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World piracy stretches far back through the millennia of world history. It has inspired art and romantic literature over the centuries, to include the earliest forms of theater and cinema.
For those who believe everything we buy and sell in America is produced in the U.S. they may be surprised to learn that 90-percent of American commerce comes here via the sea. This clearly defines the United States as a maritime nation. This has been true for over 200 years. For this reason the United States, from its inception, has been particularly interested and concerned with piracy upon the high seas.
"World piracy dates back more than 1,000 years. It is the source of art, romantic literature and the earliest theater and cinema. In fact, a number of non-fictional pirates, such as Blackbeard, William Kidd, and Henry Morgan …had such infamous careers that their names remain well known even today," said Charles Brodine author and Naval Historian.
"Piracy was the consummate reason for the establishment of the U.S. Navy in 1794 when six frigates, the United States, Constellation, Constitution, Chesapeake, Congress and President were authorized by our new nation to repel piracy," Brodine said while speaking to a crowd at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy Brodine.
The historian went on to tell the lunchtime gathering at the Washington Navy Yard that the first conflicts faced by America; the Quasi War (also known as the Franco-American War or the Pirate Wars), the War of Tripoli and the War of 1812 were fought over national rights to conduct maritime trade.
The most active period of piracy for the United States said Brodine was from 1822 through 1826 in the Caribbean and West Indies particularly in and around the Gulf of Mexico and the Island of Cuba.
The historian explained that raiders from Mexico, Columbia, Venezuela, and the Confederation of Central American States, with authorized private contracts, known as 'letters of marque', attacked shipping throughout the Caribbean, Brodine explained. President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams turned a blind eye to the sea raiders, as long as they honored U.S. neutrality.
"The plan turned negative when illegal commissions fell into the hands of pirates such as Jean Lafitte" who was raiding, killing and pillaging throughout the area," Brodine said.
Secretary Adams was particularly affected. The raiders with false papers focused on Spanish gold shipments from Central America bound for the U.S. and Spain. Adams was engaged with the Spanish royal court for the purchase of Florida. The piracy had the potential of derailing the negotiations.
In 1822, a West India Squad of American ships was sent to the area with orders to stop piracy and slave trade. The squad included 8 shallow draft schooners, 20 barges and an early side-wheel steam ship.
The first three Squadron commanders were all War of 1812 heroes. The squadron also included a number of enterprising junior officers including David Farragut, of Civil War fame who defiantly led his fleet in 1864 past the Confederate guns guarding Mobile Bay. Matthew C. Perry, who hence established diplomatic relations with Japan and 15 other Navy veterans who would later on achieve flag-officer rank.
"The pirates were ruthless and elusive hiding in plain within the population as fisherman and merchants, and then turning to pirate as opportunities were presented," said Brodine.
The historian ended his presentation with some historical observations.
"The circumstances that allowed piracy to flourish in the West Indies and the Gulf of Mexico nearly two hundred years ago are similar in a number of ways to those that have allowed piracy to flourish in parts of our world today: politically disordered and weakened states; corrupt, inept, and sometimes nonexistent local authority; large stretches of territory where the rule of law does not prevail."
Finally he said, "In grappling with this problem American naval and political leadership conceived a winning strategy that successfully eliminated the pirate threat, suggesting some possible solutions to the piracy problem of today: international cooperation, proper force structure, adequate resources, attempts to deal with the land-side of the equation, and above all a respect for law."
Editors note: Charles Brodine is the son of a Naval surgeon and holds a graduate degree from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he has also done work on his Ph.D. He is an expert on shipboard life in the age of fighting ships of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.