Asian Piracy | Oxford Research Encyclopedias: Asian History

Summary and Keywords

Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.

Keywords: AsiaIndian Oceanmaritime historypiracyprivateeringtradelawempirehistoriography

Pirates are among the most elusive of historical actors. They rarely produced accounts of their activities, for obvious reasons, which means that almost all records about pirates were produced by their victims and opponents. This is true of pirates everywhere, but studying the history of piracy in the Indian Ocean is especially challenging. The two major paradigms of piracy studies are the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean: in both those areas, piracy was geographically concentrated, carried out by a limited set of actors, and played out against somewhat stable norms of law and politics. The Indian Ocean, by contrast, was immensely vast, staggeringly diverse, and entirely unruly. What is more, the very category of piracy (and of its related concepts, such as corsairing and privateering) has been defined against the history of European seafaring and developed within the European legal tradition; as such, it does not readily map onto the history, politics, and laws of maritime Asia. This different set of conditions makes the writing of a coherent narrative, or even chronology, of Asian piracy along the lines of the Mediterranean or Atlantic models next to impossible.1

Despite these differences and obstacles, however, there remain shared themes in the practice of piracy across regions and periods. For one, piracy is always closely related to the world of commerce. On the most basic level, this is because merchants were the favored targets of pirates, but the relationship between trade and piracy was much closer and more complex than that, so much so that they were often difficult to tell apart. Another overarching theme is the way in which states have used pirates and piracy to further their own aims (or at least thwart the aims of their rivals). The role that states have played in the making of piracy—and, no less, that piracy has had in the making of states—challenges reductionist views of pirates as simple predators outside of and inimical to any political order. And lastly, moving from the actual practice of piracy to its representation, another key question is how piracy has been constructed in order to underpin (or undermine) claims to political authority and legitimacy. Together, these three themes—the economic, political, and cultural dimensions of piracy—help illuminate a connate history of piracy across the vastness and diversity of the Indian Ocean, and arguably even beyond, within a global context.

Pirates and Traders

An old Malay saying holds that the first ship ever built was to catch fish, while the purpose of the second was to rob the first one of its haul. Piracy does indeed appear to be nearly as old as seafaring itself. Chinese sources speak of the presence of piracy as early as the 5th century bce, and the annals of subsequent dynasties attest to its persistence over time.2 In the western Indian Ocean, too, the scourge of piracy was decried since ancient times. Roman accounts of the western Indian Ocean describe its waters as “very greatly infested by pirates”; the famous 5th-century Latin map known as Tabula Peutingeriana warns in red ink of pirates on the coast of India.3 Indian sources likewise testify to the threat pirates posed to traders, especially in South India, which at times grew serious enough for rulers to intervene.4

In light of the antiquity and the persistence of piracy in Asian waters, it is tempting to regard it as a permanent scourge on the maritime commerce across the region. Piracy is generally viewed in these terms, as the very antithesis of trade. This is certainly how merchants perceived the threat of piracy. Letters written by Jewish merchants ploughing the trade routes between Egypt, Yemen, and India in the 12th century make frequent mention of pirate attacks. Grateful to have escaped with their life, these merchants nonetheless had to deal with the economic consequences of merchandise lost, either to pirates or to the sea in cases when a vessel capsized or goods were jettisoned in an attempt to outrun their pursuers.5 Unlike in the Mediterranean, the ransoming of merchants does not appear to have been a regular part of the economic portfolio of Indian Ocean pirates until the 16th or 17th century.6 Even so, being captured by pirates was a less than salutary experience: Marco Polo reports how Indian pirates forced captured merchants to ingest a mixture of tamarind and sea water, in an effort to make them eject any jewels they had sought to conceal in their stomachs.7

Since the voices of merchants speak so much louder in the historical record than those of pirates, it is not surprising that this view of pirates as wanton and pernicious has proven so enduring. However, the relationship between commerce and predation was more complex than the image of the parasitic pirate would suggest: in fact, pirates flourish only in a “profound symbiosis” with the world of trade: piracy was both a facet and a function of the market.8

This interrelationship can be observed at all levels of the piratical enterprise. In most premodern societies, the ship was by far the most complex machine produced. Its construction required knowledge, skill, resources, and capital; consequently, piracy was “a costly business, requiring entrepreneurs.”9 On the Indian coast, an elaborate system of financing developed to meet these demands, with major land-based investors providing the capital needed to outfit ships and hire crews. As one 17th-century European visitor to South India observed, local pirates were subject to wealthy and powerful lords to build and equip their ships, pay the soldiers and pressed crew, “and send them to sea without ever leaving home themselves.”10 Around the same time, Japan’s Tokugawa government sponsored Chinese maritime entrepreneurs, who were regarded as pirates by the Qing state, with armaments and military assistance in return for surreptitious access to China’s markets.11

Pirates themselves also required access to markets in order to sell the goods they had captured. Accounts from India describe how pirates attracted great commercial attention because they tended to sell their plunder well below regular market prices; at times, the very merchants from whom the goods had been stolen were tempted to buy them back a second time.12 This change of roles from pirate to trader also occurred in the reverse. The monsoon wind system of the Indian Ocean made maritime commerce a highly seasonal affair: each port had defined trading seasons during which seafaring merchants would arrive from either the east or the west. This strict seasonality of trade also made piracy a sporadic affair, limited to the period in which long-distance traders would arrive in or depart from specific regions. For the rest of year, these same pirates were often engaged in other economic activities, such as fishing or coastal shipping, by which they participated within regional commercial networks. What is more, as practices of armed trading became more common in the Indian Ocean, the very assets and capabilities that allowed a ship to defend itself against attack could also be used to prey on a target of opportunity, further blurring the line between merchant and pirate.13

