The exploits of pirates attracts a rebellious romantic sheen that obscures the reality of their actions. For centuries they have killed innocent seafarers and passengers, enslaved some, held others for ransom, and tortured and raped yet more.
Yet historical pirate-hunting had little to do with stopping the plundering, murdering and raping. Until the mid-19th century, privateers – sea-raiders authorised by kings and queens –legitimately undertook the exact same terrible actions as pirates. Merchant crews captured and enslaved by privateers have remained imprisoned or enslaved for years. Privateers also plundered ships and towns, killing innocent people and enslaving captives.
When this raiding occurred outside of wartime, disrupted important economic trade, or threatened national security, pirate hunting occurred.
Unfortunately, catching and stopping pirates was and remains, really, really, REALLY difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Most pirate-hunters encountered the same problems as their predecessors and their successors.
Even by 2016 it was still really hard. A Chinese Government report on the challenges of Somali piracy suppression detailed problems not dissimilar from those experienced 300 years earlier:
a lack of intelligence about where pirates were at any given time
difficulty in dealing with the continuously changing nature of the pirate groups and the way they operated;
the effect of monsoonal weather, high temperatures, and salinity on ships and equipment;
coordinating convoys of merchant vessels with different sizes, weights, speeds, performance and defence capabilities that all arrived at different times at the rendezvous points;
the absence of an overseas supply base.
Throughout piracy history, a handful of individuals managed to successfully pull off a pirate-hunt:
And then there was David Porter
Pirate-hunting claim to fame
In 1717, the British King George I appointed Rogers as Governor to the Bahamas Islands, stationed at New Providence. The idea was to embed English authority into the lawless settlement with a Royal Proclamation providing a pardon to any pirate determined to ‘mend their ways’.
Many of the local pirates accepted the pardon. Several who turned pirate again were hunted down and prosecuted.
Captains John Augur, Richard Sample, Charles Vane, and Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach were captured by Rogers after violating his pardon; Anne Bonny, who escaped execution on account of pregnancy; Captain Benjamin Hornigold, accepted a pardon only to be wrecked on a reef and drowned; Captain John Rackham had two prizes confiscated by Rogers and was eventually executed in Port Royal, Jamaica.
Woodes Rogers was originally a merchant, highly accomplished mariner, and navigator. Charismatic and charming, in 1708, during the War of Spanish Succession, Rogers was awarded command of a global expedition to retaliate against Spanish depredations against the English. He undertook a successful voyage to the Pacific on two ships called Duke and Duchess.
He brought home bullion, precious stones, and exotic silks taken from the Spanish and a marooned Englishman called Alexander Selkirk (pictured here). Selkirk became the basis of Daniel Defoe’s story ‘Robinson Crusoe’.
Woodes Rogers died in Nassau in 1732 of ‘mysterious causes’. His motto ‘piracy expelled, commerce restored’ remained the national motto of the Bahamas until independence in 1973.
Further reading: thepirateking.com; ‘Life aboard a British Privateer in the time of Queen Anne’, (Woodes Rogers journal); ‘A Cruising Voyage Round the World’, by Woodes Rogers (1712), 1928 edition. Both available at Hathi Trust.
Piracy claim to fame
Spotswood authorised the expedition that captured and executed Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach. After Blackbeard violated his pardon, Spotswood sent Lieutenant Robert Maynard, of HMS Pearl, in search of the notorious pirate. When he found him, a vicious battle ensued. Maynard emerged victorious and Blackbeard’s
'head I hung Under the Bowsprete of the Said Sloop in order to present it to ye Colony of Virginia.'
Spotswood was born in 1676 in Tangier. For 16 years, he built a respectable if undistinguished military career. In 1709, Queen Anne chose Spotswood as lieutenant governor of the royal province of Virginia. The appointment set the ambitious man on the path of the financial and social prospects he aspired to.
As Governor, Spotswood was expected to bring order and respectability to the unruly Virginia colony. In this endeavour, he met with some resistance from the colonists. They had become accustomed to making their own laws and developing their own precedents and often clashed with the uptight and by-the-book Spotswood.
