Pirates: Enemies of Trade?

It is a truism to say that the early modern world was synonymous with intense commercial developments. Since the discovery of the Americas, Europe had progressively extended its commercial activities around the globe with its chartered companies. From the Caribbean waters to the mystical shores of Asia, European kingdoms now had access to a wider range of exotic and luxurious commodities, allowing them to strengthen their economy and financial capacities. Already in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith understood that “the discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope, were the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind” (Smith, 488). For some historians, these discoveries - coupled with the growth of trading companies - could be considered as the birth of global trade. Although other scholars such as Jan de Vries argued that ‘the early modern era does not deserve to be called the first age of globalization’ (De Vries, 715), economic historians have largely recognised that it remained a golden age for trade. European chartered companies such as the English East India Company or the Dutch East India Company have often been described as the leaders of this commercial growth, obscuring the contributions of other significant actors such as pirates. Composed of a wide variety of individuals, pirates have been reduced to the idea of ruthless savages, predatory dictators, and trade parasites. Although their activities - which included plundering merchant ships and smuggling - seem to fulfill this image, these individuals were much more than outlaws. On many occasions, they influenced governments, chartered companies, and interacted with local markets, contributing to their growth. Focusing on the East Indies, this article will explore the impact of these individuals in the emergence of global trade during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Abordage du Kent. Ambroise Louis Garneray. 1850.

The idea that pirates were merely trade parasites finds explanation in the definition of the term 'pirate' itself. For many, pirates are independent individuals sailing on the seas to mercilessly plunder merchant vessels and smuggle merchandise, while historians have remarked that considering someone as a ‘pirate’ heavily depended on the period and on the person using the term (Lane, xii). During the classic period, Cicero attempted to define them as hostis humani generis, literally meaning 'enemies of all mankind' (Benton, 228). However, Lauren Benton rightly suggested that Romans tended to extend the meaning to anyone 'whose actions made them appear to be enemies of Rome' (Benton, 228). Throughout the centuries, the term 'pirate' remained relative. One must not forget that, as mentioned earlier, the term encompassed a variety of heterogeneous groups who had different allegiances and objectives. Privateers, for instance, were private sailors who had received governmental authorization to disturb foreign trade in war times. Unsurprisingly, they could therefore be considered to be ruthless outlaws as much as official states’ agents; it only depended on the perspective (Benton, 230). Sir Francis Drake was an eminent privateer erected as an English national hero, but the Spanish categorized him as a despicable pirate. Another example illustrating this situation outside privateering stands in the case of the Angrian dynasty in the Indian Ocean. During the English commercial expansion, Angrians had been such a nightmare for the English that they served as the 'basic characterisation of a pirate in an essay of the Enlightened philosopher David Hume' (Elliot, 4). Recent historiography, however, argued that Angrians were not pirates, but initial resisters to European nascent colonialism and precursors of nationalism (Elliot, 4).

Historians and intellectuals have also emphasized that merchants were not that different from these infamous outlaws, and that they were as essential to trade as them (Pomeranz & Topik, 177). Sebastien Prange noted that both needed to sell the fruits of their enterprises on the marketplace, which meant that pirates' lootings were then reintroduced into regular commerce, contributing, to some extent, to its development (Prange, 1279). Prange also opposed the recurrent antagonism between pirates and merchants when he wrote that the two 'frequently interacted, exchanged roles, and generally profited from each other's endeavours' (Prange, 1272). It was notably the case of Malabar pirates which were, according to the observation of the French navigator Francois Pyrard de Laval, financed in their pirate ventures by wealthy Muslim merchants. In his notes, the French navigator accentuated the proximity between the two professions:

“When in the wintertime they (the pirates) return from sea they become good merchants, going hither and thither among the neighbouring places to sell their goods, both by land and by sea, using then merchant ships that also belong to them” (Laval, 447).

These observations reminded that both merchants and pirates had no shame in using violence in their quest for profit. Furthermore, along the flagrant similarities between the two professions, Pomeranz noted that, ironically, pirates tended to closely follow a moral economy with an equal share of the booty, nicer wages, and better treatment than merchants did (Pomeranz & Topik, 177).

