Shouting, "Shiver me timbers", the villain with an eye patch, a steel hook for a hand or wooden leg is the vision of pirates we all have. However, a pirate is simply one who loots at sea or even in cities near the shore, without authority from any nation to do so.
Piracy dates back 3000 years. Plutarch, the Greek historian, gave us the first account of piracy and in 140 BC the word "peirato" was being used by the Roman historian Polybius. In the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," there is a mention of piracy. In the middle ages in Europe, the Norse riders, called the Danes or Vikings carried out acts of piracy. In England, they were called sea thieves or sea robbers.
The English, Dutch and French sea-faring adventurers were called buccaneers. Some of the famous buccaneers were heroes like the dashing Englishmen Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Hawkins. They had become rich in the many "privateering" operations against Spain, in the Caribbean and off the coasts of North America. These privateers had a "letter of marque", from the government to capture ships belonging to an enemy country in order to weaken the opposition. They could never be charged with piracy though perhaps, that's what they really were. In the Declaration of Paris in 1854, seven nations together suspended the use of the "letter of marque", and later, it was completely outlawed in the Hague Convention.
Over the years, the success of the privateers saw many becoming drifting pirates, also called freebooters. Many were even slaves released from ships. In the second half of the 17th century, they became a menace in the new world or the American Continent, looting the Spanish colonizers. This period between 1560 and the early 1700s was the classic era of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Tortuga and Port Royal were two of the best-known bases during this period. Some of the most famous pirates were William Kidd, ""Calico Jack"" Rackham, Edward Teach, or Blackbeard and a woman pirate called Jeanne de Belleville.
Most of us have a very romantic notion of pirates as rich, rebellious and interesting, operating outside the rules of a rigid society. In truth, most were poor, unhealthy and died young. The work was hard and dangerous, they had to fight, loot and maintain a ship that was usually old. Their riches were usually spent in taverns sometimes in one night. Some buried their treasure and died before they could come back for it.
However, they had certain laws which were more democratic than the societies they lived in. They elected and even replaced leaders. The captain was usually the fittest and the most vicious fighter and the ship's quartermaster had considerable authority when they were not in battle. They even shared the booty and had a fair system of sharing in place. Those injured in battle got compensation or were given simpler jobs. These laws were written down and sometimes even used to declare them outlaws in a court of law. But the pirates' own justice system was very harsh. For simple crimes such as disobedience they could be whipped, marooned, burnt or even drowned and killed. For a pirate, "walking the plank" himself was a terrible sentence.
Modern pirates are found in South and Southeast Asia, parts of South America, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. They target cargo ships navigating slowly through narrow straits, which they overtake in their small motorboats. The safes carrying cash are looted along with personal belongings. They may even capture ships and later disguise these for their own use.
Modern day piracy sometimes takes place during civil war or times of unrest. Warlords could attack UN ships carrying food. They could hijack a ship or kidnap a person or people for ransom or exchange their victims for a wanted terrorist.
The International Maritime Bureau, a pirate-reporting center, has noted that bulk carriers and tankers are the most vulnerable. Modern piracy is difficult to control because of modern technology like satellite communication, speedboats and deadly weaponry. The reality of pirates is a far cry from the romantic notions of pirates that most of us have.