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The History of Piracy: Introduction

Piracy has occurred through the ages ever since the first ships were invented. In the ancient Mediterranean area Piracy was often linked with commerce via the sea. Many a country was trying to gain control of trade routes and attacking the competition that was en route by sea was a common practice. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans as well as the Carthaginians appear to have been engaged in commerce and Piracy in their time.

Several centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire the piratical raids of the Vikings, or North-men made quite an impression. They were sea-raiders who travelled South from Scandinavia via the Hebrides and the Shetland Isles to the coasts of Western Europe and beyond. They regularly attacked Monasteries and (poorly defended) villages. Sometimes they even settled on parts of the coasts.
In the South the Moors were active along the coasts of North Africa.

A common source of Pirates were the many crews of naval vessels that were disbanded at the end of the European wars during the Renaissance and immediately after the Renaissance. Another common source of Pirates were the privateers. Privateers were ships that were privately owned and were commisioned by a government to make reprisals, to gain reparation for specified offenses in time of peace, or to prey upon the enemy in time of peace, or to prey upon the enemy in time of war. The officers and crew of such a privateer could keep a large part or all of the money from the captured vessels. When a privateer was less succesfull the temptation to become a pirate, and attack every ship in sight regardless of what nation, was often great. Also when the war is over and privateers continue their attacks on enemy ships without commission they are sometimes dubbed pirates. During the 16th century Spain was at war with England (Elizabethan wars) and the Dutch Republic (that was trying to gain its freedom). The Spanish galleons that carried the treasures from Mexico through the Caribbean to Spain were often the target of privateers. There was not much difference between pirates and privateers in the Caribbean at that time. The distance between the Caribbean area and the European nations prevented the latter from exerting much control on the privateers.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries piracy became a regular practice in the Mediterranean. This was the result of the weakening of the Turkish rule over the Barbary states of North Africa who had become virtually independent. Some of the states not only tolerated the piratical activities but even helped organize them. These states were called pirate states and the pirates that operated from there were called corsairs. Among these states were Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. American, British and French actions against the pirate states forced them to stop these activities in the 19th century.

Pirate activities virtually ceased in the 19th and 20th century for a number of reasons:

Despite this, pirates still exist today in the South China Sea.
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