Shipping off Amsterdam. Abraham Jansz. Storck. c. 1664–1704.

Pirates' involvement in the trade development went beyond simply selling their loots. Historians notably held them responsible for the commercial opening of China during the sixteenth century. The European’s arrival had brought a new dynamic to Asian trade, as they established new trading footholds, importing silver and weapons (Lane, 163). Facing this situation, the government, ruled at that time by the Ming dynasty, expressed concerns and decided to place the country under the Maritime Prohibition, an isolationist act stipulating that all intercourse between Chinese people and foreigners would have to take place within formal missions. Tonio Andrade compared this measure to a new Great Wall because 'just as the Great Wall would keep China safe from northern barbarians, the Maritime Prohibition would keep China safe from overseas barbarians' (Andrade, 418). However, Chinese customers still sought European products, which could only be accessed through illegal means. As a result, this period witnessed the rise of influential pirates such as Wang Zhi, a former salt merchant, who became a kind of regional hero for creating jobs and spreading wealth. Despite the desperate measures that the government had taken to maintain elaborated coastal defenses, smugglers banded together in larger, tighter, and more bellicose organizations, taking over military bases, villages, and towns (Andrade, 419). The crisis came to an end in 1567 with the new emperor, who surprisingly decreed an “Open Seas” policy. Foreign traders were still forbidden to land in China, except on tribute missions, but the Chinese were allowed to sail abroad, as long as they obtained licences, paid tolls and taxes, and they did not sail to Japan, which was considered too friendly for pirates (Andrade, 419). The pressure inflicted by pirates forced the government to open to the rest of the world, making them direct actors in the emergence of global trade.

In reality, the conceptual antagonism between pirates and trade finds its roots in the concept of trade itself. Commerce has often been depicted throughout the last centuries as 'a civilization passion' avoiding any form of violence, while pirates held a ruthless and bloodthirsty reputation (Pomeranz & Topik, 152). However, Pomeranz correctly suggests that 'this rosy picture of the spread of market economy hides the historic foundation of violence upon which it was built and the continuing use of force that persistently underlay it, particularly in the non-European world' (Pomeranz & Topik, 152). Early modern Europeans firmly believed in mercantilism, an economic practice articulated around protectionist and aggressive principles. Few historical figures incarnate early modern mercantilism better than Jean-Baptiste Colbert. From 1661 to 1683, Colbert orientated his economic reforms around the belief that “only the abundance of money in a state makes the difference in its greatness and power” (Colbert, 263). In the 1660s, Louis XIV’s minister of Finances attempted to free the realm from the Dutch and English imports by developing manufactures, mobilizing resources, and creating national chartered companies with the Compagnie des Indes Orientales and Occidentales. More importantly, these measures were coupled with the most ambitious naval program of the time. By 1675, France had the largest fleet on the continent with a total of 119 ships-of-the-line and had simultaneously developed its harbours, arsenals, naval administrations, and institutions to sustain its gargantuan needs (Glete, 189-190). These measures were decisive for inserting France into the ongoing trans-Atlantic and Asian trades. Silvia Messina reminded that 'if the enemy had military superiority, it made every attempt to take over the other country’s routes and markets' (Messina, 94). During the entire century, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the English had also spent tremendous resources in increasing their naval and overseas capacities. Despite Colbert’s bests efforts, France struggled to find its place in this violent trade, as its maritime capacities were not sufficient in the Indian Ocean compared to the well-established behemoths that were the Dutch and English companies. One must understand that violence was then intrinsically connected and even natural to commerce. In the words of Anne Perotin-Dumon: ‘war and commerce went together, like mathematics and astrology, or physics and alchemy’ (Perotin-Dumon, 201).

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683). Philippe de Champaigne. 1655.

