Ahoy me Pirate Lab!

Chanel Turner

Pirates have been a topic of discussion long before they were unconventional heroes in blockbuster films. But how far back does their history go? And how common is piracy today? Join us as we look into the history of these swashbuckling criminals.

Do the names Davey Jones, Blackbeard, Captain Jack Sparrow and Anne Bonny ring a bell?

Well they should! These historical figures were noteworthy in their craft. Dangerous, mischievous, relentless in their missions, masters of the sea – they were of course, Pirates.

While the idea of Pirates to many of us spark images of blockbuster films like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, Pirates are very real to a great area of the world, even today. As the Cambridge Dictionary definition explains, a Pirate is ‘a person who sails in a ship and attacks other ships in order to steal from them’; and for areas like Somalia, Pirates are still active and hugely dangerous in modern times. With their mission usually surrounding robbery, they are also known for their relentless cruelty to those aboard.

We went one step further into learning about these swashbuckling figures who even today, in their criminal activities, are often revered; and tried to understand why characters like Captain Jack Sparrow are beloved household names. When did piracy begin? What areas of the world are the most vulnerable to piracy? And, how can we use data to enhance this story of piracy?

Piracy - A Timeline

With stories of Pirates dating back as far as 1400BC, with the Ancient Greeks referring to Pirates as 'Sea People' or 'Aegeans', there is no doubt Pirates have had a long history in our waters. In the 2nd Century, piracy rose again and this time in Asian waters after the fall of the Chinese Han dynasty. Then from the 13th century, the Mediterranean stories come into history books.

But it’s in the 16th century that there was a massive rise in piracy, with 1650 referred to as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy Empires’. With the rise in maritime technology and trade traffic between Europe, Africa and the New World, many ships and sea-side towns were ransacked in the newly discovered America. It was also the century in which the REAL Pirates of the Caribbean came into the history books, with over 500 ships being destroyed or raided between 1623 and 1638 alone.

With the likes of Blackbeard dying in battle in 1718, the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’ was coming to an end. Then with the English Government capturing Captain Jack Rackham and his two female shipmates, including the famous female Pirate, Anne Bonny – the seas were becoming safer and more regulated. With piracy being fully eliminated in Central America and Asian waters by 1820.

Pirates are still very much active today however!

The collapse of the Somali government in 1991 saw a civil war ensue and that gave rise to acts of piracy around the Gulf of Aden, with Somali Pirates still active in the waters surrounding Somalia.

Who is the Most Vulnerable?

In modern times, the places most vulnerable to piracy are those with unstable governments and an uneven wealth distribution. For example, Somalia, areas in the Red Sea and South East Asia. The Amazon has also been an area vulnerable to piracy for decades, with the likes of Sir Peter Blake (a well renowned New Zealand yachtsman) being murdered by Pirates in 2001 as they robbed his ship.

Other areas with vulnerability to piracy are those with active shipping routes.

With some dating back as far as 1700, or with the waters surrounding Somalia as stated above, those are areas of active piracy, even in the 21st century.

Can Data tell us the story?

We’ve broken down global data from 40 years of nautical piracy and over 8,000 incidents called 'Anti-shipping Activity Messages', as provided by the experts at the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), and have enhanced firefly spots to showcase the areas in the world most vulnerable to piracy. When broken down into key continents, each area holds its own history of Pirates and nautical piracy.

The Caribbean & South America

Let’s start with South America. No surprises here we can see a concentration over the Caribbean, from Florida to Mexico and down to the Northern coast of Brazil. Hello, Pirates of the Caribbean! No doubt attributed to the amount of trade shipping routes going from the Caribbean islands North to America with things like bananas, cigars, rum, etc.

Africa

We can also see huge concentrations surrounding the east and west coasts of Africa. With the Gulf of Guinea seeing the biggest concentration on the west coast, again a big shipping centre taking African goods from the likes of Nigeria north to Europe or further west to the Americas. On the east coast we see a huge concentration over Somalian waters, Gulf of Aden and up to the Red Sea, the most active piracy locations in modern times.

Asia

We can also see the largest concentration of piracy events condensing over Asian waters. From the Indian Ocean all the way to Chinese coasts, and down throughout South East Asia to the Northern coast of Australia. Again, attributed no doubt to hugely busy shipping routes throughout the region, from Australasia up to China and vice versa. From food and consumer goods, to cane sugar.

This map gives strong context to otherwise anecdotal information, and the brightness of all these lights showcases how prevalent piracy is across the globe. Whether it ends in robbery, in death or in commandeering a ship, these are shocking figures to hear about, let alone to see so bright across most of the world. Pirates are definitely still pillaging their way through history!

Suddenly films like Pirates of the Caribbean, and the ride at Disneyland, take on a whole new meaning…

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