Although fictional pirates often have been portrayed as noble outlaws who follow a code of conduct, real pirates are typically less charming and romantic. In both the past and present, pirates have been murderers and thieves. Nevertheless, there have been groups of pirates who developed their own rules and laws. In previous eras, pirates sometimes chose their ship's captain democratically. However, their code of conduct was usually very strict, with severe penalties for transgressors:
- Many pirate gangs enacted the death penalty for crimes such as stealing or sneaking women onto the ship.
- Pirates also may have punished some transgressions with keelhauling, in which the offender would be tied up and dragged under the boat's keel. The victim often drowned. Even if he didn't drown, the ship's barnacles would rip the victim's clothing and skin.
- Although common in fiction, the most famous pirate punishment -- "walking the plank" -- was apparently not a common practice among real-life pirates.
Modern pirates may not have such codes or there may be isolated instances that resemble romanticized notions of pirates as crusaders. Pirates off the coast of Somalia in eastern Africa have gained international attention for their sometimes brutal taking of merchant ships and even private yachts. In February 2011, 14 men hijacked the yacht Quest and killed the owners -- a couple from California and two friends of theirs from Seattle. The pirates apparently had intended to bring the Americans back to Somalia and hold them for ransom but U.S. military ships began following the yacht and the pirates said in court documents that they refused the Navy's offer of exchanging the yacht for the hostages onboard. The pirates felt they could make more money with a ransom. When rockets were fired at the yacht, shooting erupted and killed the hostages. Some of the pirates claimed that they tried to stop the killing; three of the men were on trial for the American's deaths in Norfolk, Va., in July 2011 [source: New York Times].
The yacht hijacking and other events ramped up U.S. military and international actions against Somali pirates. There are deeper problems in Somalia, however, some of which may be adding to the piracy and serving as a sort of "justification" for some of the pirates. When the piracy began, many offenders said they were only responding to foreign invasion of their seas and fishing reserves; initial pirate targets were foreign fishing vessels. Soon they became commercial shipping vessels. With ransoms rising from an average of $150,000 to nearly $13.5 million for a ship and crew in 2011, it is difficult to know what will happen next with pirates from a country plagued by famine and unrest [source: May].
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