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GNOSIS 2/2012
Buccaneers, corsairs ...

History and Evolution of the Phenomenon

Always and for ever pirates. From the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians until today – including a careful and accurate description of the Enrica Lexie case –– this article examines the origin and evolution of a phenomenon which has always existed and surfaced in different areas worldwide and historical ages, adjusting to technological advancements. The author concludes by analyzing the difference between pirates, corsairs, buccaneers and freebooters, revealing, through several curious characters and anecdotes about “historical pirates,” the behavioral and psychological traits of the “classic pirates”: very brave, violent, unscrupulous, materialistic and not at all driven by ideological principles …nothing new under the sun.

Piracy is an ancient problem which has been around since the dawn of civilization and has never been completely eliminated. Indeed, the Phoenicians, the Etruscans and the Carthaginians were not only brave sailors but also pirates. The Romans tried for a long time to defeat the Illyrian pirates who wielded their power along the Adriatic coastline, and subsequently the Cicilian pirates ravaging the Southern coast of Anatolia and the neighboring Aegean Islands. A young Julius Caesar was also one of their victims. He was captured while he was travelling by sea. As soon as he was released (after a high ransom was paid) he manned a vessel, pursued, captured and hanged his kidnappers. The Vikings, who settled permanently in Normandy and southern Italy, were some of the most famous and feared northern sea raiders. During the early Middle Ages the Danes were notorious for having long raided the coast of the British Isles and the Baltic Sea. In Italy the Maritime Republics also committed acts of piracy engaging, similarly to Vikings and Danes, in trade and piracy just as the others did anytime they needed to. Throughout the 18th century in the Mediterranean Sea, the Saracens first and the Barbary Corsairs later posed a constant threat to the coastal areas and to the Italian, French, and Spanish islands (1) .Modern pirates ravaged the Atlantic Ocean, the American Coast, the Indian Ocean, the waters off the Persian Gulf and China. Sir Francis Drake, besides being the first English sailor who circumnavigated the globe, was above all a famous corsair who served the Crown. In the East, where piracy was also very violent, Ching Shih, the wife of a local pirate who ravaged the South China Sea, made history. In the 20th century during the two World Wars, Germany also used armed merchant ships, classified as auxiliary cruisers, which autonomously operated along the main ocean routes for its “privateering war”. During the First World War worthy of notice were the “Moewe” and the “Seadler”: the first sank thirty-eight ships, while the second was a schooner which became famous for being the last corsair sailboat. From 1940 to 1943 corsair ships sank enemy vessels accounting for almost 800,000 tonnes. In particular, the “Pinguin” captured and sank thirty-five enemy ships and the “Atlantis” captured twenty-two of them. Piracy, throughout its century-old history, contributed to the establishment of kingdoms and empires: the role played by the Normans in France, England and the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, the rise of the British and Turkish Empires and the reorganization of Spain in the 17th century. With the Treaty of Utrecht (1713,) at the end of the Spanish War of Succession, and the end of the Spanish protectionist measures regarding trading activities with the Americas, the then main maritime powers tried to ensure freedom of navigation. Within this framework, the US carried out a campaign against the Barbary Corsairs, the first action the then young nation conducted outside the American continent (2) .

