1902 Encyclopedia > Piracy


PIRACY. Sir Edward Coke (Instit. iii. 113) describes a pirate (Latin pirata, from Greek) as hostis humani generis, and as a rover and robber upon the sea. Piracy may be defined in law as an offence which consists in the commission of those acts of pillage and violence upon the high seas which on land would amount to felony. By the ancient common law of England piracy, if committed by a subject, was deemed to be a species of treason, being contrary to his natural allegiance, and by a alien to be felony; but since the Statute of Treasons, 25 Edw. III. c. 23 (1351-52), piracy has been held to be felony only. Formerly this offence was only cognizable by the Admiralty courts, whose proceedings were based upon the civil law, but by the statute 28 Hen. VIII. c. 15 (1536) a new jurisdiction proceeding according to the common law was set up which modified and regulated by subsequent enachments, such as 39 Geo. III. c. 37 (1798-99), 4 & 5 Will. IV. c. 36 (1834), and 7 & 8 to Vict. c. 2 (1844), continues to be the tribunal by which offenders of this description are tried.

Piracy, being a crime not against any particular state but against all mankind, may be punished in the competent court of any country where the offender may be found or into which he may be carried. But, whilst the law of nations gives to every one the right to pursue and exterminate pirates without any previous declaration of war (pirates holding no commission or delegated authority from any sovereign or state), it is not allowed to kill them without trial except in battle. Those who surrender or are taken prisoners must be brought before the proper tribunal and dealt with according to law.

The earliest of all sea-rovers were perhaps the Phoenicians. During the heroic age of Greece piracy was universally practiced. In the Homeric poems frequent mention is made of piracy, which indeed was held in honorable estimation, - the vocation of a pirate being recognized, so that a host, when he asked his guest what was the purpose of his voyage, would enumerate enrichment by indiscriminate maritime plunder as among those projects which might naturally enter into his contemplation. So late as the time of Solon the Phoceans, on account of the sterility of their soil, were forced to roam the seas as pirates. That legislator tolerated whilst he regulated the association of sea-rovers which he found established by inveterate usage. The prevalence of the piratical spirit in Greece in the early ages may perhaps be explained by the number of small independent states into which the country was divided, and the violent animosity subsisting among them. in this way predatory habits were diffused and kept alive. As a more regular system of government grew up, and a few states such as Athens and Corinth had become naval powers, piracy was made a capital offence. It was, however, never entirely put down. Cilicia was at all times the great stronghold of the pirates of antiquity, and in consequence of the decline of the maritime forces which had kept them in check they increased so much in numbers and audacity as to insult the majesty of Rome itself, so that it became necessary to send Pompey against them with a large fleet and army and more extensive powers than had ever previously been conferred on any Roman general. The Etruscans were notorious sea-rovers who infested the Mediterranean; and Polybius relates that the Romans imposed upon the Carthaginians as a condition of peace the stipulation that they should not sail beyond Cape Faro, either for the purposes of trade or piracy.

Hallam (Middle Ages, iii. 336) says that in the 13th and 14th centuries a rich vessel was never secure from attack, and neither restitution nor punishment of the criminals was to be obtained from Government. Hugh Despenser seized a Genoese vessel valued at 14,300 marks, for which no restitution was ever made. The famous Hanseatic League was formed in the middle of the 13th century in northern Germany chiefly for the purpose of protecting the ships of the confederated cities from the attacks of the pirates by which the Baltic was then infested.

A graphic account of piracy as it existed at the end of the 16th century in European waters, especially on the English, French, and Dutch coasts, will be found in Motley, Hist. United Netherlands (vols. iii. and iv). The nuisance was not abated in Europe until the feudal system had been subverted and the ascendancy of the law finally secured. In more modern times some of the smaller West India Islands became a great resort of pirates, from which, however, they have for many years been driven; for continued acts of piracy the city of Algiers was successfully bombarded by the British fleet under Lord Exmouth as lately as August 1816; and pirates are still not unfrequently met with in the Indian and Chinese seas, but piracy in its original form is no longer in vogue. The BUCCANEERS (q.v.) were cruel piratical adventures of a later date who commenced their depredations on the Spaniards soon after they had taken possession of the American continent and the West Indies, although there was a time when the spirit of buccaneering approached in some degree to the spirit of chivalry in point of adventure. Scaliger observes in a strain of doubtful compliment, "Nulli melius piraticam exercent quam Angli." The first levy of ship money in England in 1635 was to defray the expense of chastising these pirates. The buccaneering confederacy was broken up through the peace of Ryswick in 1697.

At a very early period of English history the law provided for the restitution of property taken by pirates, if found within the realm, whether belonging to strangers or Englishmen; but any foreigner suing for the recovery of his goods was required to prove that at the time of the capture his own sovereign and the sovereign of the captor were in mutual amity, for it was held that piracy could not be committed by the subjects of states at war with each other. In England the crown is, generally speaking, entitled to all bona piratorum; but if any person can establish a title to the goods the claim of the crown thereto ceases by 13 & 14 Vict. c 26 (1850), ships and effects captured from pirates are to be restored on the payment of one-eight of their value (by way of salvage), which is to be distributed among the recaptors.

Cowel (Law Dict., 1727) states that in former times the word pirate was used in a better sense than that of a sea-robber, being attributed to persons to whose care the mole or pier of a haven was entrusted, and, quoting the learned Spelman, he adds, sometimes to a sea soldier: "Robertus vero Comes (Normaniae) attemptavit venire in Angliam cum magno exercitu, sed a pirates Regis qui curam maris a Rege (Willielmo) susceperant repulses est" (Glossarium, 1687, p. 460). ( J. C. W.)

The article above was written by: James Claude Webster, Barrister of the Middle Temple, London.

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