In 1718, when the Royal Proclamation from King George to apprehend and destroy pirates arrived, it gave Spotswood an opportunity to unite with the colonists against a common enemy.
After the capture of Blackbeard, Alexander Spotswood left a legacy as a brilliant and stormy governor. At the end of his 12 year term, he feared retaliation from the pirates of the area and insisted he would only travel in a well-armed man-of-war.
‘Those barbarous wretches can be moved to cut off the nose and ears of a Master,’ he wrote. ‘What inhuman treatment must I expect?’
Always with a keen eye for the ladies, Spotswood had remained deliberately single. But on his return to England he quickly married Anne Butler Brayne and became a devoted husband and father of four. After six years, he returned to Virginia and settled in Germanna (Fredericksburg). On a trip to Annapolis he fell ill and died on 7 June 1740 at age 64.
Captain Chaloner Ogle
Piracy claim to fame
As captain of the Royal Navy ship Swallow, Ogle defeated Bartholomew Roberts and captured his crew off Cape Lopez on the West African Coast in 1722.
Roberts was killed by grapeshot. At his request, his crew wrapped him in a sail, weighted his body down and threw him overboard. The body was never recovered. The Court at Cape Coast Castle acquitted around 60 per cent of Roberts’ crew.
‘The quantity of Gold I have got out of all the prizes will amount to about 3000l, and I beg ... that the Prizes may be shared among the Captors,’ Ogle wrote in his report on the capture.
Despite this statement, Ogle personally retained Roberts’ ships and plunder, a rich cargo of gold dust. Against the convention of the time, he refused to share it with his officers and crew until he was forced to give up £1,940 by the courts three years later.
Ogle was the son of a Newcastle barrister and joined the Royal Navy aged 16. He slowly rose through the ranks until the defeat of Roberts fast-tracked his career. In April 1723, he received a knighthood for the feat, becoming the first Naval Officer to be knighted for fighting pirates. He was soon promoted to commodore, then Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica Station.
In 1740, Ogle was promoted again to rear-admiral of the Blue Squadron. He was ordered to escort an expedition of over 8,000 to attack Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. The attack on Cartagena was a disaster; and other attacks on Cuba failed miserably. The mission’s failure caused a violent fight between Ogle and the Governor of Jamaica. Ogle was convicted of assault and other offences.
The convictions did not stop his career. He became vice-admiral of the Blue Squadron, then admiral of the White Squadron, then its commander-in-chief.
In 1714, Ogle married Henrietta Issacson. After she died in 1737, he married Jane Isabella. There is no record of any children. Ogle died on 11 April 1750 in London.
Captain William Passenger and Governor General Francis Nicholson
Piracy claim to fame
Pursuit, battle and capture of the pirates of La Paix, including Captain Louis Guittar, John Houghling, Cornelius Franc and Francois Delaunee in April 1700.
At the time, the French and Dutch pirates had brought shipping in Virginia almost to a standstill, having captured nine ships in 10 days worth a total of more than £20,000.
Captain Passenger had been sent from England by King James in pursuit of the pirate John James, who had been looting vessels in the Lynnhaven Bay area of Virginia. He arrived too late to catch James but in time to pursue La Paix.
Governor Nicholson ordered Passenger to set out to capture the La Paix pirates in the HMS Shoreham. He accompanied Passenger onboard.
On discovery of La Paix, a fierce 10 hour battle ensued with the two ships within pistol-shot of each other most of the time. Towards the end of the battle, Passenger gained the upperhand so the pirates lay a trail of gunpowder and threatened to blow up the ship. To save 40 English prisoners, Nicholson promised to offer the pirates King’s Mercy if they surrendered quietly.
The pirate captain, Louis Guittar and several other pirates were killed. 111 pirates surrendered and were eventually prosecuted and executed in England. Houghling, Franc and Delaunee, who had not surrendered, were prosecuted in Virginia and executed accordingly.
La Paix translates to ‘The Peace’.
Nothing is readily discoverable of Passenger’s life and no portrait is available.
