Simply stated, piracy is high sea robbery. Until the Somali pirates ventured upon the scene, and things got too real very quickly, we tended to romanticize pirates, secure in the belief that they were a problem of the past. We named sports teams after them (the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and even amusement rides (Pirates of the Caribbean). We connected them with buried treasure and treasure maps. We gave them whimsical names—Long John Silver, Captain Hook, and Jack Swallow. Some pirates, like Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, were heroes. At worst, the pirates portrayed in film and literature were bumbling incompetents. To be sure, we released a soft sigh about stolen or “pirated” intellectual property, but most of us looked the other way even if we did not take advantage.
In fact, piracy is a centuries’ old problem and a serious one. Pirates preyed upon Roman ships. The Vikings attacked both ships and coastal settlements. Here are eight interesting facts about piracy (and rum).
- One of the reasons that piracy died down in the nineteenth century was the British Navy. As Britain’s empire grew, so did it’s intolerance for piracy. Britain established admiralty courts that tried pirates overseas. Often pirates were left to hang as an example. Royal Navy ships patrolled shipping lanes. Both Blackbeard and Black Bart were killed battling the Royal Navy. Britain also created a fleet of small boats to follow pirates into shallow-water hideouts.
- Pirates were a tremendous problem for the newly independent United States. With independence, the United States lost the protection of the British Navy. It paid millions of dollars in tribute to the Barbary pirates, marauders with bases in North African ports like Tripoli and Tunis.
- Piracy is one of only three crimes mentioned in the United States Constitution. The Constitution gives Congress the power to define and punish piracy and other felonies committed on the high seas. The other two crimes mentioned in the Constitution are counterfeiting and treason.
- By 1801, President Thomas Jefferson had grown tired of paying tributes to the Barbary pirates, who always came back for more. In the undeclared Barbary Wars, also known as the Tripolitan Wars, the embryonic American navy took on the Barbary pirates. One American triumph occurred in 1805. That’s the source of the reference to the “shores of Tripoli” in the Marine Hymn. However, it was not until 1815, that the Barbary pirates agreed to stop preying upon American shipping and demanding tribute.
- Piracy is not the same as privateering. Privateers are ships that assist the navy in time of war. They are authorized by government letters of marque to capture enemy ships. Privateers sell the captured ships and cargo, with the proceeds divided among the captain and crew. The most renowned privateer was Sir Francis Drake, Elizabeth I’s go-to-guy for raiding Spanish shipping. During the Civil War, the Confederacy authorized privateers to raid Union merchant ships. President Lincoln declared the Confederate privateers to be pirates and to be punished accordingly. The United States has not issued a letter of marque since the War of 1812.
- Piracy, rum, and the slave trade are forever intertwined. Rum is made from sugarcane, commonly from molasses, a sugarcane byproduct. Sugarcane was cultivated by slaves in the Caribbean and made into rum in Europe or New England. Rum and manufactured goods were exported to Africa in exchange for slaves. By the eighteenth century, pirates discovered that the slave trade meant money. Many pirates entered the trade. The relationship went the other way too. It’s been estimated that nearly a third of eighteenth century pirate crews were black, but whether these crew members were slaves or pirates is unclear. In 1820 Congress passed a law that declared Americans engaging in the slave trade to be pirates.
- Watered down rum known as grog became the beverage of choice for sailors, both pirates and navy. It was named after Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy whose nickname was “Old Grog.” Unlike beer or water, grog stayed fresh on long voyages. Eventually lime juice was added to the grog to prevent scurvy. The Royal Navy discontinued the rum ration in 1970. (The United States stopped the rum ration more than a century earlier, in 1862). Vernon’s other claim to fame: Lawrence Washington, George’s brother, sailed under the Vice-Admiral. Larry named the family plantation Mt. Vernon after Old Grog.
- Wealthiest pirate according to Forbes: Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy plundered $120 million in 2008 dollars. Forbes says Black Sam’s treasure sank with him.