More accurate definitions

The word “pirate” is often associated with “corsair” or “buccaneer” even if there is a difference between them. According to current laws, maritime piracy is still considered a crime, consisting of “any act of depredation against any type of vessel which implies the use of force (boarding) and is directed against the crew and other possible individuals on board the other ship (passengers).” On the contrary, corsair ships were usually armed vessels used for the “privateering war” where Captain and sailors, unlike pirates, committed hostile actions against other ships and infrastructures (ports, strongholds, commercial bases etc.) only pursuant to the authorization by a legitimate Government so as to paralyze the maritime traffic of the enemy nation. In this case the crew - composed of individuals of doubtful reputation - was given “corsair letters-patent” or “letters of marque” which legally authorized them to take offensive action against another ship. Their only duty towards the State granting that authorization was to pay it a share of their plundered loot. In case they were captured, unlike pirates who were immediately sent to the gallows, corsairs were considered war prisoners and treated accordingly. The “privateering war” mainly flourished between the 16th century and the mid 19th century and was banned with the Treaty of Paris in 1856. From then on corsairs could only be soldiers using armed ships such as the confederate “Alabama” (3) and the aforementioned German cruisers. On the contrary, at the beginning “buccaneers” (4) , were hunters of wild oxen or planters on the French Antilles who, economically ruined by the Spanish, took to piracy. Around 1630 they raided ships from the land using dinghies or other small boats. This phenomenon, initially limited to a few islands, represented the first period of piracy in the Caribbean. Only later, when the buccaneers grew in number as they were joined by other European adventurers called “freebooters,” (5) , did they extend their field of action, boarding ships even on the high seas using the captured ships and crews. That is why the first English colonists in Jamaica used the word “buccaneer” to refer to the wider pirates. During some periods, Caribbean piracy made it so unsafe to travel along the routes to the Americas that the Spanish were obliged to use escorted convoys to ensure sending goods to Europe.

Modern Piracy

This phenomenon, although decreased in size but equally dangerous, has survived until today even if it has been considered a common crime. The underestimation of the seriousness of this problem has led to its re-appearance in the world especially in those areas, like Somalia, where the State was less present or where, like South-East Asia and Nigeria, the coasts were less controlled and law and order no longer existed. The new pirates go on carrying out very dangerous criminal activities mainly seizing ships and kidnapping their crews so as to obtain a ransom for their release. This phenomenon has become particularly widespread after 1980, especially in the sea areas ranging from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Malacca, from Bangladesh to Indonesia, from South America to the Gulf of Nigeria, also reaching the exotic seas of the various “tropical paradises.” Usually, they target any kind of vessel: from deep-sea fishing boats to pleasure boats, from merchant ships to oil tankers which are the most remunerative targets (6) . The economic damage is serious as the maritime companies have to pay increasingly higher insurance premiums(7) and to use longer routes than those normally used because of the ransom money they would have to pay to have their vessels released. As a result, rentals have become increasingly more expensive.
Since 1981 The “International Maritime Bureau” (IMB) (8) has monitored pirate attacks and its data may help us understand the importance of this problem. Every year thousands of attacks to merchant ships - from simple failed boarding attempts to boat seizures including cargo and crew - are reported. The new predators of the sea, just like the old buccaneers, can use small and fast boats to attack ships and to be able to escape from possible coast guards(9)or use merchant ships as “mother ships” so as to pass unnoticed, like the German corsairs. With the “Achille Lauro” hijacking in 1984 piracy achieved new visibility. Even though this event might be considered a “strange” act of piracy (10) , it had a great impact due to the then political conditions and cruel murder of an American Jew in a wheelchair.
In the 1990s Somali piracy came to the spotlight as a consequence of the indiscriminate fishing carried out by the fishing boats of some Asian countries but also of some Western countries which starved the local fishermen. In response to this, the latter attacked foreign vessels passing by, collecting a “tax” to make up for their losses. This phenomenon, initially limited to the former British Somalia, has quickly spread along the Somali coastal areas, supported by the local clans and tolerated by al-Shabaab. Pirates would now be divided in approximately sixty groups composed of former fishermen, common offenders, and foreign elements infiltrated by al Qaeda. The criminal organizations who control this profit-bearing activity have quickly upgraded their management to a “professional” level, with a diverse and well-organized structure where the simple pirate is the last link of the chain. Such aggressiveness always requires the complicity of informers who are able to obtain confidential data on the commercial maritime traffic and to launder the huge sums of money raised in the seizures. According to recent data, in the last three years piracy acts have allegedly been approximately 450 and purportedly earned the criminal organizations from ten to fifteen billion euro including only 200 million euro for pirates. The ships were held by pirates an average of 213 days and at least sixty hostages died during that period(11). Somali pirates have certainly posed a serious problem, especially to Europe, due to its major interest in the maritime traffic transiting the Suez Canal. Therefore, piracy has become of great interest for the UN, the International Maritime Organization, NATO and the EU. In 2008 the UN Security Council authorized foreign naval vessels to operate off the Somali coast. Both the EU and NATO carried out anti-piracy actions off the Horn of Africa.
The European mission “EU NAVFOR - Atalanta” was launched in 2008 and is still operational. Twelve countries contributed to it with men, ships and aircraft. Its goal is to protect vessels passing through the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean.
NATO’s operation “Ocean Shield” started in August 2009 to counter piracy from the waters off the Red Sea to the Seychelles, also focusing on the maritime traffic coming from the Cape of Good Hope. Italy participates in both missions with Naval Air Forces and personnel seconded to the Joint Fleet Commands. The EU also authorized attacks on pirates’ land bases. A first air raid was carried out on May 15, 2012 in the area of Harardhere, a village approximately 400 km north of Mogadishu, targeting the supply lines, means and equipment while still onshore. Therefore, the prospects to counter piracy have apparently improved compared to the recent past. Indeed, NATO reported that during the first half of 2012 Somali piracy attacks declined by 30% obliging the pirates to accurately select their possible targets. Therefore, it is important for the Air Naval Forces to maintain their troops and to improve their capacity to intervene not only as an exercise of military power for its own sake