According to witness Charles Scarburgh, ‘during the whole engagement, and in my judgement, Captain Passenger behaved himself with much Courage and good Conduct.’
As Governor, Nicholson successfully built up the Virginian colony’s financial reserves. But his cranky demeanour and fierce temper made him unpopular. He became the victim of a public smear campaign to oust him from the position. Back in England, he continued in administrative roles for some years, receiving a knighthood in 1720.
He distinguished himself as a philanthropist of education and religion, and an ardent Church of England sponsor. He died in England on 5 March 1728.
King Phillip II of Spain
Piracy claim to fame
Pursuit of English privateer, Francis Drake. Drake may have been a hero to the English but to Phillip, he was a notorious pirate. The Spanish called him ‘El Draque’ – The Dragon. Phillip was said to have offered 20,000 ducats (£4 million) for his life.
As a result of Drake’s costly depredations against Spain, Phillip strengthened the Spanish Navy and eventually Spain was able to repel attacks by him and other English privateers/pirates in the Caribbean.
In 1554, Phillip was King of England, thanks to his marriage to Mary I, his father’s cousin. He then ascended to the Spanish throne on 16 January 1556 at the age of 29. Two years later, Mary died and Phillip lost the English throne to Elizabeth I, a Protestant.
A devout Catholic, Phillip sought to suppress Protestantism in Europe. However, as King of Spain, he worked hard to maintain peace with Protestant England under Elizabeth.
Terrified of a Catholic alliance against Protestants in Europe, English ships began a policy of raiding Spanish trade and pursuing the great Spanish treasure ships coming from the New World.
One of the raiders Elizabeth secretly enlisted was Francis Drake.
Drake already had a dubious reputation for engaging in illegal slaving. From 1570, he led repeated raids against Spanish treasure ships and colonies, often without a commission. As a direct result of Drake’s attacks, Phillip began assembling the famed Spanish Armada for an invasion of England. This failed but the strengthening of the Navy helped Phillip fight off depredations from foreign privateers.
Drake contracted dysentery on the unsuccessful voyage to attack Spanish Caribbean and died at sea. Phillip died on 13 September 1598 of cancer. He was 71.
Governor Robert Johnson
Piracy claim to fame
Capture and prosecution of Stede Bonnet, the ‘Gentleman Pirate’. Johnson is also credited with sending Captain John Cole to successfully capture Richard Worley.
Robert Johnson’s efforts against South Carolina’s pirates were the crowning achievement of his first, troubled Governorship.
He was born in England, the eldest son of Nathaniel Johnson, a politician. The elder Johnson became governor in South Carolina but his religious leanings caused him to clash with the local colonial leaders.
The unsettled nature of the colony only escalated when Robert Johnson arrived to take over from his father. Responsible for bringing the colony back to British control, Johnson decided to deal with the common enemy of both the British and the colonists: the region’s pirates.
In 1717, Stede Bonnet in the ship Revenge appeared off the South Carolina coast and captured two ships. When the pardons from King George were announced, Bonnet acquired one but before long, returned to his piratical ways. Bonnet blockaded Charles Town, enraging Governor Johnson. He raised funds to send two ships out after Bonnet under the command of Colonel William Rhett. After a prolonged fight, Rhett captured Bonnet and his men.
Bonnet elicited some public sympathy because of the overbearing judge, Nicholas Trott. Despite this, he was convicted and executed for piracy.
In 1719, Johnson was dismissed from office after South Carolina revolutionaries took control. He retired to his plantation. Then in 1721, Johnson, William Rhett and Nicholas Trott led an armed coup against the revolutionaries. This failed. Johnson returned to England and continued to be involved in Carolina affairs from afar.
Once British control was restored, he returned as Governor in 1730. This time, he proved far more successful, encouraging diverse immigration under his township settlement plan.
He died in office in 1735, survived by his six children and wife Margaret.
Piracy claim to fame
At age 25, Stephen Decatur orchestrated a series of naval attacks on Tripoli and Algiers to bring to an end the Barbary corsairs’ depredations against foreign merchants.