In this context, companies and governments often adopted a violent approach to trade in order to maintain their commercial dominion. In 2013, Paul Borschberg pointed out similarities between the attitudes of the Dutch Company and the ones traditionally attributed to pirates. Adopted in the early days of the century, the octrooi was a decree that provided the legal foundations for a policy of aggression, which transformed the company into an instrument of plunder (Borschberg, 37). From then, the Batavian company embraced piratical behaviours in its quest for the spice trade, which eventually allowed it to assert its predominance. Such an attitude was nothing new in the Indian Ocean as the Portuguese had already adopted a similar dishonest approach with the cartaz system. Defined as a 'protection racket', this resolution imposed the ships to buy passes in order to not be considered as pirates and be allowed to navigate freely in the Indian Ocean (Borschberg, 47). European trading firms did not hesitate to engage privateers directly during their campaigns. Both the French and the English excelled in these methods. Virginia Lunsford reports that during the First Anglo-Dutch War, English marauders captured and destroyed around 1,000 to 1,700 ships from the Dutch (Lunsford, 115). In many ways, companies could be no different in their approach to trade, than pirates themselves.

The Four Days Fight, 1–4 June 1666. Pieter Cornelisz Van Soest. c.1666.

Nevertheless, pirates and privateers could eventually be detrimental to the companies and to their activities. Laval described the tumultuous relations between the Portuguese and the Malabar pirates:

“They are always at war with the Portuguese, to whom they give great trouble. The Portuguese (…) have been often defeated by the Malabars than victorious over them. The war between them is very cruel and merciless, for the Malabars are so courageous that they never surrender and prefer death” (Laval, 446).

States had always been hostile to piracy, but it was only from the later stages of the early modern period that pirates became persona non grata and experienced more difficulties in continuing their activities. As mentioned earlier, European kingdoms massively invested in their military capacities, including state-owned battlefleets during the seventeenth century. Aside from protecting more effectively their trading routes, these fleets progressively diminished the need to recruit privateers (Pertain-Dumon, 212). Moreover, perceptions towards trade also started to change. During the last decades of the eighteenth century, Europeans slowly started to consider replacing commercial exclusivism with free trade (Perotin-Dumon, 215). Already proposed in the seventeenth century by the Dutch Hugo Grotius and Pieter de la Court, it was only in the following century that the idea started to flourish, notably with the French East India Company. Indeed, the French understood that warfare was detrimental to trade and proposed to the English a commercial entente (Shovlin, 1). Although nothing came out from these negotiations, this increasing search for peace over violence excluded pirates.

Piracy’s contribution to global trade was further diminished with the development of new strategic and political ambitions of European states. C. A. Bayly stressed that, throughout the early nineteenth century, the English noticed that the richness of India was in its 'territorial revenues, not its trade' (Elliot, 78). With their military ascendency, Europeans inevitably extended their territorial presence in Asia, meaning that pirate groups such as the Angrians, who opposed British expansion in India, were from then considered as parasites, and should be eradicated. Derek Elliot, a specialist of the Angrian case, affirmed that the 'suppression of piracy had as much to do with territorial expansion as it did the freedom of trade and navigation' (Elliot, 79). Although these changes truly took form during the nineteenth century, these new approaches emerged during the eighteenth century. De Vries noted that from 1757, the European companies had progressively been transformed into colonial corporations, and were replaced by national states (De Vries, 731). For him, 'what began as an age of globalization (…) ended as an age of colonialism' (De Vries, 731). The story of Captain Kidd illustrates this evolution and its consequences for piracy and privateering. Originally sponsored by the East India Company to lead an expedition against pirates marauding in the East, Kidd was found guilty of piracy against his employers and sentenced to death (Wilson, 27). David Wilson argued that Kidd's death was the result of the increasing involvement of politics into international trade, and in this case, of the East Indian Company (Wilson, 40). According to him, Captain Kidd was one of the many ‘martyrs of the upcoming political and economic changes’ (Wilson, 40).

Captain Kidd in New York Harbor. J.L.G. Ferris. 1932.

Overall, pirates held an undeniable role in the early days of global trade. Not only contributing at their own scale to trading activities via selling their looting or smuggling, they were also undeniable elements in the ascension of European companies in the Indian Ocean. It was only with the emergence of modern conceptions of trade and of new political ambitions of nation-states that the dynamic drastically changed. No longer fitting in the plans of European companies and states, pirates started to be seen as parasites and did not benefited from their complaisance anymore. In the end, studying piracy stands as a reminder of the inherently violent nature of the early modern period. In this brutal and mercantilist world, these intrepid sailors were no more brutal than the European companies, or even merchants.


