Pirates: A Long, Scurvy History

Pirate history stretches back for millennia, from the ancient Greeks into the 21st century.

Today is Talk Like a Pirate Day, a time in which we honor the unique dialect of criminals and murderers who have terrorized the seven seas for hundreds of years.

Well, that's not strictly true. In fact, pirates have a history stretching back millennia and come from a diverse group of people and cultures. In fact, what's commonly understood as pirate speak these days in fact originates from Robert Newton's portrayal of Long John Silver in Disney's adaptation of the book Treasure Island.

Learn about the rogues that rode the waves into the history books by pillaging, plundering and engaging in general acts of piracy.

Given the number of small islands to hide either in wait for an ambush or after a successful expedition, the Aegean and Mediterranean seas made the perfect incubators for the earliest pirates. The word pirate can be traced back to the Greek word "peiran," meaning "to attack, make a hostile attempt on, try,"

In other words, from its inception, piracy has been equated with daring.

Pirates were so successful during these days that it evolved into an occupation around which formed a community that passed on from generation to generation. Known collectively as "Sea Peoples," given that pirates were typically organized groups of people from diverse backgrounds, these pirates typically targeted vessels belonging to the dominant naval power at the time: Egypt. Some of the earliest historical references to piracy come from Egyptian tablets.

Pirates continued their raids from one empire to the next at the sunset of the Egyptian empire and the rise of Imperial Rome. That doesn't mean they weren't met with resistance, however, and didn't have setbacks.

In 75 B.C.E., Cilician pirates captured a 25-year-old Julius Caesar, demanding a ransom of 20 talents (1,300 pounds) of silver. Caesar, then a private citizen, claimed the price simply wasn't high enough and insisted the pirates more than double their initial demand, which they happily agreed to.

For 38 days until the sum arrived, Caesar seemed to revel in his time with the pirates, joining in their games, writing poetry and threatening to hang them in what they assumed was a playful and joking fashion, according to Plutarch. Caesar even threatened to have them all crucified. But Caesar wasn't playing. Soon after he was released, Caesar returned with a Roman fleet that overtook the pirates, who were, in fact, crucified.

Several years later, Pompey waged a campaign against the pirates after frequent threats to the grain supply. Ancient Rome attempted to clean up the pirate problem by going directly after pirate strongholds.

Vikings picked up where the pirates of the ancient world left off, becoming the predominant sea-going terror of the Western world starting around the 9th century.

Hailing from tribal communities in Northern Europe, the Vikings might not have come from as diverse a group as the pirates of the ancient world, but they were much more effective. Sleek longboats gave them a technological advantage, allowing them to speedily ferry troops to attack coastal settlements.

During the Crusades, Christian soldiers marched on the holy land and attacked Muslim ships in the Mediterranean. As Christian soldiers took control of territory in the Middle East and drove the Moors out of the Iberian peninsula, Muslim pirates, known as Barbary pirates or Corsairs, who came from parts of North Africa and had the backing of the Ottoman Empire, began to menace Christian ships.

Toward the end of the 14th century, the Barbary pirates would build a reputation for terrorizing Christian vessels and attacking Christian coastal strongholds in the Mediterranean, West Africa and even later the New World.

The most infamous of the Corsairs was Hayreddin Barbarossa, also known as Redbeard. A hero to the Ottomans, Barbarossa helped establish Ottoman supremacy in the Mediterranean during the 16th century and captured the island of Capri, on which he built a castle that still stands and bears his name today.

The transatlantic trade among Europe, Africa and the Americas provided seemingly limitless opportunities for wealth accumulation not only for the monarchies of Western Europe, but also pirates who would take advantage of the riches being transported over long ocean journeys.

With Spanish ships leading the way in early exploration of the New World, they were also the ones most frequently falling prey to pirates, and later privateers, who were government-sanctioned criminals given letters of marque sanctioning attacks on foreign ships.

Sixteenth-century French pirate Jean Fleury essentially kicked off the golden age of piracy when he seized two Spanish treasure ships bearing Aztec gold en route from Mexico to Spain.

Pirates would grow ever bolder as they commanded larger fleets and claimed bigger prizes given that they had government backing in the 16th through the 18th centuries. Entire cities could be overwhelmed by pirate forces, as was the case when Henry Morgan sacked Panama City.

By the late 18th century and early 19th century, piracy had passed its golden age in the Caribbean has passed as colonial powers, as well as former colonies such as the United States, began to suppress the practice.

Most people these days are familiar with the names of some of the most famous pirates in history -- Blackbeard, Black Bart, Henry Morgan. But few are probably familiar with the woman (yes, woman) who was arguably the most successful pirate in history.

A former prostitute hailing from China, Cheng I Sao controlled 1,500 ships and up to 80,000 sailors. Originally a husband-and-wife team, Cheng I Sao married a pirate captain. After her husband died, Cheng I Sao didn't take over as captain, leaving that role to her husband's right-hand man, Chang Pao. Instead she chose to become a kind of CEO of her pirate enterprise, focusing on business, growth and strategy.

Also, unlike many famous pirates who met often brutal ends, Cheng I Sao retired to a private life, remarried (to Chang Pao) and died peacefully at age 69.

Even in the 21st century, piracy is still alive and well on the waters, most famously in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean due to pirates originating from Somalia following a series of high profile standoffs. These pirates tend not to seize cargo, but rather hold it and the passengers aboard the ship for ransom.

Pirates haven't been confined to the waters off East Africa, however. They've also been active off the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa and in Southeast Asia, particularly along the Indonesia archipelago.

According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau, 176 incidents of piracy, including 10 hijackings, have been reported so far this year as of Aug. 31.

Some modern-day pirates have even shed their roguish ways (sort of) to enter politics. Starting out in Sweden, the Pirate Party, which advocates the free exchange of ideas and information, democracy and civil liberties, has expanded to nearly 40 countries, even winning seats in Sweden, Iceland, Germany and other countries.

That doesn't mean that Pirate Party members aren't capable of the occasional feat of daring. Earlier this week, a spy drone operated by members of Germany's Pirate Party figuratively crashed an election rally hosted by Chancellor Angela Merkel before literally crashing right at her feet.