The “Enrica Lexie” case”

Last February the Italian flagged oil tanker “Enrica Lexie” was stopped by New Delhi authorities following the incident which took place off the Kerala coast, an area in the South-West of India whose waters are characterized by frequent boarding attempts. This incident has received great coverage by international media, i.e.: during the night of February 15th, 2012, the oil tanker spotted a vessel (that was later established to be a fishing boat) coming forward without responding to maritime signals. The military security team of the Military Vessel Protection Detachments (VPDs) (12) con board the Lexie fired some warning shots. Only at that point did the boat depart from the “Lexie.” This event was reported to the competent authorities in Kerala who asked the oil tanker to enter Kochi port and explain what had happened. Once the Italian ship was moored, the Commander was ordered not to leave port while some Italian marines were accused of killing two local fishermen.
Faced with the spreading of piracy the UN called for maritime monitoring and interdiction measures to be implemented by its member countries to secure commercial maritime routes in compliance with the “U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” These provisions, which reflect the international maritime laws and are thus universally accepted, define piracy as an “international crime” and authorize States to apply military force (13) . force13to repress it. In 2009 some countries, with no Air Naval Forces, authorized the presence of private armed guards (contractors) on board their commercial fleets (14) . The “International Maritime Organization (IMO)” (15) did not agree with this decision. Alternatively, they proposed the “best practices” of self-protection against piracy which they deemed a priority as opposed to contractors (16) .To this end, in 2011 IMO issued some recommendations and guidelines for ship-owners, shipmasters and flag-States on how to use self-defense practices. In Europe two main standpoints emerged: the French one which advocates that, to protect deep-sea fishing boats, agreements be made with third parties and the Spanish one which envisages the possibility to have armed military/civilian personnel on board. These two standpoints are not alternatives. In 2011 Italy, one of the few countries in the world which incorporated the UN resolutions in its Code of Navigation, issued regulations on how to employ contractors and VPDs. This poorly regulated system is reflected in the case of the “Enrica Lexie” which could spark a diplomatic dispute between Italy and India over the “status” of our military personnel serving on board the Italian oil tanker and over whether the Indian authorities had legal jurisdiction to prosecute them for the assumed indiscriminate firing. Indeed, despite the UN fourteen resolutions from 2008 to date (17) and of various IMO “recommendations,” the anti-piracy legal framework is still inadequate, unclear and only partially adopted by many international actors.