Another dimension to this intricate interaction between commerce and predation is smuggling. Trading outside the purview of states, that is, tax evasion, or dealing in contraband, were both commonplace elements of pirate economics.14 In the 16th century, Portuguese claims to a monopoly over the pepper trade turned Muslim merchants into contrabandists; in European sources, they came to be regularly decried as pirates for carrying on their traditional trade. The maritime trade proscription, known as haijin or “sea ban,” that was intermittently enforced by the Ming state until 1567, similarly transformed Chinese sea traders into smugglers.15 Ironically, in the case of China, this stigmatization came to be more and more accurate over time: in their attempts to resist such imperial prohibitions, many ordinary traders became militarized and over time made predation, not smuggling, the mainstay of their activities.16 Chinese sources are explicit about this trajectory by describing pirates as “frustrated maritime merchants” who had been deprived of their regular livelihood.17 As one Ming official who was charged with fighting piracy in Chinese waters observed: “Pirates and merchants are the same people. When trade is open, the pirates become merchants; but when trade is illegal, merchants become pirates. To start by prohibiting merchants is to end by struggling to contain pirates.”18

Piracy was ultimately a business that shared many aspects with other maritime occupations. Naturally, their spheres also intersected on the sociocultural level, as they operated within a common culture of seafaring that was often alien to most land dwellers. Economically, pirates interacted with the world of trade at every stage of their enterprise, from the outfitting of ships, to their activities at sea, and ultimately to the selling of their loot. It is thus not surprising that the rich trading world of maritime Asia always attracted pirates in substantial numbers. Fluctuations in piracy tended to mirror the ebbs and flows of maritime trade at large. Piracy increased alongside economic expansion, as it did during the period of the Asian sea-trade boom between the 10th and 13th centuries, and again in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Indian Ocean came to be firmly embedded within a global economy.19 Pirates themselves seem to have recognized this interrelationship, urging the merchants who they had robbed to “go home and gain some other goods, so [that] you will give us them again perhaps if you pass our way with other things.”20

On the other hand, temporary surges in piracy could also be a sign of economic despondency, as sea traders and fishermen turned to violence as an alternative to diminishing returns in their traditional occupations. Whenever coastal communities were deprived of other economic opportunities, piracy flourished. For example, the greatest period of Chinese piracy, during the 17th century when pirate bands could number in the tens of thousands, occurred during a period of sustained famine and hardship.21 Overall, the economic impact of piracy on Indian Ocean commerce seems to have been limited, part of the “tapestry of maritime threats” faced by maritime merchants, rather than a decisive factor on the conduct or flow of trade.22 For marginalized seafaring communities, however, piracy could represent a rare opportunity to participate in the wider commercial economy.23

The multi-faceted interaction between piracy and trade, therefore, calls into question the notion of the pirate as a mere predator, feeding parasitically off the toil and enterprise of others.24 Piracy was not apart from but a part of the economies of trade and seafaring. Pirates, like merchants, responded to market signals and economic incentives, and performed regular transitions from one form of maritime activity to another. As a French visitor to 17th-century South India observed, there were but two professions on the coast, either merchant or pirate, and only very little to tell them apart.25

Pirates and Rulers

Mephistopheles, the demon in Goethe’s Faust, regards war, trade, and piracy as triune, inseparable from one another.26 This opinion, as so much of his cynical worldview, remains far from the norm; usually, piracy is regarded not only as the antithesis of trade but also of warfare. According to the conventional view, whereas warfare is political and regulated, piracy is a private free-for-all. In fact, the very definition of piracy pivots upon this distinction. Under international law, piracy is defined as any act of depredation against ships committed by private actors for private ends.27 Such an understanding, however, risks depriving piracy of its political content: even though pirates were indeed usually motivated primarily by economic incentives, they nonetheless were also political actors operating within specific political contexts. What is more, juxtaposing piracy to warfare as two distinct, mutually exclusive categories not only reduces the pirate to the role of apolitical predator driven by nothing but greed, but also falsely elevates states, as the only conduits of legal warfare, to a higher plane that obscures instances in which states, in their motivations and practices, behave piratically.

The connection between politics and predation, between the pirate and the sovereign, is already evident from the fact that until very recent times, pirates formed a regular part of states’ naval strategies. The most common way in which rulers used pirates as part of their arsenal was to harm a rival’s trade through attacks on merchant ships. Pirates were an attractive tool of strategic competition because they could be maintained at negative cost: not only were their vessels privately financed, if they were successful the king could claim a share of their loot. What is more, they allowed for what in modern political parlance has become known as “plausible deniability,” meaning that pirate attacks were less likely to become a casus belli than similarly aggressive acts undertaken by official forces.28

The notion that pirates are, by their very nature, private rather than political actors is rooted in a decidedly modern perspective that regards the nation-state as only source of proper political legitimacy. For most of history, however, the state was a vehicle for promoting the priorities of a small ruling elite, with only a limited sense of collective mandate or responsibility. Political authority was vested in and exercised by a multitude of associations, whose claims could overlap and interact in ways that are incompatible with the model of the modern centralized state. It is a fallacy, therefore, to deny pirate organizations recognition as (among other things) political associations because they do not correspond to the model of the modern nation-state.

