The first full-length, live-action film Disney ever made was the 1950 hit Treasure Island, based on the popular Robert Louis Stevenson novel. The key role of ship’s cook-turned-mutineer Long John Silver was played by veteran English actor Robert Newton. He contorted his face, rolled his r’s till they went on forever and spouted such pirate gems as “Shiver my timbers, a landlubber I’ll never be.”
Newton’s performance helped create the modern-day myth of the pirate. In the years since, pirates in films, cartoons and books have all been leathery characters complete with wooden legs, a hook for an arm, parrot on one shoulder and an eye patch.
But the history of piracy on the high seas predates Stevenson by about 4,000 years. Among the earliest recorded instances of piracy are those committed by the Sea Peoples, who routinely marauded the ships of ancient Egypt.
Centuries later, Julius Caesar himself was kidnapped by Cilician pirates and spirited away to the little island of Pharmacusa. The Roman emperor was released after some peculiar high drama.
Across the world and across the seas, from the North Sea to the seas off Japan, pirates stole booty and created myths. It was only a matter of time before pirates became the topic of fiction. Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Stevenson’s Treasure Islandand J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan all magnified and glorified this myth.
After almost a hundred attacks on ships this year, Somali pirates in rickety motorboats stealing supertankers have once again catapulted piracy on the high seas into popular imagination. Which makes this as good a time as any to brush up on pirate history. Here is an illustrated primer on pirate lore, both fact and fiction, right from the pharaohs’ nemesis to the villains of Somalia.
1. Ancient Egypt was often subject to attacks by the Sea Peoples, raiders who lurked on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean sea around the second millennium BC. References to them can be found much later in the Amana letters...a series of missives in cuneiform script on clay tablets, sent to outposts by the Egyptian administration, possibly during the reign of Amenhotep III.
2. In 75 BC, when Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates who demanded 20 talents (around 600kg) of gold as ransom, the dictator was livid. He maintained that he was worth more and asked the pirates to up the ransom to 50 talents. The pirates obliged, the Romans paid, and Caesar was released. He immediately hunted down his captors and destroyed them.
3. The Vikings from the north were arguably the greatest pirates in European history. For around four centuries from the ninth century onwards, their longships took them from Istanbul in the east to Greenland and Iceland in the west. The painting shows Norwegian king Olaf Trygvasson, who introduced Christianity to the Vikings. The nursery rhyme ‘London bridge is falling down’ is believed to have been inspired by Trygvasson, who once burnt the bridge during a raid on England.
4. The Eternal City was no stranger to pirate attacks. In the year 846, Muslim pirates managed their only attack on Rome—they burnt it to the ground. St Peter’s Basilica was ransacked. This led to the building of the Leonine Wall across the Tiber, inside which we find the present-day Vatican City.
5. According to one historian, the first case of a criminal being “hanged, drawn and quartered” occurred in 1241 when King Henry III sentenced pirate William Maurice to death. The punishment involved the criminal being dragged along the ground to the gallows, hanged almost till death, followed by disembowelment, emasculation, the cutting off of arms and legs and then beheading. The execution was usually prolonged as much as possible.
6. Closer home, piracy was a menace that threatened Indian kingdoms right from the Vijayanagar empire and Bahmani Sultanate in the 14th century to the Mughals. Mughal queen Mariam-uz- Zamani’s ship was attacked by Portuguese pirates in 1613. Enraged, Jodha Bai’s son (for that was her Hindu name) Jehangir sacked the Portuguese town of Daman. Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (left) played the Mughal queen in the 2007 film ‘Jodhaa Akbar’.
7. The US was forced into its first overseas military action by the Barbary pirates of north Africa. Based out of ports in Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, the pirates were a large, well-organized group that harassed American ships so much that the US created its navy in 1794 primarily to counter this threat. The Barbary Wars of 1801 and 1815 weakened the pirate presence but it took another 15 years to wipe them out.
8. The golden age of piracy, and one which created the most popular myths and legends, lasted from 1560 to the mid-18th century. The Caribbean Sea was infested by European buccaneers, led by famous captains such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. For a highly fictionalized glimpse of the era, watch any of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies starring Johnny Depp (left).
9. The world of films, books and even video games is built on the romantic myth of pirates. Some of the most famous pirate games are... the ‘Monkey Island’ series from LucasArts, which incorporated several popular pirate themes.
10. Armed with AK-47 rifles, rocket launchers and GPS receivers, Somali pirates are the most modern avatar of the seafaring raider. For a decade since the 1990s, they have been intercepting vessels in the busy waters off the Horn of Africa. The recent spurt in their activities has drawn the navies of several nations to patrol the region. On 19 November, ‘INS Tabar’ of the Indian Navy sank an alleged mothership of Somali pirates.