Until a few decades ago piracy did not seem to be a major problem. After the Cold War the growing global disorder contributed to the re-emergence of this crime. Increasingly more coastal countries proved not to be able to fully control their territorial waters. On the contrary, maritime traffic accounted for 80% of all trade, within a geostrategic context where the control of the sea remains a priority in order to define the military and economic power of the States. History teaches us that countering piracy inevitably starts with an initial repression, followed by measures aiming at eradicating the social problem which caused the emergence of the phenomenon. If the Somali problem is not solved politically and economically, it will be difficult to eliminate piracy from the coastal areas. We are still in the first phase which is armed repression. However, the means used are not really appropriate and the legal framework makes these operations ineffective. Indeed, naval counter-piracy operations continue to rely on naval means built to deal with traditional threats of a different relevance from “small speed boats.” It would often be sufficient to fire a few shots against the attacker to thwart the attempted boarding but this possibility entails political risks such as in the “Enrica Lexie” case. This is because IMO does not hold any legally binding power. On the other side, the U.N. has not yet amended the current laws of the sea so as to adapt them to the new needs of tackling piracy. According to current laws, piracy is a crime punishable under international law only if committed on the high seas or in other places beyond the territorial jurisdiction of any legitimate state. Therefore, a series of agreements should be made to regulate for instance the capture, detention and trial of pirates (18) ,, the protection of law and order at sea and not only of territorial waters, the use of force to prevent and repress any act of piracy, the illegality of ransom payments and the fight against money laundering (19) . The U.N. would be the only organization able to start an extensive discussion organizing a conference dealing with the wider piracy phenomenon in all its facets in order to adopt universally accepted resolutions. The time does not seem to be ripe for such a demanding initiative, considering the mistrust of many States to approve solutions binding for everyone.

Pirates, buccaneers and corsairs

- Khayr al-Din, known as “Barbarossa” (Red Beard) was a cruel corsair from Mytilene where he was born in 1466 to a Greek mother. An Ottoman Admiral notorious across all the Mediterranean Sea for his raids and robberies, he served as Bey of Algiers and died of dysentery in Istanbul in 1546. His grave, near the Bosphorus, is a tourist attraction
- Dragut Alý, was born in 1485 in a village in Central Anatolia. He was one of the few Admirals of Turkish origin serving the “Sublime Porte.” Indeed, in most cases they were Christian converts. He was a cruel corsair, Bey of Tripoli and came after Barbarossa as Viceroy of Algiers. He was killed in 1565 under the walls of Gozo while the Sultan’s fleet was trying in vain to take over the island of Malta from the Knights of St. John.
- Ulugh Alý ((Alý the renegade) real name was Giovanni Galeni born in Calabria in Isola di Capo Rizzuto in 1519. Enslaved by the Barbary Corsairs he joined them becoming a cruel pirate. After the death of Dragut he became the Bey of Algiers and was the only admiral of the Turkish fleet who was able to escape after the defeat of Lepanto, finding shelter, with a few surviving galleys, in Istanbul. He died in 1587.

- Sir Francis Drake,was born in England in 1540. He was a famous corsair, seafarer and politician. From 1577 to 1580 he circumnavigated the globe ravaging ships and commercial bases. When Drake returned with lots of booty Queen Elizabeth I made him a knight. In 1588, as an Admiral, he became Deputy Commander of the fleet which defeated Philip II of Spain’s Invincible Armada. He died in 1596 during his last trip to the Caribbean while he was trying to conquer Panama
- Jean Nau, was known as l’Olonnais as he was born in Les Sables-d’Olonne in France in 1634. A cruel criminal, a fierce buccaneer and a ruthless pirate he was notorious for the cruelty with which he killed his prisoners. After the shipwreck in 1671 at the mouth of Rio San Juan in Nicaragua he was captured, with a few survivors, by a tribe of cannibals who ate him and his comrades.

- Sir Henry Morgan, a Welshman born in 1635, was a pirate, a corsair and a politician for the British Crown. His cruelty was notorious and struck terror. His favourite targets were slow Spanish galleys bound for Spain and the Spanish towns in Central America. The capture of Maracaibo and Panama, followed by dreadful slaughters, were notorious. At the height of his glory he was appointed Governor of Jamaica. He was removed from his office after a short period as he was arrested for bribery. Acquitted, he died peacefully in his bed in Port Royal in 1688.