That pirates formed their own polities, with their own political organization and objectives, can clearly be observed in Southeast Asia. In this region, which is persistently associated with piracy in historical sources from across the ages, the Western notion of piracy was only introduced with European colonization.29 The connotation is that the concept of piracy would have been entirely foreign to local seafaring communities, for many of whom maritime raiding “was a way of life closely tied to war, slavery, and trade.”30 Piracy was not only an important part of intertribal warfare, it was a respectable profession that carried with it not only economic gain but also political power and social prestige. Operating in fleets of dozens of ships, each capable of carrying more than a hundred warriors, maritime raiders were important power brokers among the islands of precolonial Southeast Asia.31 As late as the 19th century could a Southeast Asian sultan tell a British colonial official that what the Europeans called piracy “brings no disgrace” to a Malay ruler.32 These pirates were not outlaws but in-laws, respected members of society and a political force that rulers needed to reckon with.

On the Indian subcontinent, too, pirates formed their own, autonomously organized communities. Living within a seasonal pattern of a “quasi-sedentary, quasi-predatory existence,” coastal communities situated in the interstitial spaces of India’s rich sea trade participated in piracy not as outsiders but as a recognized and established part of the broader sociopolitical world around them.33 Piracy in South India was hereditary, communal, and defined by the politics of caste, in the same way as was almost every occupation at all rungs of the social ladder. As in Southeast Asia, Indian piracy was primarily littoral; because of its localized nature, this form of maritime predation was interwoven particularly closely with local and regional constellations of migration, marginalization, and terrestrial body politics.34

On a wider scale, when in the 16th century established political orders were upended all along India’s western coastline by Portuguese hegemonic aggression that sought to suppress native shipping, the role of piracy changed in response to this evolving political context. As new groups, especially marginalized Muslims, entered the ranks of especially Indian pirates, new forms of political status outside of the region’s traditional state system and the parameters of the caste system had to be found.35 In South India, these developments culminated in state-building attempts, as pirates sought to leverage their proficiency in maritime violence into the creation of autonomous thalassocracies on the coast.36 These “pirate states” present a paradox to the conventional definition of piracy as inherently apolitical and serve to highlight the continuum between pirating and politicking.

This same continuum, writ large, can be observed in the history of China. During each of the three great waves of Chinese piracy—during the middle of the 16th, the middle of the 17th, and the end of the 18th century—the power of pirate leagues far surpassed that of the imperial navy. Numbering in the tens of thousands, nowhere else were pirates as numerous or as powerful as they were in the early-modern South China Sea. The sheer scale of these associations highlights that they were not so much pirate crews as entire pirate societies. These societies were governed by their own rules, struck their own alliances with both local potentates and foreign powers, and maintained complex ties to land-based communities, financiers, and officialdom. Pirate lords such as the Zheng Chenggong (better known as Koxinga), who stood in open rebellion against the Qing claim to the throne, became formidable regional powers in their own right; in 1661, after he had declared himself “sea king,” his forces drove the Dutch from Taiwan and took control of the island for the next two decades.37 The same holds true for Ching Shih, the most powerful female pirate in history, who in the early 19th century commanded hundreds of junks and tens of thousands of men, establishing a de facto hegemony over large swaths of the South China Sea until she negotiated her peaceful “retirement” with the Qing state.38

In the case of Japan, too, the image of the nefarious and anarchic pirate created by Chinese and Korean sources has been revised to account for the complex political roles played by pirates. For example, a case study of the Noshima Murakami, a “pirate band” that exercised control over much of the Inland Sea during Japan’s Warring States period, shows them not only as military innovators in ship building and the use of gunpowder, but also as arbiters of territorial power across the region.39 Japanese pirates were an important factor in ordering East Asia’s maritime world in the 15th and 16th centuries: they served as littoral authorities whose actions and policies had far-reaching effects on Japan’s economic and political development.40 As in India and China, here too pirates transformed into “sea lords” whose proficiency in maritime predation became translated into political power.

Widely considered a classic in the study of piracy, Philip Gosse’s The History of Piracy (1932) argues that in “all the seas of the world and in all times piracy has passed through certain well-defined cycles.”41 Gosse identifies three distinct stages in this cycle: first, marginal coastal communities engage in small-scale, subsistence piracy; then, as piracy grows more lucrative, bands of professional pirates become ever more powerful; until, in the third stage, they reach the status of a virtually independent state that can enter alliances with other states against mutual enemies.42 Even though many aspects of Gosse’s historical account have been revised by subsequent scholarship, the central argument of his pioneering work—that there is a shared trajectory in the historical development of piracy across the globe—has held true.

In Asia as in Europe, warfare was often waged through private actors such as mercenaries and pirates. But even where pirates did not collude with an established state, they operated not in a political vacuum. Usually drawn from coastal communities, pirates formed part of the social fabric and political framework of the societies within which they existed. Over time, corresponding to the final stage of Gosse’s piracy cycle, successful pirates became influential political actors in their own right, a process that could culminate in the creation of “pirate states.”

From a historical perspective, just as Goethe’s demon-philosopher suggests, “illegal piracy” and “proper warfare” appear more as close relatives rather than polar opposites.

The Pirate Myths

Rarely did pirates claim the label of piracy for themselves: it was almost always applied to them by others. Going back to the political philosophy of Cicero, pirates have been regarded as hostis humani generis, “enemies of all mankind,” an understanding that places them firmly outside the bounds of the social and political order.43 Accordingly, since ancient times, states have used this designation to justify military action and to delegitimize their opponents.44 This has led to a major conundrum when it comes to studying piracy: whether to use this term, which was not used by pirates themselves and often applied to them as part of a political agenda, in the effort to reconstruct their history.45 What makes the question of nomenclature so acute is the fact that piracy is both a legal category and a historical construct.

The annals of European states abound with examples of pirates acting on their behalf. Maritime predation played a key role in the internecine rivalry between European empires as well as in their efforts to seize the maritime trade of Asia. Using pirates was a way of privatizing warfare, a proposition that was especially tempting in light of the immense cost of empire building across great distances and vast regions.46 In fact, the two greatest seaborne empires in Asia, those of the Dutch and the English, started out as state-backed private enterprises that projected military power as much (if not more so) on behalf of their shareholders as in the name of their nations. More often than not, maritime violence conducted by Europeans during the early modern period was conducted for essentially private ends.

In the primary sources and the literature, these European sea raiders are usually classified as privateers. Even though they behaved in identical ways to their Asian counterparts, the difference between the pirate and the privateer is seen to lie in the latter’s commission by a competent state authority. It is this commission, formalized in the letters of marque and reprisal, that is meant to mark the distinction between private and public ends. Privateering remained a prominent feature of interstate conflict until the beginning of the 19th century, proving itself an effective tool as “both a substitute and a foundation for state naval power.”47

In legal terms, then, piracy was not so much defined by the act (the raiding of ships) but by its motivation. As has been seen, when applied empirically to a case study, the analytical distinction between private piracy and public warfare breaks down quickly. Yet even in these narrowly legal terms, the line between piracy and privateering was thin, with the legality of the privateer dependent on open, ever-shifting, and often conflicting interpretations of legal standards. As a result, European sea raiders developed a great deal of expertise in how to present the circumstances of capture as falling within the terms of their (often flawed or outright fraudulent) commissions.48 In the words of the leading authority on the legal regimes of early modern seafaring, the highly ambiguous practice of commissioning—and with it, the entire legal construct of privateering—“was little more than sham.”49

This “sham,” however, has had far-reaching consequences for the understanding of Asian piracy as a historical phenomenon. Because this same conceptual framework of privateering as “legitimized piracy” has not been extended to maritime raiders in the employ of Asian states, Asian seafarers engaged in maritime reading have been invariably characterized as criminal. Even though Asian rulers pursued similar ends by identical means, their agents are not regarded as privateers. This is partly the result of the narrow interpretation of very specific legal regulations (which insists, for example, on the issuance of a formal letter of marque by a “civilized state”), but mainly a function of the hegemony of European sources that have formed the basis for most studies of Asia’s maritime history in the early modern period.50

These sources, naturally, reify the model of the European nation-state as the only proper source of legitimate political authority. On this basis, the Portuguese were able to denigrate their opponents as pirates, and thereby deprive them of any political right and status that could contest their own claim to exclusive domain over the Indian Ocean.51 Similarly, the British used the charge of piracy abundantly to delegitimize political challengers in the Indian Ocean: “what the British called ‘piracy’ was not so much a characterization of any particular crime but rather an axiom of empire that tried to criminalize entire sets of seafaring peoples, thereby justifying the expropriation of trade; the control of major ports (and the markets they attracted); and the authority invested in political sovereignty.”52

European powers have posed as champions of law and order on the world’s oceans, justifying their own violence as legal and necessary while reducing colonial subjects-in-the-making to the status of depoliticized pirates. The widespread use of de facto piracy and plunder was instrumental in European empire-building across Asia. It was only on rare occasions, such as after William Kidd’s capture of the Quedagh Merchant in 1698, that a European state saw fit to sanction their pirates-cum-privateers for reasons of political expediency.53 For the most part, true to the proverb that “great thieves hang little thieves,” widespread (legal) plunder by European seafarers was encouraged as a way to gain control over markets and routes, while the same (but illegal) acts done by their Asians counterparts were condemned and punished as villainy. Freed of the legal sophistry of the European privateer versus the Asian pirate, the history of piracy calls into question narratives of European exceptionalism and instead points toward shared—and, after the 15th century, tightly intertwined—dynamics of maritime violence across the seven seas.

It is important to note that not only European powers used the label of piracy in support of their own political objectives. In China, for example, the label of pirate also developed into a distinct rhetorical category that could be used to dismiss and discredit incidents and challenges on China’s maritime frontier. With a disdain cultivated in a capital far from the shore, China’s imperial elites had tended to regard pirates as mere flotsam. Yet, whenever their activities grew into a serious threat to the concerns of the state, they were designated as “Japanese pirates” (wakō). This term was applied to pirates operating in the South China Sea irrespective of their actual origins and despite the fact that pirate bands active in that region tended to be ethnically mixed, consisting of Chinese as well as Japanese, Malaccan, African, and European marauders.54 Describing them as Japanese, however, served to portray these pirates as outsiders, as a chimerical “other” that threatened to undermine the established domestic order.

