Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has familiarized us with the devious and delightful Captain Jack Sparrow, whose swaggering good humor and wistful philosophizing sit firmly in the long tradition of romanticized piracy. “Wherever we want to go, we’ll go,” he famously declares. “That’s what a ship is, you know. It’s not just a keel and a hull and a deck and sails—that’s what a ship needs. But what a ship is…is freedom.”
The dashing, Johnny Depp-ian swashbuckler may live in our stories, but that’s about it, writes Peter Lehr in Pirates: A New History, from Vikings to Somali Raiders. He explores the history of piracy—the “action of committing robbery, kidnap, or violence at sea or from the sea without lawful authority and for private gain”—since the eighth century in three historical hotspots of piracy: Northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and East Asia. And he determines that the motivation for “turning pirate” has rarely had anything to do with a yearning for open waters. “Piracy was not so much about romanticism and adventure as about greed and grievance, with some measure of creed or religion thrown into the mix,” he writes. “What made individuals become pirates was an exercise into rational choice that included factors such as current living conditions, expected returns from piracy, and the probability of getting away with it.”
Often, it is the downtrodden of a particular society who turn to piracy when their luck on land runs out. Whether the eleventh-century Orang Laut pirates raiding ships in the Straits of Malacca, or Blackbeard disrupting Britain’s colonial trade in the Caribbean, or today’s Nigerian pirates siphoning crude oil from a tanker, those who become pirates have made the calculation that the potential reward outweighs the risks—or the losses of remaining law-abiding. Another feature of piracy is the “gray area” that many pirates occupy. The difference between a pirate and a privateer, one commissioned as a raider by a state power, is often hard to distinguish. From the pirates’ perspective, a crew could operate freelance one day and take a legal job the next—whichever might be the most profitable. That’s just what medieval pirate Eustace the Black Monk did, abandoning his Benedictine monastery for a combination of piracy and privateering, switching allegiances between the English and the French depending on the price. Some pirates lowered the Jolly Roger when the authorities hired them to hunt pirates instead—like the seventeenth-century Welsh privateer Henry Morgan, who not only went on to become the lieutenant governor of Jamaica but has also been immortalized on an eponymous brand of rum.
Lehr examines the three historical periods in which piracy flourished. In the first era, from 700 to 1500, piracy was found in various parts of the world, but activity tended to be localized. Regions with islands were especially conducive to ambushing a passing ship or terrorizing affluent coastal towns. In Northern Europe, the Vikings raided settlements and monasteries; other loosely organized groups of privateers-turned-pirates known as the Victual Brothers roamed the Baltic and North Seas. Mediterranean piracy was rampant as well, particularly in the Greek islands during the Crusades: religion proved to be a powerful motivator, as Christian and Muslim pirates saw raiding the other side’s ships as a kind of divine duty. In East Asia, Wako pirates sailed in massive, intimidating fleets along the coasts of China, Korea, and Japan. In an era of localized trade and relatively decentralized territorial control around the world, pirates didn’t need to venture far to strike it rich.