Piracy in the Aegean Sea


1. The nature and distinct features of piracy in the Aegean Sea
Piracy in the Aegean constituted a continuous historical phenomenon through the centuries under examination, with variable intensity and different nature in the various periods. Therefore, any account of the historical phenomenon of piracy from the 13th century until the eve of the Greek War of Independence cannot be unequivocal, but all of its manifestations should be taken under consideration.
More specifically, an adequate analysis presupposes the distinction between piracy and privateering, namely a state controlled and directed piracy with specific targets. Furthermore, the distinction between merely profit-driven piracy and the one being practiced during maritime interstate war or holy wars should also be drawn. Even in these cases, the transfer from one form of piracy to the other was fairly common, a fact which makes the investigation of this phenomenon even more difficult. In quite a few cases, during a holy war, common pirates were transformed into privateers, in the service of the government, like, for instance, in the case of Hayreddin Barbarossa. On the other hand, forms of piracy practiced in the name of religion and holy wars often deviated into predatory raids, regardless of the victims’ religion, as in the case of the Hospitallers of the Order of St John.
A distinction should also be made between the piracy originating from powers outside the Aegean region (mainly European and North African Muslim states) and that, in a smaller scale, from local insular populations. This certainly does not entail that these two forms of piracy did not interweave with one another. In quite a few occasions, especially from the 17th century onwards, local mariners served on European pirate fleets or even operated as privateers of foreign maritime powers.
Moreover, it is important to distinguish the forms of piracy on the basis of their goals; wether pirates or privateers only raided ships or if they pillaged coastal areas as well; wether they aimed mainly at selling hostages as slaves or were merely interested in tradable goods.
Finally, one should not overlook the different viewpoints of the people of that time. There is no doubt that the pirates’ perception of their actions was different than that of their victims or of the state they were harming. If Morosini was a hero for the Venetians, for the Ottomans he was a pirate; the reverse held for Barbarossa. The communities that became victims of pirate attacks would look upon pirate action differently than the ones that either practiced piracy or had financial benefits from it.
The aforementioned factors, with their perplexity and overlaps, determine, along with many others, the recurring phenomenon of piracy in the Archipelago, with its diverse manifestations in the various periods.
2. The geographical, political and economical background of piracy in the Aegean
Apart from the various forms of piracy, we should also refer to certain specific factors, which constituted the background that favored the outbreak of piracy or the very reasons that led to it.
A first factor is the geographical location of the Aegean, within the wider Mediterranean region, as well as the distinctive geomorphology of the Archipelago.
More specifically, the Aegean, throughout all that period, lay on the three main commercial axes, which connected the West with the East and, therefore, with the Silk and Spice Routes. Hence, the Aegean was part of the axis, which ran from the ports of the West to Constantinople (Istanbul) and from there to the silk route leading to China. Moreover, the southern Aegean lay on the axis connecting Europe with Syria and the Holy Places, where the alternative starting point to the silk route was located. Finally, the southeastern Aegean, and in particular the Dodecanese, constituted the hub which connected the capital of the Ottoman Empire with the port of Alexandria, a terminus of the spice trade, probably the most lucrative trade for long periods of time.
These commercial axes did not essentially lose their value during the entire period under examination, despite the discovery of the New World and the alternative routes to the Indies towards the end of the 15th century. Therefore, it was natural for the Aegean to become, as part of the Eastern Mediterranean, a site of clashes between the major maritime and mercantile powers. And it is this almost ceaseless conflict, especially between the Ottomans and the western states over the control of commercial axes that favored the manifestation of piracy in various forms. However, this conflict does not entail the disruption of trade between the West and the Ottoman Empire. The trade agreements, known as capitulations, started in the 16th century, the first being with France, and revealed the Ottomans’ eagerness to develop trade. The Ottomans ensured that they would reach trade agreements even with their major opponent, Venice, after every military conflict.
However, the distinctive topography of the Aegean, combined with the ways of navigating of the time, favoured the activities of pirates and privateers, locals and foreigners. Thanks to the numerous natural harbours and bays, the pirates had the possibility to access dens, alternative coves and markets, free from any kind of state supervision. Meanwhile, the marine technology of the time, coupled with the numerous islands, skerries and sea currents of the Aegean, created maritime routes through the islands that were impossible to avoid, rendering trade ships vulnerable to pirate raids, even from the shore, like in the case of Mani.
