Wednesday, December 9, 2009

History: The First Pirate Culture

In popular culture, pirates are 18th century guys with tricorn hats and curved cutlasses on three masted frigates that have surprisingly large cabins below. We've talked about how ludicrous that is so I'm not going to go there again. But even among those who claim a certain amount of piratical and seafaring knowledge very little is ever said about piracy in the Ancient world.

Most books and websites on the subject hit the Cilician pirates of classical times briefly. This is probably due either to the fact that they famously kidnapped Julius Caesar for ransom or because they (also famously) betrayed Spartacus and his band of rebel slaves. Either way it's a swift nod and then we're on to bigger and better things. But before the Cilicians started nabbing Romans for pay, there was a group of sea rovers who can technically be called the first organized freebooters on Earth.

Known to their arch enemy, the Ancient Egyptians, as the Sea Peoples they are now loosely referred to by historians as Phoenicians (and may possibly be the ancestors of the Biblical Philistines). The group was actually a set of five or more tribes displaced from the Adriatic and Aegean areas of Greece and Italy. Some scholars even speculate that one or more of these tribes were Mycenaean and/or Hittite peoples displaced by the Northern invaders who later became the Classical Greeks.

Most of what we know about the Sea Peoples comes from the Ancient Egyptian temples at Karnak and the tomb of Ramesses the Great and is therefor probably skewed due to the hostility between the two groups. These highly skilled seafarers used ports in modern Turkey and Israel as their bases and from there they launched piratical attacks, particularly on Egyptian merchant ships, in the eastern Mediterranean. They returned to their ports, or others nearby, and bartered with the local Cannonites and Libyans in particular.

The people of the sea were so much trouble, in fact, that the ultimate Egyptian warrior, Ramesses, finally took matters into his own hands and sent his navy against them. The two forces met off the Nile Delta in 1186 BCE. According to Ramesses' tomb, things went very badly for the Sea Peoples but we can now recognize this as Egyptian spin doctoring. Not long after the battle the Sea Peoples were back in business - if to a somewhat lesser degree - and a few years later they were hiring their ships and services out to the Libyans and the Egyptians as well.

Cultures aside from the Ancient Egyptians praised the Sea Peoples as skilled seamen and fearsome warriors who not only preyed on ships and shipping but sacked port towns for plunder in organized, well-timed raids. The result appears to be a culture of seafaring that was at the very least similar to the Buccaneer societies of Tortuga and Port Royal in the 17th century.

Proof, once again, that there truly is nothing new under the sun. Except maybe the Sea Peoples.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I always think of the Vikings as overlooked early pirates, but clearly the Sea Peoples were doing it even earlier than the Vikings. Another good history lesson. Thankee, Pirate Queen!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Yup. But there was probably some form of organized piracy before the Sea Peoples. There's just no concrete documentation of that. Yet.