January we talked about the British statute against piracy issued by the Crown in 1724. As noted then, these laws have had a huge effect on the way piracy is dealt with – as a legal issue – around the world. Even into modern times the laws still apply, if slightly corrected for modern sensibilities (there can be no more hanging at the yardarm, for instance).
Though the laws when read through from beginning to end make perfect sense, there are contradictions. This is particularly true in the issue of when prize goods might be considered legally taken and when the taking of material from a ship is tantamount to theft. All this, of course, outside legally sanctioned privateering. Let us then look at the five paragraphs that deal with the taking of booty, and try to sort them out.
If Merchandize be delivered to a Master, to carry to one Port and he carries it to another, & sells and disposes of it, this is not Felony; but if, after unlading it at the first Port, he retakes it, it is Pyracy.
Here, the statute is taking into account natural and economic hardships. Bad weather might prevent a ship from dropping anchor in a designated port, driving her crew to put her in farther afield. If her cargo can be disposed of for a reasonable profit in this second port, nothing has been done wrong legal speaking. Likewise, if the buyer or buyers in the agreed upon port of sale are no longer able to make a transaction for the goods in a ship’s hold, her captain may legally move on and find a place where a deal can be done.
As often happened, though, goods could be moved from ship to ship and then retaken in an act of piracy. Also, a particularly rich cargo may prove too tempting for captain and crew, and a raid on land might be staged to take it back. Both would fall under the umbrella of piracy. What is not specifically addressed, perhaps curiously, is the simple act of running off with a cargo and selling it abroad. This may speak to the point of Britain’s wide reach as an Empire at the time the statutes were written more than anything else.
If a Pyrate attack a Ship, & the Master for Redemption gives his Oath to pay a Sum of Money, tho’ there be nothing taken, yet is it Pyracy by the Law Marine.
In this case the statute is addressing ransoms, either for goods, the ship itself, or passengers. Regardless of the item or person in question, demanding ransom on the high seas is the same as piracy under the law.
If a ship is riding at Anchor, & the Mariners all ashore, and a Pyrate attack her, and rob her, this is Pyracy.
As we have seen on more than one occasion, this point of the statute was often taken to extremes. A man – or woman for that matter – could hang simply for wading out into the filthy water of the Thames and stealing food from a boat. A loaf of bread in hand and muck on your bare feet suddenly turned you into a “dread pyrate.”
If a Man commit Pyracy upon the Subjects of any Prince, or Republick, (though in Amity with us), and brings the Goods into England, & sells them in a Market Overt, the same shall bind, and the Owners are for ever excluded.
Being that the ship or ships raided by a freebooting Englishman are not English, the Crown is willing to be a little wishy-washy on this point of piracy. The sale of goods is spoken of only in a “Market Overt”; a public, legal market. There is no mention of smuggling or black market trade. And although the Crown may prosecute for piracy, the “foreign” owners are “for ever excluded.”
If a Pyrate enters a Port of this Kingdom, and robs a Ship at Anchor there, it is not Pyracy, because not done Super Altum Mare; but is Robbery at common Law, because infra Corpus Comitatus. A Pardon of all Felonies does not extend to Pyracy, but the same ought to be especially named.
For the finale, and in legal jargon that would make any modern big name lawyer rub their hands together with glee, that “pyrate” who wandered out into the Thames is no longer a pirate, but a thief. Thus, he – or she – would have the option to pay with cash rather than their life. Here, the statutes protect the “gentlemen” pirates and smugglers in perhaps the most blatant way possible. Only a wealthy freebooter would have the kind of cash necessary to pay someone for finding, and arguing, this loophole. To mix metaphors and borrow from Hugo, the Jean Valjean who simply needed to feed his family would still find himself put to hard labor. And he would still be called a pirate for his trouble.
Header: Engraving of Henley on Thames c 1820