Sunday, January 17, 2010

Mediterranean Piracy

Piracy was a prominent feature of the Mediterranean world up through the nineteenth century. The relative poverty of the soil, the inviting expanse of the sea with its lively commercial life, and the many hiding places provided by the islets scattered across the area—particularly in the Aegean—ensured that the coastal inhabitants would always be tempted by the life of the pirate. Such low-level raiding, as constant and predictable as it was, is almost an environmental given rather than a phenomenon that begs the attention of the historian. At times, however, piracy spilled beyond such narrow limits and became a vital instrument of state building or state destruction. At such times in the Mediterranean, any explanation of historical change must include piracy in the narrative.

The early modern period in Mediterranean history—roughly the fifteenth through the eighteenth century—begins with the tapering off of one such period of piratical recrudescence. The final crumbling of Byzantine maritime power in the fourteenth century encouraged fierce competition between Latin Christians and Turkish emirs for control of the Aegean and its vital trade links. Both sides built up their navies, raided each other's territory, and preyed on each other's shipping in pursuit of supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Both sides recruited pirates (conveniently called corsairs once they were serving a legitimate political entity) to help them achieve their goals. The Knights of St. John, for instance, captured the island of Rhodes in 1308 with the help of a Genoese corsair (Inalcik, p. 186). The eventual victor in this fierce competition was the Turkish side, specifically the Ottoman Turks whose original base was inland but who eventually expanded outward to become a maritime power of the first order. With the conquest of Constantinople (1453), the Ottomans became masters of the vital commercial routes that linked the Black Sea and the Aegean. In 1522 they vanquished one of their most persistent naval competitors when Suleiman the Magnificent captured Rhodes and forced the departure of the Knights. Venice continued to have possessions in the eastern Mediterranean, but the Ottomans steadily eroded her power as well.

Having thus established control over the area, the Sultans quite naturally no longer looked with favor upon piracy and punished pirates whenever they were able to do so. Those who could be absorbed into the state apparatus—as naval commanders, for example—enjoyed a new life as Ottoman officials. Independent actors, however, were no longer tolerated. In 1504 the Ottomans seized the ships of a pirate who had served as a corsair in the recent wars with Venice. When he continued his raids in peacetime, he lost not only his ships; the authorities burned his house to the ground and executed seventy of his men (Brummett, p. 99). Ottoman maritime supremacy, combined with the Venetian desire to protect her commercial interests, ensured that the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed a long hiatus from piracy in the sixteenth century.

Farther to the west, in North Africa, the picture was largely similar. The corsairing captains who had raided the Spanish coastland on behalf of the Ottomans now settled down to life as the rulers of the newly acquired territories in North Africa. The high level of hostility between the sultan and the Spanish kings, however, meant that piracy was more tolerated in the western Mediterranean.

Things changed again after the Ottoman defeat at the battle of Lepanto (1571). Revisionist historiography has made it clear that this clash was not the watershed it was once presumed to be. It was important, however, in terms of piracy. The staggering and ever increasing costs of galley warfare convinced both the Ottomans and the Spaniards that it was best to turn their energies elsewhere. The Mediterranean was left to its own devices. The pirates once again took to the seas, and the seventeenth century was the golden age of the pirate republic. The slave markets of Algiers and of Valletta teemed with miserable captives from the other side, as both Muslims and Christians pursued their opponents with equal ferocity.

To a certain extent the pirates of the seventeenth century were operating on their own initiative and were motivated by the issues of economic scarcity that had always figured prominently. As with earlier centuries, however, shifts in the Mediterranean balance of power were working themselves out through piracy. It was in this period that northern newcomers—the Dutch and the English—put an end to Italian commercial supremacy in the Mediterranean and piracy was a vital instrument in this assault. The English pirate in his berton became a hated and feared figure for the Venetian merchant. This northern invasion is only the bestknown example, however. France backed Catholic pirates—particularly the Knights of St. John—as part of its ambition to replace the Venetians as the preeminent Catholic power in the eastern Mediterranean, and to hurt her economic competitors. The North African regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers would prove similarly useful for English and French ambitions. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries these two powers signed a number of treaties with the North Africans, agreements that were designed both to protect their own merchants from North African piracy and to encourage raids on their competitors' shipping. In the eighteenth century the power of the regencies dwindled as they themselves devoted fewer and fewer resources to such assaults and European supremacy became ever more evident. Nevertheless, remnants of the system were still at work as late as the American Revolution. Once the Americans declared their independence from the British, Lloyds of London discreetly informed the North Africans that American ships were no longer under the protection of the British navy. North African attacks on the merchant shipping of the new republic predictably ensued.

In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte captured the island of Malta and took the previously unimaginable step of freeing all the Muslim captives held by the Knights of St. John. His dramatic actions were an illustration of a more prosaic truth. By the end of the eighteenth century combatants in the Mediterranean were strong enough to fight their naval battles and conduct their trade without the help of Mediterranean pirates turned corsairs. Once the state turned its back, piracy never again achieved the international significance that it had enjoyed from time to time in the early modern period.


Brummet, Palmira. Ottoman Seapower and Levantine Diplomacy in the Age of Discovery. Albany, N.Y., 1994.

Earle, Peter. Corsairs of Malta and Barbary. London and Annapolis, Md., 1970.

Inalcik, Halil. "The Rise of the Turcoman Maritime Principalities in Anatolia, Byzantium, and the Crusades." Byzantinische Forschungen 9 (1985).

Tenenti, Alberto. Piracy and the Decline of Venice, 1580–1615. Translated by Janet and Brian Pullan. London and Berkeley, 1967.


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