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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: March 2020

23 - Piracy in Asia and the West

from Part V - Popular Protest and Resistance


Piracy, or violent despoliation at sea, is ancient, yet it took on global dimensions after 1500. This chapter examines piratical violence as an early modern, global, cross-cultural phenomenon motivated by politics and religion as well as profit. Varieties of piracy ranged from random pillage of merchant vessels to state-sanctioned corsairing companies. Forms of violence included murder, kidnapping, enslavement, rape, battery, mutilation, impressment and forced conversion. In some regions, extortion rackets formed wherein the threat of piratical violence was offset by regular payments. Rising seaborne violence prompted consequential reactions, from naval arms races to coastal depopulation. By the eighteenth century powerful states such as Great Britain and Qing dynasty China passed harsh anti-piracy laws and outfitted navies for pirate extermination, which led to the jailing and execution of many suspects, some of them innocent. Sea sovereignty came to be defined as monopolising violence at sea and treating anyone defined as a pirate as subject to harsher laws than those applied to land thieves. By this logic, pirates were ‘enemies of humankind’.

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Useful recent essays on the scholarly literature of piracy are Starkey, David J., ‘Voluntaries and Sea Robbers: A Review of the Academic Literature on Privateering, Corsairing, Buccaneering and Piracy’, Mariner’s Mirror 97.1 (2011), 127–47; and Connolly, Patrick and Antony, Robert, ‘“A Terrible Scourge”: Piracy, Coastal Defense, and the Historian’, in Sim, Teddy (ed.), Qi Jiguang and the Maritime Defence of China, (Singapore: Springer, 2017), pp. 4358.

For general approaches to early modern piracy see Anderson, J. L., ‘Piracy and World History: An Economic Perspective on Maritime Predation’, Journal of World History 6.2 (1995), 175–99; Gosse, Philip, The History of Piracy (London: Longmans, Green, 1932); and Pennell, C. R. (ed.), Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2001). On the relationships between piracy, laws and states see Kempe, Michael, ‘Even the Remotest Corners of the World: Globalized Piracy and International Law, 1500–1900’, Journal of Global History 5.3 (2010), 353–72; Thompson, Janice E., Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); and Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

For Mediterranean piracy see Bracewell, Catherine, The Uskoks of Senj: Piracy, Banditry, and Holy War in the Sixteenth-Century Adriatic (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011); Davis, Robert, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500–1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); and Weiss, G. L., Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011).

For Indian Ocean piracy see Ritchie, Robert, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986); Davies, Charles, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy, 1797–1820 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997); Prange, Sebastian R., ‘A Trade of No Dishonor: Piracy, Commerce, and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century’, American Historical Review 116.5 (2011), 1269–93; and Risso, Patricia, ‘Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf during a Long Eighteenth Century’, Journal of World History 12.2 (2001), 293319.

Studies of East Asian piracy include Kwan-Wai, So, Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the 16th Century (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1975); Murray, Dian, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790–1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987); and Antony, Robert, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South, China Research monograh (Berkeley: University of California, Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003). For South East Asia see the two studies by Warren, James: The Sulu Zone (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1981) and Iranun and Balangingi (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2002); and Jennifer L. Gaynor, Intertidal History in Island Southeast Asia: Submerged Genealogy and the Legacy of Coastal Capture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016).

Among the many studies on piracy in the Americas see Hanna, Mark, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570–1740 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Latimer, Jon, Buccaneers of the Caribbean: How Piracy Forged an Empire (Cambridge, M: Harvard University Press, 2009); McCarthy, Matthew, Privateering, Piracy and British Policy in Spanish America, 1810–1830 (Kingston upon Hull: University of Hull, 2013); Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004); Lane, Kris, Pillaging the Empire: Global Piracy on the High Seas, 1500–1750 (New York: Routledge, 2015); and McDonald, Kevin, Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015).