Mediterranean Pirate Ship Chasing a Merchant Ship

views updated

Mediterranean Pirate Ship Chasing a Merchant Ship


By: Ferdinand Victor Perrot

Date: early 1800s

Source: Snark/Art Resource, NY

About the Artist: This undated lithograph by French artist Ferdinand Victor Perrot (1808–1841) from the first half of the nineteenth century depicts pirates chasing a merchant ship in the Mediterranean.


This lithograph from the early nineteenth century depicts a pirate ship in pursuit of a merchant vessel in the Mediterranean. The incident shown is probably representative rather than a record of a particular attack. As shown here, pirate ships were typically smaller than the vessels they attacked: the pirates wanted not to sink the target, but to overtake and board it, a feat that required a small, fast craft. Also, pirate ships typically had to ride high so they could hide in shallow coves and inlets.

The pirate ship shown here may well have been a vessel of the Barbary Pirates (or Corsairs), who were a Mediterranean power from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. The Corsairs were Muslim pirates operating from the North African coast (Algiers, Morocco, and elsewhere) and were authorized by their host countries to attack ships from Christian countries; similarly, Christian Corsairs operated out of Malta and Spain, and were authorized to attack Muslim shipping. The Barbary Corsairs remained a threat in the Mediterranean longer than the Malta Corsairs. They used long, narrow sailing ships that could also be rowed (faster than sailing under typical conditions): each oar was typically manned by six slaves chained to a bench. Their goal was to overtake, and ram the tar-get vessel. Pirates could then use ropes and planks to move onto the target ship and overpower or kill its crew. Galleys of this type were suitable only for use in the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean, as opposed to the open Atlantic.



See primary source image.


Although pirates have become romanticized icons, they have throughout history been a real threat on the seas. Pirates are seagoing robbers who prey on other ships (as distinct from coastal raiders, who prey on land dwellers). They overtake target vessels, board, and capture cash, cargo, people, or even the ship itself. Such actions have occurred ever since the use of ocean vessels for trade developed in the Mediterranean and Far East well over 2,000 years ago. The Barbary and Malta Corsairs made seagoing trade in the Mediterranean a risky business for centuries. Large pirate communities also developed along the coasts of South Asia; some numbered in the tens of thousands and acted, in effect, as rogue microstates extorting stiff taxes from merchant vessels plying nearby trade routes. Piracy was also rife in the Caribbean from the mid 1500s to the early 1700s; Atlantic pirates often sold slaves in the markets there, and about a third of Caribbean pirates were escaped slaves.

Piracy decreased sharply in the nineteenth century, after British and Dutch bombardment of the port of Algiers in 1816 destroyed most of the Barbary Corsairs fleet. Those navies also systematically hunted pirates in the seas of China and Southeast Asia. Privateers, however—pirates authorized by governments to prey on the shipping of other countries—continued to flourish until most nations with significant fleets signed the Declaration of Paris in 1856, outlawing the practice.

In the late twentieth century and beyond piracy again became a serious. According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO, the United Nations organization devoted to improving maritime safety and reducing pollution from ships), pirate attacks on shipping, especially in Indonesian and other South Asian waters as well as off the East African coast near Somalia, tripled from 1993 to 2003, with over 200 attacks in the first half of 2003 alone. Modern pirates are heavily armed gangs that issue from coastal hiding places in fast-moving motor launches when large vessels, often slowed to navigate straits or canals, approach. The pirates' target is often the cash stored in the master's safe aboard the target vessel, but they may also take personal belongings from the crew, capture them as hostages, or (more rarely) steal the ship itself.

Modern heavily mechanized cargo vessels carry small crews, making them more vulnerable to boarding. To increase shipboard security, the IMO recommends including the establishment of secure areas, radio alarm procedures, routing away from known piracy areas, increased security watches, the use of alarm sirens and distress flares, and the like. Bright lights and fire hoses may be used to repel attackers, but the IMO does not recommend pitched gun battles with pirates.


Web sites

Royal Naval Museum. "Information Sheet 80: Piracy." Undated. 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).

International Maritime Organization. "Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships." 〈〉 (accessed March 8, 2006).