- William Kidd,known as “Captain Kidd”, was born in Scotland in 1645. He started his adventure at sea chasing pirates whom he joined as he was attracted by their rich loot. He was said to have hidden, during his successful raids, a fabulous treasure which has never been found. Captured, he was hanged in London in 1701.

- Blackbeard’s, real name was Edward Teach. He came from the British Isles where he was born in 1680. Tall and with a dark complexion, he had and impressive beard which made his appearance even more terrifying. Between 1716 and 1718 the Caribbean Sea was under his control. He was killed in battle and his death marked the decline of piracy in the Caribbean

- Bartholomew Roberts, known as “Black Bart,” was born in Wales in 1682. Captured by pirates when he was a little boy, he became one of the most feared predators of the seas. Indeed, he is said to have sacked more than 400 vessels. He died off the coast of Gabon in 1722 as he was shot during a boarding. .

- Chang Shih, born in Canton in 1775, a girl of very humble origins, was kidnapped and in 1801 obliged to marry Zheng Yi, a well-known pirate chief of the South China Sea. After his death, in 1807, she took command of what was then the largest criminal organization, that could not be defeated by the British Navy nor by the Portuguese one (who were trying to curb its influence,) and which caused major losses to the Chinese Imperial Navy. In 1810 she accepted a generous amnesty that the Emperor offered her provided that she stopped all raids, a clause she respected until her death in Canton in 1844

- Raphael Semmers (1809-1877), an Admiral of the Confederate fleet was a corsair who sailed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, commanding the “Sumter” and the “Alabama”. While Commander of these two ships, he captured altogether eighty-three Union vessels until his ship was sunk in 1864 after a furious battle with the “Kearsage,” the most powerful federal battleship. Once he adventurously made his way back to Richmond, he distinguished himself in the defense of the town, besieged by the Union forces. He was caught and put to trial at the end of the Civil War. However, all charges were dropped after even his enemies acknowledged that his own and his crew’s behavior had been fair. He inspired the character of Captain Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind.”

- Felix Graf von Leukner (1881-1964) was an adventurer apparently created by Joseph Conrad. Intolerant of any kind of discipline, after having sailed all over the world on every kind of vessel, he served as an officer of the German Imperial Navy thanks to his noble origins. In 1916 he was ordered to turn the “Pass of Balmaha,” a three-masted ship which was a booty of war, into the corsair ship “Seadler” on which, since December 21 of that year, he sailed the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. In March 1917 he sailed to the Pacific Ocean after successfully passing Cape Horn, “the grave of vessels”. In the following month of August while bound for Tahiti, the ship moored at the coral atoll of Mopeda. While the crew was onshore for food and water supplies, a sudden anomalous wave pushed their galley against the coral reef damaging it irreparably. Initially escaped from capture, he was imprisoned until the end of the war in New Zealand.

- Ernst Felix Kruder,was born in Hamburg in 1897. He was the Captain of the corsair ship “Pinguin (HZ-33)”. An officer of the Imperial Fleet, in late 1939 he was required to convert the former merchant ship “Kandelfels” into an auxiliary cruiser (Hilfskreuzer) on which he set sail in March 1940. During his only cruise around the world he was more successful than the whole corsair fleet sinking or capturing thirty-five allied merchant ships. He tragically died in May 1941: intercepted by the British cruiser “Cornwall” off the Seychelles, he chose to fight an unequal battle. Kruder died with other 532 crewmen and 200 prisoners of various nationalities. Only fifty-three sailors and twenty prisoners were rescued

- Bernhard Rogge, was born in 1899. He served as a Vice-Admiral and before that as the commander of a prestigious training-ship of the German Navy and was a senior member of several sailing clubs. In the late 1939 he was required to turn the former merchant ship “Goldenfels” into the auxiliary cruiser “Atlantis (I-lZ-16)” on which he set sail in May 1940. In the course of the longest cruise ever made by a corsair ship during the Second World War (lasting 622 days) he sank or captured twenty-two allied ships accounting for approximately 146,000 tonnes. Intercepted at the end of November 1941 by the heavy cruiser “Devonshire,” in the South Atlantic, the ship sank without firing any cannon shots to save the crew. Rogge was reintegrated in the Bundesmarine in June 1957 actively serving it until 1962