Along with the geographical background, the economic conditions of the time also contributed to the development of the piracy operation framework. Already by the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire, and therefore also the Aegean Archipelago, were affected by the rise of commercial capitalism in Europe. The continuing development of maritime trade in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite certain fluctuations due to historical circumstances, ensured an uninterrupted maritime trade activity in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. Nonetheless, the trade operation was closely linked to piracy and privateering as an extension to economic activity. According to the historian F. Braudel, piracy, following the mentality of the time, functioned as a compulsory form of economic exchange.
On the other hand, it should be mentioned that shipping, and especially piracy, constituted, mainly for the Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire, an economic activity free from any major economic and social restraint, unlike other economic activities within the Ottoman State. That way, piracy and privateering, or at least the indirect involvement in piracy, constituted probably the sole outlet for the Αegean islands, which were poor in material resources.
Finally, we should also stress the political - in the broad sense of the word - factor, which largely determined and gave rise to the manifestation of the various pirate activities. And that factor is mainly the lack of efficient state supervision over the Aegean Sea. As mentioned above, a main reason was the warlike climate that prevailed for a long period in the Aegean. Maritime wars, especially between the Venetians and the Ottomans, extending over two centuries approximately, led the parties in conflict to use pirates and privateers in an alternative and "unofficial" form of war.
The Ottoman domination was extended and established in the Aegean already by the middle of the 16th century. However, state control was insufficient either due to the inadequacy of the Porte or due to unwillingness of the state to perform it. The Ottoman rule, favoring decentralization -a policy, which was its distinctive characteristic-, chose to fortify only the most important sites in the Aegean and allow a significant degree of autonomy to the local communities. The Ottomans' role was often limited to the annual tax collection and the occasional chase of small pirate fleets. This practice resulted, even after most of the footholds of the western Europeans in the Archipelago were gained, in granting the pirates and privateers from the West a relatively easy access to the Aegean, while at the same time favoring local piracy. This way, along with the network of Ottoman authority and the official trade, a pirate network operated as well, developing special relations with certain local communities, whose survival practically depended on their direct or indirect involvement in piracy.
3. Piracy in its historical perspective
By the beginning of the 13th century, the western Europeans and especially the Venetians had started conquering the islands and coastal areas of the Aegean. In the 15th century, almost the entire Cyclades region belonged to Venice, constituting the so-called Duchy of Naxos. The islands of Thasos, Samothraki, Imvros, Limnos, Chios, Samos, Ikaria, were under the peculiar status imposed by the Genoese commercial enterprises. The largest part of the Dodecanese belonged to the Hospitallers, whose seat was in Rhodes. This was the base for their pirate raids against the Muslims, which were considered as a continuation of the Crusades. Nonetheless, during that time, piracy was practiced mainly by Muslim pirates, associated with the pashas of Asia Minor.
Contrary to the Byzantines, the Latins re-orientated the life of the islands towards the sea. The settlements abandoned their previous sites on the mountains and were linked with the sea routes. The new rulers fortified and protected the ports and the stairways, especially the ones located on the main axes of trade routes.
After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans went on the offensive in the Aegean. Since the beginning of the 16th century and until 1537, the Aegean suffered from the depredations of Barbarossa, a North African Muslim pirate of Greek origin, who was in the service of the Sultan. He ravaged approximately 80 coastal cities and carried off to slave markets many people. Islands like Aegina, Psara, Kythnos, Ikaria and Samos faced a big demographic crunch. After 1537, when the Duchy of Naxos was also occupied, the Porte began the repopulation effort. With that victory, the Aegean became an Ottoman lake and, until the naval battle of Nafpaktos (Lepanto) in 1571, piracy clearly took a milder and more controlled form.
With the defeat of the Ottoman fleet by the allied Christian forces in 1571 the scenery changed again in the Aegean. On precautionary grounds, the Ottoman fleet retreated to Dardanellia, while Christian pirates appeared in the region, practicing piracy along with Muslim, North Africans and Ottoman pirates. These Christian pirates were usually in the service of the Pope, the Spaniards and the Medici. In the face of the intense pirate action over the following thirty years, until the beginning of the 17th century, repopulation by Greek and Albanian Christian populations began more systematically in the Aegean at the initiative of the Porte.
The 17th century is characterized by the brutal conflict between the Venetians and the Ottomans, centered on the island of Crete. Within the framework of the Venetian-Turkish wars, both sides used many pirates along with several local islanders, in a different form of maritime war. During this century, there were three competing authorities in the Aegean: the Ottomans, the Venetians and the pirates. This volatile situation created an framework of autonomy for the Aegean islands. An inter-island network of communication and piracy-related trade activity was developed.
With the final end of the Venetian-Turkish wars in 1699 and the Treaty of Karlowitz began the economic development in the Aegean. Piracy continued to exist, but it now seemed integrated, to a great extent, in the economic and social practice and mentality of the Aegean communities. The insular and coastal area communities, although not practicing piracy, collaborated with pirates and operated as pirate coves or transit centres for pirates and privateers.
In the 18th century, the Christian forces, primarily the British, practiced piracy not against the Muslims, but against the French commercial vessels, which dominated the trade with the Ottoman Empire. To this end, local islanders also operated as privateers. At the same time, the very nature of piracy changed in the beginning of the 18th century. The main target was now the underway vessels and their merchandises and not people intended for the slave market. The widespread use of sailing vessels, which stemmed the demand for galley rowers, must have contributed towards that direction.
Since the beginning of the 18th century, in these new circumstances, a new social group of merchants and shipowners emerged in the Aegean communities, which took over the political control of the communities within the framework of local administration. This mercantile social group operated on the borderline between trade and piracy. It took advantage of the Russian-Turkish and British-French conflicts towards the end of the 18th century, and with its dual identity as trader and pirate it almost monopolized trade in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean until the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
4. The aftermath of pirate activity on the Aegean communities
Pirate and privateering activity in the Archipelago cannot be seen merely as a result of the singular conditions prevailing during the entire period under examination, but as an important dynamic process that determined the economic, social and cultural identity of the Aegean communities.
The common perspective on piracy has been informed by depredation, subjugation and desolation of the Aegean settlements, even of entire islands. This perception may be correct to a certain extent; however, it is definitely insufficient and potentially misleading. It is true that, as in the case of North African pirate Hayreddin Barbarossa, entire cities and islands were almost depredated and desolated. On the other hand, it would be out of proportion to consider that this situation had equal intensity in the entire Aegean during the whole period under examination. It would be impossible for such a disastrous course to be constantly implemented, due to the limited resources and the relatively small population of most insular regions. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the islands with large inland communities could be completely desolated, which is what certain sources are claiming.
The reality is manifold. The Aegean communities, in spite of pirate attacks, after their reorientation towards the sea during the 14th century, do not seem to recede from the coast. At a macro-historical level, notwithstanding the depopulation in various areas, the most important fortified sites in the Aegean, which controlled the passages, remained engaged in maritime activities. This seems to be the general trend of the repopulated settlements, following the policy of the Porte.
At an economic level, many islands and coastal areas must have survived by piracy or by their special relation with it. Islands like Milos, Kimolos and Mykonos operated as pirates' coves and trading posts for their plunder. In the long term, piracy and privateering were encompassed in the islands’ maritime activity. They operated as one of the most effective ways of capital accumulation, which was invested in parallel trade activities. Cases in point of this development are Ydra, Spetses and Psara. Hence, already by the 17th century, we notice an extended inter-insular trade network being developed, which, from the beginning of the 18th century, expanded outside the Aegean region as well. As a result, the mercantile bourgeois elite of the Aegean communities controlled ¾ of commercial traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Russian-Turkish treaties in the second half of the 18th century and until the end of the Napoleonic wars.
This economic elite will also take over the communities’ political administration in the framework of extended local administration and loose state supervision. The piracy network, especially after the 18th century, develops parallel to the commercial networks of the European fleets and the administrative network of the Ottoman Empire. This reality, however, intensifies the economical, political and cultural unity of the Aegean region, which operates parallel to or in conflict with state structures. This unity is perceived by the communities themselves and especially by the ruling mercantile social groups.
In summary, it can be concluded that, notwithstanding the disasters that suffered the Aegean communities due to piracy, in the long term this phenomenon contributed decisively in the development of an autonomous and strong identity, ensuring a level of real prosperity. It has influenced all aspects of the Aegean communities’ historical course, from economic development and political administration to architecture and cultural patterns. The economic and social elites that emerged from these communities played a decisive role in the Greek War of Independence of 1821, due to the accumulation of wealth and their military experience.

Posted by Under The Black Flag on 12:36 μ.μ.. Filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0

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