Pirates of the Atlantic flourished 100 years after traditional end set by historians

Thursday, July 13, 2006

To many naval historians, Captain Jack Sparrow, the main character of the popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, may be one of the last pirates of his kind. Many historians have suggested that by the 1730s, naval, imperial and colonial officials had effectively eradicated Sparrow's counterparts in the Atlantic Ocean, thanks to effective policing of the high seas and New World coastlines.

A University of North Texas historian, however, says piracy wasn't eradicated from the Atlantic Ocean until a century later, and was eventually ushered out not by force from the British and U.S. Navies, but through administrative and logistical measures that made piracy less profitable.

Guy Chet, assistant professor of history, is writing a book that he has called "Frontier Violence in the North Atlantic: The Campaign Against Piracy in the Modern State." The book, which he hopes to publish in 2008, will be a follow-up to his 2003 book, "Conquering the American Wilderness: The Triumph of European Warfare in the Colonial Northeast," which debunks several myths of U.S. military tactics and strategy during the years before the War of Independence, including guerilla warfare used by colonial Americans.

"The first book was about regular armies and guerillas. This one is about how the Navies dealt with similar challenges at sea - piracy," he says. "When I started to research it, I assumed that, through direct confrontation, the Navies eliminated a number of pirate outfits and scared others into leaving the region."

However, Chet learned that piracy "wasn't frowned upon in polite society."

"Many merchants were either invested in piracy or were themselves pirates," he says.

He points out that most scholars see a transition from an age of piracy, with pirates "acting for their own gain, against the state," to an age of privateering, with "patriotic" merchants being commissioned by the state to engage in commerce raiding.

However, the 18th-century distinction between "illegitimate" piracy and "legitimate" privateering was not universally accepted in Britain itself or in foreign courts, Chet says.

"The legalization of this activity through privateering attracted more individuals to commerce raiding and made the transportation of goods in the Atlantic more risky, as marine insurance rates indicate," he says.

"There also wasn't a stigma on commerce raiding without a privateering commission."

Because the process of "civilizing the Atlantic" by eliminating piracy was much slower than many historians believe, "a different picture of the Atlantic in the 18th century emerges," he says.

"The Atlantic was a wild frontier, with no law and order," Chet says. "Instead of the Navies confronting and attacking the pirates, the U.S. and Britain eliminated the markets for pirated goods as government bureaucracies become more centralized, government service more professional and governmental authority more legitimate."

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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