For centuries, the rulers of the North African coast expected foreigners to pay them tribute if they wished to trade. Should a country not pay, the rulers sent their corsairs to extract tribute by force, raiding ships and enslaving crews.
The British and French readily paid these tributes, reasoning the trade benefits outweighed the tribute cost. But independence meant American merchants no longer fell under British tribute protection and the new nation could not afford to pay the huge tributes demanded. True to their word, the Barbary rulers began to send their corsairs after American shipping.
Considering this an act of piracy, President Thomas Jefferson overcame his personal objections to the concept of standing navies and formed a small US Navy to take on the Tripoli corsairs. In the summer of 1803, Decatur was placed in command of Argus, an 18 gun brig, and sailed for the Mediterranean.
Decatur is most known for orchestrating a daring raid in Tripoli harbour that denied the corsairs the captured Philadelphia. After Commodore Bainbridge* surrendered the prize, Decatur’s team set it on fire, denying the corsairs the US Navy’s best ship.
In 1815, Decatur, now Navy Commander, returned to the Mediterranean. After shaming the British into providing some back-up firepower support, Decatur’s gunboat diplomacy successfully secured a final treaty of peace between the United States and the Barbary rulers.
Stephen Decatur was born in Sinepuxent, Maryland on 5 January 1779. He followed in his father’s footsteps to the sea.
His accomplishments in the Mediterranean ensured his rapid ascension in the US Navy. Revered in his lifetime as a brave and resourceful naval officer, Decatur’s predilection for resolving differences of opinion with a duel proved his downfall.
After the outspoken Decatur refused to retract criticism of Commodore James Barron (Decatur had participated in Barron’s court-martial) Barron killed Decatur in a duel. Decatur’s death at only 41 shocked Washington and cemented his lasting legacy as a US naval hero. Several naval ships carried his name, including the USS Decatur, currently in service in South East Asia.
Decatur was survived by his wife Susan. The couple had no children.
* Bainbridge’s name adorns the frigate that brought down the Maersk Alabama pirates.
Captain John Drake Sloat
Piracy claim to fame
The capture of Roberto Cofresi, a notorious Puerto Rican pirate rumoured to have killed up to 400 seamen in the early 1820s.
Sloat was on his return from a slave-ship hunting trip to the West African coast in March 1825 when he called in to St Thomas, east of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. There he heard of the large reward posted for the capture of whoever was responsible for a series of pirate attacks in the Mona Passage. He decided to lay a trap for the pirates.
With the assistance of the St Thomas Governor Von Scholten, Sloat obtained, manned, and armed two sloops to use as bait. In Puerto Rico, Governor Don Torre readily offered the assistance of some of his soldiers to help.
For weeks, the Grampus and its sloops cruised around the coast of Puerto Rico looking for the pirates. One day, while anchored at Ponce, on the central southern coast, they sighted a sloop off the harbour. The pirates had found them. The next day the Grampus pursued the pirates into the Boca del Infierno channel. A fierce and fiery engagement lasting 45 minutes ensued. Outgunned and outmanned, the pirates ran their sloop on shore and jumped overboard. Two were found dead, five or six were wounded, and ten were captured by Torre’s soldiers. Among them was Roberto Cofresi, the pirates’ captain.
Sloat brought Cofresi and his men to San Juan where Don Torre ensured their swift execution.
Born on 26 July 1781 and orphaned at a young age, Sloat grew up in Sloatsburg, New York. The town was named after his grandfather.
He distinguished himself in the US Navy and after capturing Cofresi enjoyed a promotion to Captain.
In 1844, Sloat commanded the Pacific Squadron and claimed Alta California for the United States on 7 July 1846. He landed at Monterey, took possession of San Francisco and within a few days, all California north of Santa Barbara was in the possession of the United States.
Sloat rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral by 1866 but his increasingly poor health kept him land-bound in his final years. He died at Staten Island on 28 November 1867.
He was survived by his wife Abby and three children.
Commodore David Porter
Piracy claim to fame
Being in charge of a piracy suppression squadron in the Caribbean and never finding, let alone capturing, a single pirate.