Andrade, T. (2005). The Company's Chinese Pirates How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621-1662. Journal of World History, 15(4), pp. 415-444.

Benton, L. (2011). Toward a New Legal History of Piracy: Maritime Legalities and the Myth of Universal Jurisdiction.International Journal of Maritime History, 23(1), pp. 225-240.

Borschberg, P. (2013). From Self-Defence to an Instrument of War: Dutch Privateering Around the Malay Peninsula in the Early Seventeenth Century. Journal of Early Modern History, 17(1), pp. 35-52.

Colbert, J-B. Lettres, Instructions et Mémoires de Colbert (P. Clément Ed.;. Vol. 2). Librairie Impériale.

Messina, S. (2019). A History of States and Economic Policies in Early Modern Europe. Routledge.

De Vries, J. (2010). The Limits of Globalization in the Early Modern Period. Economic History Review, 63(3), pp. 710-733.

Dua, J. (2016). Dhow Encounters. Afro-Asian Worlds, 119, pp. 49-59.

Elliott, D. L.. (2010). Pirates, polities and companies: global politics on the Konkan littoral, c.1690-1756. Economic History Working Papers, 136(10), pp. 4.

Glete, Jan, Warfare at sea, 1500-1650: maritime conflicts and the transformation of Europe (London, 2000).

Lane, K. (2016). Pillaging the Empire, Global Piracy on the High Seas, 1500-1750 (2nd ed.). Routledge.

Laval, F. P. (2011). The Voyage of François Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil: Volume 1 (H. C. Bell & A. Gray Eds.; Vol 1). Cambridge University Press.

Lunsford, V. W. (2005). Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands. Palgrave Macmillan.

Perotin-Dumon, A. (1991) The pirate and the emperor: power and the law on the seas, 1450-1850. In J. D. Tracy (ed.), The Political Economy of Merchant Empires (pp. 196-227). Cambridge University Press.

Pomeranz, K., & Topik, S. (2015). The World That Trade Created Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (3rd ed.). Routledge. (Original work published 2013).

Prange, S. R. (2011). A Trade of No Dishonor: Piracy, Commerce and Community in the Western Indian Ocean, Twelfth to Sixteenth Century. American Historical Review, 116(5), pp. 1269-1293.

Rommelse, G. (2015). Privateering as a language of international politics: English and French privateering against the Dutch Republic, 1655-1665. Journal of Maritime Research, 17(2), pp. 183-194.

Shovlin, J. (Unpublished). The French and British East India Companies’ search for an entente, 1752–1788, chap. 5, pp. 1.

Smith, A. (1811). An Inquiry in the Nature and causes of the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, L. L. D. F. R. S. with a life of the author and a view of the doctrine of Smith compared with that of the French economists; with a method of facilitating the study of his works; from the French of M. Garnier; in three volumes (S. Doig & A. Stirling Eds.; Vol. 2). John Brown.

Surcouf, Robert. (1890). Un Corsaire malouin. Robert Surcouf, d'après des documents authentiques, par Robert Surcouf, ancien sous-prefet. E. Plon, Nourrit et Cie.

Wilson, D. (2015). Piracy, patronage & political economy: Captain Kidd and the East India Trade. The International Journal of Maritime History, 27(1), pp. 26-40.

Visual Sources:

De Champaigne, Philippe. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683). 1655. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3BRQqXz

Ferris, J.L.G. Captain Kidd in New York Harbor. 1932. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3phZfF3

Garneray, Ambroise Louis. Abordage du Kent. 1850. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/36xON5E

Storck, Abraham Jansz. Shipping off Amsterdam. c. 1664–1704. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/3M0Scdz

Van Soest, Pieter Cornelisz. The Four Days Fight, 1–4 June 1666. C.1666. Oil on canvas. https://bit.ly/36CfvtT

Author Photo

Benoit Gaume

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn