Pirates: Tales & Legends


Pirates occupy a unique place in the popular imagination and have been an integral part of global history for centuries. From the swashbucking privateers of the Golden Age of Piracy to the modern day pirates plying the waters off the coast of Africa, pirates are a captivating class of criminal and antihero.  Sail with us on the seven seas as Active Minds discusses the history, personalities, and tales of the pirates.

Key Lecture Points

  • Human civilizations have been in conflict at sea for thousands of years.  As such, piracy has a long history.  Historical record shows pirates operating in the Mediterranean Sea as early as 1350 B.C.E.  The Golden Age of the Pirates occurred 300 years ago (1680 – 1730) including some of the most famous and infamous pirates, such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan.  While pirates have been romanticized as swash buckling, hard drinking, care-free sailors, factual analysis shows that they were often ruthless, lawless, murderers and robbers who leaved short lives that often ended violently.
  • There is a thin line between pirates and privateers.  Privateers were used from the 1200s to the early1800s as a way for a nation to expand its naval forces.  A pirate is a person who attacks and robs ships at sea without authority.  A privateer is a person that holds a commission from a government and is authorized in time of war to attack and capture enemy shipping.  Privateers contributed to war efforts at many times in history, including during the American Revolution.  The Declaration of Paris (1856) and The Hague Convention (1907) put strong restrictions on nations using privateers.
  • Piracy still occurs in modern times.  Somalia has been in a state of violence since 1991 when its central government imploded.  As poverty and internal chaos increased, piracy boomed, turning the waters off the coast of Somalia into the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world.  The measures shipping companies and governments are taking to avoid and combat piracy cost between $7 billion and $12 billion every year.
  • Global piracy has been on the decline in recent years since its peak in 2011, but some observers are concerned that political and economic instability caused by the coronavirus may lead to an increase in pirate activity.

Exploration Questions

  • What is the difference between piracy and privateering?
  • How did piracy contribute or detract to world exploration and settlement?

Reflective Questions

  • Where have you personally been where pirates may have operated?
  • Have you been on an ocean cruise? Did you ever feel concerned about the possibility of modern pirates?
  • Who is your favorite pirate? What do you find particularly interesting about them?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates. Random House Trade, New York, 2006. 296 pages. For this rousing, revisionist history, the former head of exhibitions at England's National Maritime Museum has combed original documents and records to produce a most authoritative and definitive account of piracy's "Golden Age." As he explodes many accepted myths (i.e. "walking the plank" is pure fiction), Cordingly replaces them with a truth that is more complex and often bloodier.
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  • Little, Benerson. Pirate Hunting: The Fight Against Pirates, Privateers and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present. Potomac Books, 2010. 376 pages. The history of piracy plus strategies and tactics for anti-piracy operations.
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  • Clifford, Barry, Kenneth K. Kinkor, Sharon Simpson. Real Pirates. National Geographic Society, 2007. 175 pages. Describes the search for the wreck of the Whydah and life aboard this pirate ship.
    Click here to order