This discourse masked the reality that Chinese piracy was primarily rooted within disaffected coastal communities and often emerged in the context of political rebellion. During the so-called wakō crisis in the mid-16th century, portraying pirates as an external threat to the state helped justify widespread anti-piracy campaigns along the southern coast. A century later, under the Qing dynasty, this perception underpinned a drastic scorched-earth policy along the Fujian shore that culminated in the forced relocation of millions of coastal residents in an effort to fortify China’s maritime frontier against the pirate threat.55

In more recent times, the pirate discourse has taken several turns. Having once been denounced as a wild beast “possessed by madness, rage, temper, drink, and lust,” the pirate has been thoroughly reinvented in popular imagination.56 Not coincidentally, at the very time that the actual threat of piracy diminished, the pirate was reimagined as a foil to an increasingly industrialized and regulated capitalist world order. Fictional works such as the General History of the Pyrates (1724) by Captain Johnson (generally regarded as a pseudonym of Daniel Defoe), Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), and Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) gradually reconceived the pirate as a heroic, self-reliant, and even gallant rebel against authority. In Asia, on the other hand, the pirate was reclaimed as an exemplar of anti-imperial resistance. Works such as Odayamadath Kunjappa Nambiar’s provocatively titled Portuguese Pirates and Indian Seamen (1955) inverted received categories to present Indian pirates as proto-nationalist freedom fighters.57 Along similar lines, R. N. Saletore’s work (1978) on the history of piracy in India speaks of “European sea-thieves” and English pirates.58

Neither a romanticization of pirates, as happened in the Western literary tradition, nor a simple reversal in which Asian pirates are posited as noble resistance fighters in the cause of national self-determination, as occurred in the postcolonial scholarship of some Asian countries, does justice to the complex historical roles played by pirates in the social, economic, and political histories of maritime Asia. To recover these histories, piracy needs to be studied as a phenomenon not external to society but as its product, not as the antithesis of trade but as part of its world, and not as private but as inherently political. The pirate is a figure that exists always on the margins, but it is at the margins that the very power relations that hold up the center tend to come into their sharpest relief. In this sense, pirates, both historical and imagined, still have much to tell about the worlds that made them.

Discussion of the Literature

In recent years, piracy has emerged from the shadows. After decades of neglect, during which piracy was regarded as a sort of natural phenomenon, like storms and reefs, that endangered seafarers, a host of new studies reinstate the pirate as historical actor. Importantly, such works not only seek to recover the activities of the pirates themselves, but ask what they can reveal about the world around them. True to the view that “each period can be studied in its pirates,” piracy and discourses about piracy have in many cases supplied important new perspectives not just on the maritime histories of Asian states, but also on their economic, social, and political developments.59

This new wave of studies is above all marked by a more nuanced and critical engagement with the underlying analytical categories historians have been using in discussing piracy. Dealing with Asian piracy in its own terms, as opposed to through European sources and legal concepts, produces a bewildering array of terminology and understandings, both among different regions and cultures as well as across time. This was especially the case in the premodern western Indian Ocean, where a dizzying array of Arabic, Persian, and Indic terms connoted various forms of maritime predation; in many cases, these terms did not explicitly imply illegality.60 But even in East Asian waters, where Chinese hegemony imposed more consistent linguistic and legal vocabularies, pirate identity developed within a complex ecology of social, economic, and political streams.61 The historian’s task, therefore, is greater than merely to identify an equivalent to the English word “pirate” in an Asian language. The diversity of indigenous concepts and terms by which maritime plunder was denoted—indicating a broad range of understandings of piratical acts from complete legality all the way to heinous criminality—presents a conceptual, rather than purely linguistic, challenge to describing the history of piracy from an Asian perspective.

In light of this challenge, instead of promulgating any general definition, most historians of maritime Asia have preferred to situate specific case studies within their own social, legal, and political contexts. These efforts have often resulted in the use of hybrid categories, such as “merchant-pirate,” “smuggler-pirate,” or “pirates-turned-corsair.”62 They have also revealed the subtle ways in which pirates themselves have engaged with the terms and classifications applied to them by land-based authorities in the crafting of their identities.63 In many cases, these approaches serve to highlight continuities between the European and earlier periods, both in the praxis of piracy as well as in the discursive strategies states use to delegitimize their rivals and challengers.64

In keeping with the so-called oceanic turn that has refocused historians’ attention onto maritime spaces and connections, the study of piracy has increasingly turned away from privileging the vantage point of states and the primacy of legal doctrines in favor of more sea-based perspectives.65 Putting the history of seafaring communities engaged in piracy at the center means acknowledging the social context, economic motivations, and political objectives and pressures that shaped their activities and outlook. Rather than as an immutable force of nature like the winds and waves of the Indian Ocean, pirates are shown to be dynamic actors who adroitly responded to changing conditions and circumstances. Contrary to statist discourses that posit them as the outlaw “other,” existing beyond the pale as much as beyond the line, pirates were at the heart of key trends in Asian maritime history, be it in the expansion and contraction of commerce between regions, the adaptation of new military technologies and tactics at sea, or the contestation of imperial claims and projects.