(1) The Barbary Corsairs were pirates coming from Northern Africa who settled in the “Regencies” of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, officially protectorates of the then declining Ottoman Empire but actually completely autonomous. See “Marine Preunitarie” by Fabio Caffio, Rivista Marittima, January 2012
(2) After the kidnapping of 21 sailors, and the request of a high ransom for their release, the U.S. launched a ten-year campaign against the Ottoman residents in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli where the Marines were largely used. In 1805 the Bey of Tripoli gave Lt. Presley O’Bannon the “Mameluke Sword,” an Egyptian sword of the renowned Mamelukes which Marine Officers still carry today
(3) The “Alabama” was a steamer, propelled by both sails and steam, launched in 1862 and which, in twenty-one months of navigation, sank more than sixty unionist merchant ships for an estimated value of the then 6 million US dollars
(4) From the French “bucanier.” They were poachers who used to smoke meat in a wooden barbecue frame
(5) Freebooters” generally came from the British Islands and Holland, and were so called to distinguish them from the French “buccaneers” and their successors who were born in the Caribbean
(6) In November 2011 9,5 million U.S. dollars ransom was paid for the release of the South-Korean oil tanker Samho Dream, while in 2012, 13 million U.S. dollars were allegedly paid for a Greek super oil tanker whose cargo was worth 200 million U.S. dollars
(7) of London is historically famous as a maritime insurance company
(8) The International Maritime Bureau (IMB) is a specialized Division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) dealing with trade and maritime transport-related crimes, particularly focusing on piracy. It closely cooperates with the UN International Maritime Organization (IMO).
(9) “Speed boats” operating beneath the radar horizon cannot be detected because of their small size unless they are near the source of emission
(10) The crime was committed by terrorists who seized the Italian cruise liner. They were concealed among the passengers and did not make use of the traditional boarding.
(11) See the conference proceedings on “Lotta al fenomeno della pirateria” Center for Defense and Security Studies, Rome, June 2012
(12) In October 2011 the Italian Ministry of Defense and the Italian Confederation of ship-owners (Confitarma) signed an agreement that allowed Military Vessel Protection Detachments (VPDs) on board Italian ships to protect them from possible pirate attacks. They consist of a group of Italian marines who operate autonomously on board merchant ships flying the Italian flag.
(13) See “Nuovi strumenti di protezione contro la pirateria a favore delle navi private” by Fabio Caffio, Rivista Marittima, October 2011.
(14) An initiative adopted by the so-called “Open Registry” countries such as Panama, Liberia, the Bahamas etc..
(15) The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is an autonomous agency of the U.N., seated in London, founded in 1959, whose aim is to promote, protect and develop maritime activities. The IMO resolution adopted by the 168 member States sets, among others, standards and rules for prevention of boarding, ship construction and compartmentation standards, including the fire-safety equipment, on board installations, safety and rescue equipment
(16) LThe proposed “best practices” concern methods and use of defensive means such as water cannons or high potential hoses, razor wire barrier to avoid boarding, “Safe Muster Points” to provide protection to the crew and from where to steer the ship, etc.
(17) Resolution 2020 is the latest anti-piracy UN Security Council resolution dated November 22, 2011
After the capture of pirates in the Red Sea by military vessels operating within UN missions, it was deemed more appropriate to leave the pirates along the Somali coast, after seizing their weapons, due to the lack of laws effecting detentions. .
(18) After the capture of pirates in the Red Sea by military vessels operating within UN missions, it was deemed more appropriate to leave the pirates along the Somali coast, after seizing their weapons, due to the lack of laws effecting detentions.
(19) See “Criminali dietro le sbarre” by Natalino Ronzitti, “RISK. Quaderni di Geostrategia” n. 67 (May - June 2012).