Monday, January 30, 2012

History: Piracy Statutes of 1724 and Beyond

The British statute against piracy issued by the Crown in 1724 as an addendum to the nation’s civil law is one of the most far reaching pieces of legal action in history. The law, as it is presented in Johnson’s History of Pyrates effectively ended the so called Golden Age of piracy, leaving only pockets of plundering in out of the way places. A resurgence in freebooting would not occur until the late 18th century with the dawn of the age of privateering that began with the great American revolutions and ended when David Porter’s Mosquito Fleet put down the last of the “Caribbean” pirates.

You can find the statute as set down by Johnson online here. Over the course of a few recurring posts, I’d like to take a closer look at the points of law in the statute, and see how they have effect piracy and the battle against piracy over the course of almost three hundred years.

The first paragraph notes “Though Pyrates are called common Enemies, yet they are properly not to be term’d so.” Sighting Cicero, the law points out that only a group with an “ongoing Government or State” can be called an enemy and uses the example of the Barbary states, who should be afforded the “Solemnities of War, and the Rights of Legation.” It would be another hundred years before the combined forces of British, French, Dutch and U.S. navies put this point to the test in the Mediterranean and at last ended the predations of Barbary corsairs.

This principle was followed in dealing with pirates by almost every nation in the western world within just a few decades of the British statute. A pirate was not an enemy but a criminal; a rogue working under his own auspices and outside any law. This principle “of necessity” allowed privateering but set up a gray area in such ventures as well. “Unrecognized states” such as, at various points in history, Bolivar’s Grand Columbia, Mexican rebels, Texas, and others could have their privateers prosecuted and hanged as pirates because of their questionable status according to established nations. This was certainly the case with the Continental Navy during the Revolutionary War.

This idea also, in an even deeper shade of gray, applied to the Laffite brothers Barataria operation. The brothers together, and Jean in particular, claimed Barataria was a sovereign state and therefore above the laws of piracy. Their ships were not engaged in criminal activity, they reasoned, but the taking of enemy ships. It is worth noting that, though the Laffites issued passports to those who wished to enter Barataria, they never went so far as to create their own letters of marque but used those issued from Cartagena, Caracas and Mexico.

The issue of enemy vs. criminal continues to create problems for modern navies battling pirates in Southeast Asia, the Gulf of Aden and elsewhere. The pirates claim they are freedom fighters from nations in revolt; the navies claim they are thugs. Iran’s recent protest against U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf is an excellent example of this ongoing issue.

This idea also applies in part on the issue of “Subjects in Enmity with the Crown of England”, mentioned a few paragraphs later. In this point of law, a foreigner whose country is at war with (in this case) England but is serving aboard a pirate ship run by a British national is not subject to prosecution as a criminal. Though the foreigner would still be tried for piracy, his proceeding would be under the auspices of Martial rather than Civil Law. This may appear to be splitting hairs but it certainly gives the foreigner an out that his mates would not have. Enemies of the state can be exchanged for prisoners of war or espionage.

All this legal jargon goes right out the window in paragraph number six:

If Pyracy be committed on the Ocean, and the Pyrates in the attempt be overcome, the Captors may, without any Solemnity of Condemnation, hang them up at the Main-Yard; if they are Brought to the next Port, & the Judge rejects the Tryal, or the Captors cannot wait for the Judge, without Peril or Loss, Justice may be done upon them by the Captors.

At this point the gloves are off and so are all bets. Those capturing pirates on the high seas may quite literally do with them as they please “without peril or loss”. Since just about every sovereign state with an Atlantic coast established similar piracy statutes by the mid-18th century, piracy was a very dangerous profession indeed. Even men that we think of now as legal privateers – John Paul Jones and Renato Beluche, for instance – could easily have been put to death “on the Ocean” under similar law.

That’s enough for today, I think. Next time, bribes, goods and when ransacking a ship at anchor is – and isn’t – piracy.

Header: 19th century engraving of a pirate via


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! It's too bad we can't still do with modern pirates as we please “without peril or loss”... IMHO.

Pauline said...

It's a fine line, though. Process of law seems a better approach. The problem in my mind is that our international laws regarding piracy are archaic and therefore do not address the modern issues of crimes on the high seas.