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Pirates

Blunderbuss, 18th century, Turkey, courtesy of the Israel Museum

Pirates: The Skull and Crossbones

 

This exhibition opened to the public on January 4, 2004

Curator: Avshalom Zemer

 

Ever since man began maritime trading, piracy - robbery at sea - has been a means of survival. Piracy is a world-wide phenomenon, and was first recorded in the Mediterranean at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, and in the China Sea in the middle of the 1st millennium CE. However, the most notorious pirates plied the Atlantic Ocean, beginning with Sir Francis Drake of England, in the 16th century.

 

A pirate is one who robs and plunders at sea, an individual who will attack any vessel for his own personal gain. At different times and places, piracy has acquired different names, but all pirates seek riches and disregard the dangers involved in their acquisition. The privateer was an armed vessel, or the captain and his crew of such a vessel, who had received governmental licence - a "letter of marque" - to attack enemy shipping. Privateers sailed the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Caribbean in the 13th-19th centuries. Similarly, the corsair was the privateer of the Mediterranean in the 14th-19th centuries. The pirates who plied the Caribbean and the shores of Central and South America in the 17th century were known as buccaneers, a term originating from the hunters of the Island of Hispaniola (today Haiti). The French term for buccaneer was filibuster.

 

Piracy increased against a background of internal unrest and war. After the empire of Alexander the Great had disintegrated at the end of the 4th century BCE, the Island of Rhodes played an important role in the hegemony of most of the Mediterranean trade routes, and the ruling powers had to make great efforts to subdue piracy. As the political importance of the island declined, in the 2nd century BCE, so pirate forays increased, and the Mediterranean pirates organized themselves into large bands with strongholds in Crete and Sicily.

 

The pirates of Cilicia (today the southern area of Turkey) were a threat to the supremacy of Rome in the Mediterranean, because the central trading route passed between Cilicia and Cyprus to Syria, Eretz Israel, and Egypt. When pirates attacked the grain ships bringing supplies to Rome, the latter went to war against them. However, since maritime trade continued, piracy was never completely eradicated.  As the boundaries of the Roman Empire expanded, the Mediterranean became its veritable "mare internum", allowing Rome to control piracy under the auspices of the "Pax Romana" for more than 200 years.

 

As the Roman Empire declined in the West, things changed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Byzantine powers waged war on piracy because the State's economy and profits derived from trading between Asia and Europe, especially maritime trading. After the Byzantine Empire had weakened, in the 9th century, Moslem pirates overran Cyprus, Crete, and Sicily, and also set up bases in southern Italy. Pirates also participated in the Holy Wars between Christians and Moslems. Piracy increased in the 13th century as the Byzantine Empire disintegrated, and anarchy reigned in the Mediterranean. Constantinople  was conquered by the Moslems in 1453, and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. To secure supremacy at sea, the Ottoman Turks created a battle fleet in the 16th century, and set the finest corsairs in command of it, but this fleet also declined at the close of the 16th century, and piracy was rampant in the Mediterranean once more. At about the same time, pirate city-states were founded along the northern coast of Africa, and were also involved in slave-trading. These were known as the "Barbary States".

 

Piracy flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Atlantic. The discovery and settlement of America gave rise to new trade routes in the Caribbean, at that time governed by Spain. The Spanish ships carrying treasure from the New World were the obvious targets of the pirates. In the 17th century, when piracy was at its peak, new pirate bases arose in the Caribbean - on Tortuga Island and at Port Royal in Jamaica.

 

From the Caribbean, full-scale piracy moved to the maritime routes around Africa to the Far East, and the pirates set up their bases in Madagascar, the island strategically located on these routes.

 

In the Far East, piracy had already been in existence for more than 2000 years, along the shores of China, in the South China Sea and in the Straits of Malacca, where merchant shipping sailed the maritime routes between India and China. Here, at the beginning of the 17th century, piracy flourished, reaching its highest level during the first half of the 19th century.

 

By the end of the Second World War, and with the internationalization of the maritime routes, piracy had virtually disappeared. Newly developed technologies for shipping, and the official illegality of piracy were responsible for this, though we are seeing its resurgence in some regions at the onset of the 3rd millennium.

 

The image of the pirate is a mixture of fact and fiction. The literature and the cinema are the sources of many of the myths - such as the secret maps of buried treasure. In actual fact, the pirates' existence was anything but glorious, and they wasted most of their substance on gambling, women, and drink. Many of them came to an untimely end. 

Exhibition catalogue

 
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