Piracy in the 19th century

The end of the last wave of Caribbean piracy in the 1720s saw the demise of the infamous Bartholomew Roberts, Blackbeard, and Le Bour (among others). It may have been the end for the pirates of the Caribbean, but it also signalled a new era in the history of piracy. A handful of interconnected events influenced sea-raiding activities, piracy, and piracy suppression throughout the 19th century.

1) Almost continual war in Europe

Until the early 19th century, the European powers continued to fight their wars at sea with authorised sea-raiders. To encourage more private individuals to fight for them, they used legal tools called Prize Acts that reduced their own share of a sea-raider’s prize, leaving more financial benefit for the sea-raider.

For these sea-raiders, the frequency of war combined with their growing wealth meant they began gaining reputations as patriots and heroes in their communities. This caused the strengthening of their allegiance to their sovereign and reduced their desire to turn to piracy during peacetime. In short, with so much opportunity for gaining wealth through legitimate sea-raiding, there was little need to turn to piracy.


However, various proclamations and laws indicated that pirates were still active during peace time, but by the 1800s, they had moved to the margins of European society.

2) The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815

The real test for whether piracy would re-emerge came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15) in 1815. For the first time in centuries, Britain and France were now at peace and determined to remain so. Historically, extended periods of peace tended to bring out pirates because scores of sea-raiders found themselves unemployed.

This time though, Spain remained embroiled in a battle to retain its American colonies (the Spanish American Wars of Independence (1808-1833)). This war presented an opportunity for Britain. At its commencement in 1808, Britain had signed a trade agreement with the Spanish that allowed British trade with Spanish America in return for Britain’s non-interference in the war. The deal significantly bolstered the British merchant marine so for the first time, sea-raiders had legitimate alternate employment opportunities to piracy during peacetime.

However, many sea-raiders still chose piracy. Matthew McCarthy wrote that Spain’s loose grip on power around Jamaica and Cuba saw sea-raiders ‘of all nations’ take advantage of the wealth of piracy opportunities Spain’s weakened authority presented.

3) Increasing industrialisation and state development

After the Napoleonic wars ended, the Industrial Revolution turned towards peace time production and technological development. Wealth began to flow into government coffers. European powers began providing health and education services, regulating the economy, controlling the movement of the population, and assuring citizens’ welfare. These actions and many others formed the functions of the ‘state’.

In return for these improvements to their lives, citizens were expected to obey the state’s laws and pay their taxes. Their allegiance moved away from the individual sovereign towards this new state apparatus. Governments became responsible for controlling the state and its development, rather than implementing the wishes of the sovereign.

This centralisation of authority towards the state rather than the sovereign caused two key developments in the history of piracy: the abolition of authorised sea-raiding; and the expansion of the European powers’ colonial interests.  

4) The abolition of authorised sea-raiding

The end of the Napoleonic Wars heralded the end of the sovereigns’ authorisation of sea-raiders to fight their wars at sea. During the extended period of peace that created the post-war industrialisation period, European powers set about building strong and capable professional navies, using the new technological developments of steel and steam. It became increasingly clear that authorising private individuals to attack enemy ships was no longer necessary. Neither the British nor the French authorised sea-raiders during the Crimean War (1850-53), using their navies instead.

By 1856, the British had emerged as the world’s strongest naval power. They viewed authorised sea-raiding as the weapon of the weaker naval power and began negotiations to outlaw it. All European states eventually agreed to abolish it, while the Americans refused.

By abolishing authorised sea-raiding, states became solely responsible for dealing with their citizens’ crimes on the seas. However, this did not resolve the logistical and financial challenges of undertaking this task, including the suppression of piracy.


5) The expansion of the European powers’ colonial interests

With no wars to fight, the European powers turned their attention to increasing control over their colonial interests and strengthening their trade positions. Before this time, most colonial assets had been used as trading posts by authorised private companies (such as the Dutch East India Company or British East India Company) to acquire desirable resources like slaves, salt, pepper, gold, ivory, and spices. And, in much the same vein as European powers, local indigenous rulers authorised their subjects to raid their enemies’ ships and trade.

The European shift towards a stronger colonial policy to encompass control of indigenous people and trade meant it began to use naval intervention against indigenous sea-raiders under the guise of ‘piracy suppression’. By criminalising indigenous sea-raiding, imperial colonial powers used maritime policing measures as an excuse for developing, expanding and consolidating their control as seen in the Dutch East Indies, the Persian Gulf and the North African coast.

In the Dutch East Indies, the local rulers rarely attacked colonial ships but to the British, their actions against each other disrupted their colonial trade. So the British and Dutch used piracy suppression to shift the allegiance of people from local rulers who lived across the large geographically archipelagic region towards a centralised European-like state structure. A dearth of appropriate vessels, combined with the combative and competitive relationship between the two powers, meant it took until the early 20th century to establish centralised control.

The indigenous people of the Persian Gulf, especially the powerful Qawasim, fought against early 19th century British colonial efforts (in the guise of the British East India Company) to increase the British share of trade by any possible means. The British deemed them pirates but historian and ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi argued the British navy’s desire to secure the Gulf region’s maritime routes disguised a concerted campaign against the powerful Qawasim. Painting them as pirates justified their expansive ambitions.


In the 1830s, the inhabitants of the remote Rif coast of Northern Africa supplemented the meagre income drawn from their degraded native lands with maritime trade from Tetuan to Algeria that passed three Spanish presidios. By 1850, Spanish intervention against the Rifi traders caused the Rifi to retaliate against the incursions. For Spain, the absence of any authority over the Rif region from the Moroccan Sultan justified Spanish accusations of piracy. However, for the Rifi, their survival depended on the security of their maritime trade and protecting it from Spanish interlopers transcended any piracy accusations. As reported by the French consul Charles Jagerschmidt in 1852, ‘they [the Rifi] openly admit that the robberies they commit on British ships are acts of piracy... but they absolutely reject the term pirates when applied to their attacks on Spanish shipping. They attack the Spanish openly, under the very guns of Melilla, and declare that when they act in this way they are acting in accordance with the rights of war.’