The rapidly expanding scholarship on piracy invites a reassessment of long-held notions of geography, supplanting mobile, porous networks for views of hardened borders, of economics, regarding piracy as a type of business enterprise rather than its antithesis, and law, highlighting the flexibility and contingency of legal regimes. Most of all, it urges the rewriting of older histories in which a narrowly conceived vision of the state serves as the source of all meaningful historical action. It is through the long-neglected history of Asia’s pirates that alternative narratives of power, wealth, and social change are being written.

Primary Sources

Since pirates themselves rarely produced records of their activities, most of what is known about them comes from their adversaries: merchants and states. Merchant travelers in the Indian Ocean frequently encountered pirates, or at least reflected on the precautions seafarers took against the threat of piracy. Such references are interspersed within many travelogues, such as those of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta, but form only short passages within these works. The other class of sources was produced by states; as might be expected, these tend to be normative and marked by a strong anti-pirate bias. The most useful of these are often letters and reports produced by officials on the coast. However, as is in the case of travelogues, references to piracy tends to be buried within larger works.

Even though Asian pirates ranged far and wide, to study them requires the intimate study of local sources, archives, and languages pertinent to a specific case study. There is one notable exception in a collection of primary sources on piracy that aims for global coverage. Alongside more commonplace accounts from the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, it also includes a number of source excerpts in translation pertaining to Chinese and Southeast Asian piracy (regrettably, it does not deal with India). Compiled by Robert Antony, a leading authority on the history of piracy in the South China Sea, this volume brings together official documents (including transcripts of court cases against pirates), firsthand experiences of piracy, and oral histories.66

Further Reading

These texts represent a selection of recent scholarship on piracy in Asian waters that highlight the key themes and approaches highlighted in the preceding discussion. They are organized based on their geographical focus, from west to east.

Antony, R. J. Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China. Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003.Find this resource:

Antony, R. J., ed. Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Antony, R. J. “Turbulent Waters: Sea Raiding in Early Modern South East Asia.” Mariner’s Mirror 99.1 (2013): 23–38.Find this resource:

Campbell, G. “Piracy in the Indian Ocean World.” Interventions 16.6 (2014): 779–794.Find this resource:

Clulow. The Company and the Shogun The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Elliott, D. L., and S. R. Prange. “Beyond Piracy: Maritime Violence and Colonial Encounters in Indian History.” In Beyond the Line: Cultural Narratives of the Southern Oceans, edited by M. Mann and I. Phaf-Rheinberger, 95–119. Berlin: Neofelis Verlag, 2014.Find this resource:

Layton, S. “Hydras and Leviathans in the Indian Ocean World.” International Journal of Maritime History 25.2 (2013): 213–225.Find this resource:

Margariti, R. E. “Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and ‘Pirate’ States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient51.4 (2008): 543–577.Find this resource:

Murray, D. Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790–1810. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Risso, P. “Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf Region during a Long Eighteenth Century.” Journal of World History 12.2 (2001): 293–319.Find this resource:

Shapinsky, P. D. Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Sim, Y. H. T., ed. Piracy and Surreptitious Activities in the Malay Archipelago and Adjacent Seas, 1600–1840. Singapore: Springer, 2014.Find this resource:

Subramanian, L. The Sovereign and the Pirate: Ordering Maritime Subjects in India’s Western Littoral. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:


(1.) For two popular examples of these models, see for instance Alan G. Jamieson, Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs (London: Reaktion Books, 2012); Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston: Beacon, 2004).

(2.A. D. Blue, “Piracy on the China Coast,” Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 5 (1965): 69; R. J. Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003).

(3.Pliny (the Elder), Natural History, vol. 2: Books 3–7, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1942), 415; R. J. A Talbert, Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014); see specifically grid 11C5 on the companion website.

(4.) See R. N. Saletore, Indian Pirates: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (Delhi: Concept, 1978), 15–21.

(5.S. D. Goitein and M.A. Friedman, eds. and trans., India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza (“India Book”) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), passim.

(6.) Goitein and Friedman, eds. and trans., India Traders, 162–163. An exception to this general impression is contained in a brief description of pirates holding captured merchants ransoming off the west coast of India; A. C. Moule and P. Pelliot, eds. and trans., Marco Polo: The Description of the World, 2 vols., vol. 1 (London: Routledge, 1938), 419.

(7.) Moule and Pelliot (eds. and trans.), Marco Polo, vol. 1, 420.

(8.P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), 157; D. Starkey, “Pirates and Markets,” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, ed. C. R. Pennell (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 107.

(9.N. Steensgaard, “The Indian Ocean Network and the Emerging World Economy, ca. 1500–1700,” in The Indian Ocean: Explorations in History, Commerce and Politics, S. Chandra (New Delhi: Sage, 1987), 149. On the role of the ship in the pre-modern economy, see for instance G. Deng, Maritime Sector, Institutions, and Sea Power of Premodern China (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999); R. W. Unger, The Ship in the Medieval Economy, 600–1600 (London: Croom Helm, 1980).

(10.X. de Castro, ed., Voyage de Pyrard de Laval aux Indes orientales (1601–1611), 2 vols. (Paris: Chandeigne, 1998), 412.

(11.Xing Hang, “The Shogun’s Chinese Partners: The Alliance between Tokugawa Japan and the Zheng Family in Seventeenth-Century Maritime East Asia,” Journal of Asian Studies 75.1 (2016): 111–136.

(12.) See for instance Castro, ed., Voyage de Pyrard de Laval, 413.

