Pirates and piracy in the Indian Ocean

Ever since the dawn of maritime navigation, piracy has always been a constant since it is only the extension of the act of taking another’s possessions by force. The discovery of a route to what was called at the time, “the Indies” by Vasco da Gama  in 1497 and a few years  before the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Colombus in 1492 only amplified the phenomenon and attracted much interest.  It must be said that Vasco da Gama himself committed some barbarous acts during his expedition, among those acts of piracy against unarmed Arab merchant ships and the firing of his cannons on the cities of Mozambique.

Vasco da Gama, obviously very proud of himself.

Vasco da Gama, obviously very proud of himself.

After the death of the powerful Charles of Habsburg, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, also known under the name of Charles V in 1558, wars of succession divided Europe and fueled the competition among countries for the acquisition of goods coming from the Indies and the Americas. These ongoing tensions favored the apparition of commerce raiding, which was the sanctioned piracy of enemy ships. Often, private ship owners or ex-military would go on raiding expeditions on behalf of their country against its enemies.

The difference between a pirate, a corsair, a freebooter and a buccaneer

Life of a pirate: step one - get the treasure. Then you start digging.

Life of a pirate: step one – get the treasure. Then you start digging.

However, one must know that there are differences between pirates, corsairs, freebooters and buccaneers. The pirate only stole for his own profit, without being officially sanctioned. He attacked ships without discriminating between those of his own country or others. If he was captured, he was simply hanged high and short. High to set an example, and short so that rope would not be wasted.

Painting depicting French corsairs with their British prisoners.

Painting depicting French corsairs with their British prisoners.

The corsair was officially sanctioned by his own country to raid enemy ships. The term “corsair” comes from the French term “guerre de course” – meaning commerce raiding. Corsairs were considered to be part of the military force of a country and only attacked enemy ships.  When corsairs were captured, they showed their letter of marque to their captors and that enabled them to be treated as war prisoners instead of being hanged.

The freebooter was a corsair from the Caribbean. The name comes from the term used to describe “one who goes freely about and takes his loot”. They mostly attacked Spanish ships.

Painting of a buccaneer from the Caribbean.

Painting of a buccaneer from the Caribbean.

The buccaneer was a hunter of wild animals who smoked his meat over fires so that it would last longer. Sometimes buccaneers traded with passing ships and joined pirates or corsairs for some time to make money.

Famous pirates and corsairs of the Indian Ocean

Both the French and English were engaged in commerce raids in the Indian Ocean. The Mascarene Islands, among those Mauritius and Réunion, and also Madagascar and the countless islands of the Seychelles were known to harbor pirates and corsairs.

Some famous pirates and corsairs of the region were:

George Booth, from the United Kingdom. One of the earliest active pirates in the Indian Ocean. Died in 1700.

John Hasley, corsair from the American colonies who became a pirate when his letter of marque expired. He sailed towards Madagascar in 1705 and died there in 1708.

William Kidd from the United Kingdom. First a corsair then became a pirate in 1697 and sailed near Madagascar. The United Kingdom had him hanged in 1701.

Depiction of the hanging of William Kidd. Game over.. (Don' try this at home kids.)

Depiction of the hanging of William Kidd. Game over.. (Don’ try this at home kids.)

Olivier Levasseur, known as “La Buse”. A French corsair who then became a pirate. Based in Réunion Island where he was then hanged and buried. According to legend, he was buried at the marine cemetery of the commune of saint-Paul in 1730. The day he was to be hanged, he threw a coded message into the crowd. To date, nobody was ever able to decrypt it. The message supposedly indicates where his treasure was buried.

La Buse's parting gift. Give it a try...

La Buse’s parting gift. Give it a try…

Robert Surcouf, a French corsair who became a ship captain at twenty years old and terrorized the British fleets. He died at Saint-Servan in 1827. According to legend, he was so rich that he carpeted his home with gold coins.

Robert Surcouf, corsair.

Robert Surcouf, corsair.

Jean-françois Houdoul, a French corsair who lived between 1765 and 1835. He built a house in the Seychelles while terrorizing the British fleets at the same time. He was laid to rest in the cemetery of Bel-Air in Mahé after his death.

Of course, one automatically think about treasures whenever pirates are mentioned and the Islands of the Indian Ocean are not immune to the legends of buried or hidden loot, mainly because of La Buse’s coded message. Some coves or secluded bays and caves of the islands of the Indian Ocean are sometimes the subject of rumors of hidden treasures as evidenced by the books of the Mauritian author Jean-Marie Le Clézio: “Le chercheur d’or” and “Voyage à Rodrigues” which relate the adventures of his grandfather, a treasure-hunter.

Modern Piracy

Piracy around the world in 2013

Piracy around the world in 2013

Nowadays piracy is still an issue all over the world, unfortunately. Pirates are not only active off the coasts of Africa, especially near the coasts of Somalia, but are also active in the canal of Mozambique, around Saudi Arabia, off the coasts of Iran, around the Indian sub-continent, in South-East Asia, near Ecuador, Colombia, Guyana and in the Caribbean.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia commons and http://www.icc-ccs.org/piracy-reporting-centre/live-piracy-map

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