned warships. Privateers had a long history of excess, unsuited for the new era of enlightenment and progress. Pillaging was retrograde, torpedoes and bombs embodies the modern way of war at sea.
And so matters stood. But the Pax Britannica is gone, vanished as thoroughly as the Cold War verities of the American Century. While Somali pirates are defying the world and collecting ransoms that would make Caesar wince, crime syndicates in the Far East are running hijacking rings engaged in systematically looting the busy shipping lanes of South East Asia.
The international community seems unable to mount any truly effective response. Pompey’s preferred method, crucifixion, is off the table (at least until Dick Cheney gets back to the Whitehouse). The Woodes Rogers program, generous pardons and certain hanging, is limited by the uncertainty of any kind of punishment being imposed on pirates, let alone hanging. The classic standby, recruiting them all as mercenaries, perhaps offers some hope, if only one can organize a joint Blackwater-Somali pirate venture. But if history teaches us one thing it is that each case is unique and fraught with its own perils and pitfalls.
Somewhere the Cilicians are laughing.