(13.) See for instance S. R. Prange, “The Contested Sea: Regimes of Maritime Violence in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean,” Journal of Early Modern History 17.1 (2013): 21.

(14.) See for instance A. L. Karras, Smuggling: Contraband and Corruption in World History (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010); E. Tagliacozzo, Secret Trades, Porous Borders: Smuggling and States along a Southeast Asian Frontier, 1865–1915 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).

(15.) See for instance Li Kangying, The Ming Maritime Policy in Transition, 1367 to 1568 (Wiesbaden: Harrasowitz, 2010).

(16.) See for instance S. R. Prange, “A Trade of No Dishonor: Piracy, Commerce, and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century,” American Historical Review 116.5 (2011): 1280–1284.

(17.) Quoted in A. Schottenhammer, “The East Asian ‘Mediterranean’: A Medium of Flourishing Exchange Relations and Interaction in the East Asian World,” in The Sea: Thalassography and Historiography, ed. P. N. Miller (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013), 121.

(18.Quoted in D. D. Ho, “Sealords Live in Vain: Fujian and the Making of a Maritime Frontier in Seventeenth-Century China” (PhD diss., University of California San Diego, 2011), 76.

(19.) See G. Campbell, “Piracy in the Indian Ocean World,” Interventions 16.6 (2014): 780–783. On economic cycles in Indian Ocean history, see for instance J. L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); J. Wisseman Christie, “Javanese Markets and the Asian Sea Trade Boom of the Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries A.D.,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41.3 (1998): 344–381; A. G. Frank, ReORIENT: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

(20.) Moule and Pelliot, eds. and trans., Marco Polo, vol. 1, 418.

(21.) This was the period of the so-called Little Ice Age. See Campbell, “Piracy,” 782–783; Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime Asia: The Zheng Family and the Shaping of the Modern World, c. 1620–1720(Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

(22.M. Pearson, “‘Tremendous Damage’ or ‘Mere Pinpricks’: The Costs of Piracy,” Journal of Early Modern History 16.6 (2012): 463–480; J. Kleinen and M. Osseweijer, “Pirates, Ports and Coasts in Asia,” in Pirates, Ports, and Coasts in Asia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, eds. J. Kleinen and M. Osseweijer (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 5.

(23.) See for instance Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 11–13.

(24.) On the limits of the parasite analogy in understanding piracy economically, see J. L. Anderson, “Piracy and World History: An Economic Perspective on Maritime Predation,” Journal of World History 6.2 (1995): 181–183. This same analogy of pirate-as-parasite has also shaped (and, arguably, marred) contemporary debates about “intellectual piracy”; see for instance P. Loughlan, “Pirates, Parasites, Reapers, Sowers, Fruits, Foxes . . . : The Metaphors of Intellectual Property,” Sydney Law Review 28 (2006): 211–226.

(25.) Castro, ed., Voyage de Pyrard de Laval, 413.

(26.) “Krieg, Handel und Piraterie,/Dreeinig sind sie, nicht zu trennen.” J. W. von Goethe, Werke, vol. 41 (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, 1832), 304.

(27.) For instance the Convention on the High Seas (adopted 1958, effective 1962), art. 14, and the more recent United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (adopted 1982, effective 1994), art. 100. See also A. Fakhry, “Piracy across Maritime Law: Is There a Problem of Definition?,” in The Regulation of International Shipping: International and Comparative Perspectives, eds. A. Chircop et al. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 2012), 97–117.

(28.) Along these lines, in recent years Chinese fishing fleets have been accused of serving as “unofficial enforcers of Beijing’s controversial territorial claims in the South China and East China Seas”; the U.S. Naval War College has gone as far as to characterize them as forming part of a “maritime militia.” D. Rudd, “Maritime Non-state Actors: A Challenge for the Royal Canadian Navy?,” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 16.3 (2015): 47.

(29.) Patricia Risso makes an analogous argument for the western Indian Ocean; P. Risso, “Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf Region during a Long Eighteenth Century,” Journal of World History 12.2 (2001): 293–319. Also see R. E. Margariti, “Mercantile Networks, Port Cities, and “Pirate” States: Conflict and Competition in the Indian Ocean World of Trade before the Sixteenth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 51.4 (2008): 543–577.

(30.R. J. Antony, Pirates in the Age of Sail (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 45. Also see O. Atsushi, “‘Pirates or Entrepreneurs?’ The Migration and Trade of Sea People in Southwest Kalimantan, c. 1770–1820,” Indonesia 90 (2010): 67–95; R. J. Antony, “Turbulent Waters: Sea Raiding in Early Modern South East Asia,” Mariner’s Mirror 99.1 (2013): 24; T. P. Barnard, “Siak, Piracy and Early Modern Malay Warfare,” in Piracy and Surreptitious Activities in the Malay Archipelago and Adjacent Seas, 1600–1840, Y. H. T. Sim (Singapore: Springer, 2014), 19–34.

(31.) See for instance E. J. Velthoen, “‘Wanderers, Robbers and Bad Folk’: The Politics of Violence, Protection and Trade in Eastern Sulawesi 1750–1850,” in A. Reid, ed., The Last Stand of Asian Autonomies: Responses to Modernity in the Diverse States of Southeast Asia and Korea, 1750–1900 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 367–388.

(32.Quoted in A. Reid, “Violence at Sea: Unpacking ‘Piracy’ in the Claims of States over Asian Seas,” in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas, ed. R. J. Antony (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 19.

