MSNBC offered this article last week regarding the confusion over a recent declaration by President Obama that may (or may not) make paying modern pirates ransoms for ships and people illegal. Feel free to peruse the article at your leisure. I'm not going to discuss it in detail because a wise man once advised that talking about politics gets one in trouble. No doubt, Mr. Burleson is right. That said, ransoms have a long history in piracy and privateering and they were certainly one of the main money makers for many a freebooter all over the world.
Phoenicians, those infamous Sea Peoples, drove the Egyptians nuts by ransoming villages in the Nile Delta. Failure to pay meant Pharaoh lost the village to plunder, fire and murder. Julius Caesar was famously captured by Cilician pirates as a young man. He was held on the island of Pharmacusa for about six weeks in 78 BCE until his family ponied up and the pirates released him. Caesar vowed revenge and got it in a big way. As First Consul he saw to it that the Roman Navy choked the life out of Cilician trade and piracy for good.
Barbary pirates made an institution of ransoming slaves. Wealthy Christians were always taken as hostages and their families forced to pay if they did not want their loved ones to live in chains or die in the galleys. Poorer folk were quite literally enslaved unless a Christian relief group, such as the one written about by Father Pierre Dan, intervened. In his 1637 book Histoire de Barbarie et de ses Corsaires, Father Dan told, in rather purple prose, of rescuing near martyred Christians from fates worse than death.
The Christians weren't any kinder to their Muslim captives, however. If a prisoner managed to stay out of the Maltese galleys, his family could pay a ransom to those pirates for Jesus, the Knights of Malta, for his release. If not, he would be sold as a less-than-human slave. Either way, the pirates got their cash.
The Chinese pirate Confederations that sprang up in the late 15th century and continued to rule the South Pacific for hundreds of years kept careful records of ransoms. They sent extortion notes, some of which are still in existence, to ship owners and families of captives demanding ransom. Once the fee - considered by Chinese merchants a cost of doing business - was paid, the pirates would issue protection documents for the ship or individual. With this in hand, they would never be ransomed by that Confederation again.
The Sea Dogs of Elizabeth I's era were big on ransoms. Hawkins tried to ransom Cartagena and, though he failed, his nephew Drake succeeded rather stunningly. The buccaneers of Tortuga, Petit Goave and Jamaica became rather systematic about ransoms as well. Francois L'Olonnais received a ransom for the city of Maracaibo, as did Henry Morgan only a few months later. Morgan also ransomed Portobello and Panama. Part of the breakdown of the Spanish empire in the New World was directly linked to expensive ransoms for cities and towns along the Main.
Edward "Blackbeard" Teach held the city of Charleston, North Carolina for ransom and was paid in gold dust and a kit of medicines. This was an unusual and notable situation in the Golden Age of piracy. Most of the famous pirates of the era were looking to plunder, not ransom.
The privateers of Barataria were not above requesting ransoms, particularly for ships but sometimes for wealthier captives as well. The complaints of a Spanish merchant held by Vincente Gambi at Barataria around 1811 have come down to us in tact. The Spaniard in question writes that he and his fellows were kept four weeks in "the most cruel situation" before payment was received and they were sent on their way in a felluca. Not all the men on Grande Terre were gentlemen rovers.
And so it continues to the present day. Pay the ransom, put it down as a loss in your books and you'll get your ship and her people back. Or that is the way it seems.