Not all pirate-hunters found what they were looking for.
In the 1820s, American merchant ships were increasingly being targeted by Cuban pirates intent on defending Spain’s slave trade and economic interests from the burgeoning independence movement sweeping across Central and South America.
Commodore David Porter volunteered to lead the mission to destroy the Cuban pirates. He had just purchased a very expensive property in Washington for his wife and ten children and desperately needed the money to pay for it.
To be fair, Porter had his work cut out for him. Ships and personnel were in short supply. The US had only just acquired the Florida peninsula and it was woefully too undeveloped to act as a base of operations. Lacking fresh water and wracked with disease, many ships’ crews were felled by illness before they could set sail.
Porter was also his own worst enemy. Pompous and self-important, he immediately put the Cuban authorities – who were desperate to stop the pirates themselves – offside. Porter’s arrogance resulted in the Cubans refusing to allow an American ship to dock in Cuba. This severely curtailed the capacity of Porter’s commanders to resupply and hunt down pirates.
As the British Navy worked with the Spanish to efficiently track down and prosecute pirates, Porter claimed he could not find any. The US Secretary of the Navy grew increasingly exasperated with him. By late 1823, Porter spent more time carrying Mexican gold and escorting American ships for lucrative fees than he did pursuing pirates.
Porter was a complex individual. An esteemed naval officer, he had enjoyed rapid promotion and distinction in the Navy, participating in notable naval achievements in the early 1800s, including accompanying Stephen Decatur to the Mediterranean. He also wrote several books filled with useful information of the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century.
But his inability to accept personal criticism caused him to be court-martialled for insubordination for an illegal landing in Puerto Rico. As a result, he was so disillusioned he became Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy. He eventually accepted the consul-general-ship in Algiers, then a similar role in Turkey, where he died of illness in 1843.
Lewis Warrington replaced Porter and proved far more effective at working with Spanish and British authorities. As Spain’s economic circumstances also improved, Cuban piracy began to decline.
Two of Porter’s sons went on to become distinguished naval officers in the American Civil War.
Piracy claim to fame
In 2013, Delmulle, a federal prosecutor in Bruges, Belgium, orchestrated the elaborate Argo-like ruse that lured Mohamed Abdi Hassan, known as Afweyne, from Somalia to Belgium to face prosecution for the hijack of the MV Pompeii in 2009.
Several months earlier, Delmulle’s people had posed as film producers and approached Afweyne with the idea they wanted him to collaborate and consult on a film they were making about his life as one of Somalia’s most notorious pirates. Over time, they built sufficient trust with Afweyne and his accomplice Mohamed “Tiiceey” Aden, to lure them both to Bruges to sign the film contract in person. Once there, the men were immediately arrested.
The Belgium-flagged general cargo ship Pompeii was captured by Somali pirates on 18 April 2009, the height of the Somali piracy epidemic. As was standard operational practice at the time, the pirates took the ship to the small coastal town of Eyl to await the ransom payment. This arrived and the ship was released on 28 June 2009.
At the time, Afweyne was already known as a key player in Somali piracy. He was believed to be behind some of the most lucrative hijacks in Somali piracy history, including the Sirius Star and MV Faina. Belgian police inquiries led to the arrest of two of the Pompeii’s pirates. Afweyne’s role in organising and financing the attack was revealed under questioning of the captured pirates and with evidence from the hostages.
Conditions in Somalia at the time meant Afweyne rarely travelled out of the country. As international deterrence and suppression efforts began to take effect in 2011, an uneasy peace settled on Somalia. Afweyne decided to announce his retirement from piracy and turn his financial resources to a career in politics. As he enjoyed considerable status, influence, and impunity in Somalia, the Belgians began their campaign to exploit his ego in their favour.
Afweyne was convicted of piracy of the Pompeii in 2016. He was given a 20 year sentence and ordered to pay €20,000. Aden received a 5 year sentence that was doubled on appeal in June 2017.
Johan Delmulle is now the President of the College of Prosecutors General and of the College of the Public Prosecutor's Office in Brussels.