(33.D. Shulman, “On South Indian Bandits and Kings,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 17.3 (1980): 288.

(34.) An excellent study of this dynamic is found in L. Subramanian, The Sovereign and the Pirate: Ordering Maritime Subjects in India’s Western Littoral (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016). For an analogous discussion from the Atlantic world, see M. G. Hanna, Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570–1740 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2015).

(35.) Prange, “Trade of No Dishonor,” 1273–1275, 1282–1290.

(36.) See O. Nambiar, The Kunjalis: Admirals of Calicut (London: Asia Publishing House, 1963); B. J. Mailaparambil, Lords of the Sea: The Ali Rajas of Cannanore and the Political Economy of Malabar (1663–1723) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012).

(37.) See T. Andrade, Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011).

(38.) See for instance D. Murray, “Cheng I Sao in Fact and Fiction,” in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, ed. C. R. Pennell (New York: New York University Press, 2001): 253–282.

(39.P. D. Shapinsky, Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014).

(40.) See M. G. Petrucci, “Cast in Silver: The Rise and Demise of Kyushu Corsairs in a Unifying Japan, 1540–1640” (PhD diss., University of British Columbia, 2017).

(41.P. Gosse, The History of Piracy (New York: Longmans, Green, 1932), 1.

(42.) P. Gosse, The History of Piracy, 1–2.

(43.) On the origins and development of this notion in the Western legal tradition, see D. Heller-Roazen, The Enemy of All: Piracy and the Law of Nations (New York: Zone Books, 2009); A. Policante, The Pirate Myth: Genealogies of an Imperial Concept (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015); L. Benton and L. Ford, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), esp. 131–145.

(44.) See for instance P. de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1999). It has been suggested that the modern use of the label “terrorist” has become an analogy of this historical dynamic; see for instance N. Chomsky, Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World (London: Pluto, 2002); M. Thorup, “Enemy of Humanity: The Anti-piracy Discourse in Present-Day Anti-terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 21.3 (2009): 401–411.

(45.) On this issue, see for instance M. Pearson, “Piracy in Asian Waters: Problems of Definition,” in Pirates, Ports, and Coasts in Asia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, eds. J. Kleinen and M. Osseweijer (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010), 15–28; Reid, “Violence at Sea,” 15–26.

(46.) See R. J. Barendse, The Arabian Seas: The Indian Ocean World of the Seventeenth Century (London: Routledge, 2015), 471.

(47.J. E. Thomson, Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns: State-Building and Extraterritorial Violence in Early Modern Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 26.

(48.) See L. Benton, A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900(Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2010), esp. ch. 3.

(49.) Benton, A Search for Sovereignty, 114.

(50.) See Reid, “Violence at Sea,” 19.

(51.) See Prange, “The Contested Sea.”

(52.S. Layton, “Hydras and Leviathans in the Indian Ocean World,” International Journal of Maritime History25.2 (2013): 213.

(53.) See R. C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

(54.) See for instance R. J. Antony, “Bloodthirsty Pirates? Violence and Terror on the South China Sea in Early Modern Times,” Journal of Early Modern History 16.1 (2012): 483.

(55.) See D. D. Ho, “The Empire’s Scorched Shore: Coastal China, 1633–1683,” Journal of Early Modern History 17.1 (2013): 53–74; D. D. Ho, “The Burning Shore Fujian and the Coastal Depopulation, 1661–1683,” in Sea Rovers, Silver, and Samurai: Maritime East Asia in Global History, 1550–1700, eds. T. Andrade and Xing Hang (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2016).

(56.) Rediker, Villains of all Nations, 146.

(57.O. K. Nambiar, Portuguese Pirates and Indian Seamen (Bangalore: M. Bhaktavatsalam, 1955).

(58.R. N. Saletore, Indian Pirates: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day (Delhi: Concept Publishing, 1978), 41, 53.

(59.R. I. Burns, “Piracy as an Islamic-Christian Interface in the Thirteenth Century,” Viator 11 (1980): 166.

(60.) See Risso, “Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy,” 198–299.

(61.) For a study finely attuned to these nuances, see C. Wheeler, “Placing the ‘Chinese Pirates’ of the Gulf of Tongking at the End of the Eighteenth Century,” in Asia Inside Out: Connected Places, eds. E. Tagliacozzo, H. F. Siu, and P. C. Perdue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015), 32–63.

(62.) Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 22; Xing Hang, Conflict and Commerce in Maritime East Asia, 40; Petrucci, “Cast in Silver,” 70.

(63.) See for instance P. D. Shapinsky, “From Sea Bandits to Sea Lords: Nonstate Violence and Pirate Identities in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Japan,” in Elusive Pirates, Pervasive Smugglers: Violence and Clandestine Trade in the Greater China Seas, ed. R. J. Antony (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 27–41.

(64.) See for instance Subramanian, The Sovereign and the Pirate.

(65.) On this historiographical trend, see for instance K. Wigen, “Introduction: Oceans of History,” American Historical Review 111.3 (2006): 717–721; M. Vink, “Indian Ocean Studies and the ‘New Thalassology,’” Journal of Global History 2.1 (2007): 41–62; S. R. Prange, “Scholars and the Sea: A Historiography of the Indian Ocean,” History Compass 6.5 (2008): 1382–1393.

(66.) Antony, ed., Pirates in the Age of Sail.


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