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Piracy on Trial: How Politics Affect Pirate Trials

Piracy has existed for as long as there have been ships and valuable goods to take from them. The period, roughly between 1670 and 1730, was the Golden Age of Piracy, when thousands of pirates sailed the seas. As court documents at the Law Library of Congress show, though, piracy continued well into the 1860’s and still continues to this day. Piracy is generally defined as robbery on the high seas. These acts were considered more heinous than a robbery that happened on land (Kelly, 2013). There are competing theories to why this was the case. One is that piracy was a particularly wicked crime and an attack on fundamental human values. Others argue that international law recognizing the right of sovereigns to try piracy developed, not because of a universal acknowledgment of the heinousness of their crimes, but because of their disruptions to international trade (Garrod, 2014, p. 196). A 1696 English trial of six pirates supports this second theory when they argued, “so much exceeds thefts or robbery on land; as the interest and concerns of kingdoms and nations are above those of private families, or particular persons; For suffer pirates and the commerce of the world must cease” (emphasis added). Trade was the focus of their argument to convict the prisoners. Either way, the crime was considered a serious enough threat to people and property that universal jurisdiction applied. This allowed any sovereign to try any pirate it caught no matter where they were apprehended (p. 195).

Historical moments, such as war and exploration, influenced the number of pirates and the nature of their activities. The universal jurisdiction allowed for the easy apprehension of pirates, but it was not as easy to decide the proper charges, verdicts or sentences. The historical context under which pirates operated also affected the way they were tried. These records show the complexity of pirate trials and how national and international politics played a significant role in their trials.  

The earliest trial took place in England in 1696 and the most trials happened in Boston, MA with a total of five spanning one hundred thirty years. The last trial was in New Brunswick in 1864, when it was ruled, unusually, that the Province did not have jurisdiction to try or extradite the prisoners to the United State (see details below).

Most men, as they were all male, were tried as pirates. Some had additional charges, such as robbery and murder. In Edinburgh two men, privateers turned pirates, were additionally charged with defrauding their underwriters and trying to intentionally “sink or destroy the vessels” (footnote).  A 1812 New York trial also charge one man with man-stealing, like kidnapping but with the intention of selling the hostage. Also, in 1812 six men were charged in England with stealing on the Thames River. They were not formally charged with piracy but robbery only and four as accessories to that robbery. Which leads to interesting question of whether it was the location on the river that prevented the piracy charge or something else entirely.

Only in Charleston, SC in 1859 were they also tried with violating the act of 1820 which states “any American citizen engaging in the African slave trade “shall be adjudged a pirate” (Finkelman, 2012). Slavery was still legal, as the Civil War and Emancipation had not happened yet but it was illegal to bring more slaves into the country. Any pirate captured before 1820 could not possibly have been charged with this additional crime. Another case regarding the American Civil War is the trial of Saint John, New Brunswick in 1864. The men on trial took the Chesapeake in the name of the Confederate and claimed all on board, “prisoners of the Confederate States.” The courts had to consider then, whether the Confederate South was considered sovereign. If yes, then the prisoners were privateers and their actions legal. During war time, sovereign nations could hire privateers to intercept enemy ships and take its goods for themselves. If not, then the men committed a crime in the taking of the Chesapeake. This case also is the first tried in the Province under the Treaty of Extradition of 1842, known as the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which helped define borders between the United States and the northern British Colonies (Office of the Historian). The nature of the treaty and the warrant used to apprehend them were examined and found insufficient. These men gained their freedom because of the way international politics affected their trial.

Finally, in the 1784 Scotland case against two privateers, the men were charged with piracy and conspiring to destroy ships. The counsel for the defendants argued that they could not be tried for conspiracy because the law making this act illegal were English laws passed by Charles II and were not intended to extend to Scotland.  By this time the two countries had become the United Kingdom so while they were connected, English laws could only be tried in English courts and the charge against the destruction of ships was not a part of Scottish law. They were found guilty but were saved the gallows.

These cases show that not only the act of piracy operated within a larger global and national context but their trials were influenced by it as well. Greater exploration is, of course necessary, especially in non-western nations. It would be interesting to see if similar trends emerge.


Finkelman, P. (2012). “The Act of 1820.” The Abolition of the Slave Trade.

Garrod, M. (2014). “Piracy, the Protection of Vital State Interests and the False Foundations of Universal Jurisdiction in International Law.” Diplomacy & Statecraft, 25, p. 195-213.

Kelly, M. (2013). “The Pre-History of Piracy As A Crime & Its Definitional Odyssey.” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 46.

“Webster-Ashburton Treaty, 1842.” Office of the Historian: