Defining European piracy in the Indian Ocean is a complicated task and depends entirely on competing definitions and perspectives. As newcomers to the region, Europeans inserted themselves, often violently, into a complex long-distance trade system that had functioned relatively smoothly for centuries before the Portuguese arrival in 1498. Divergent cultural norms, particularly long-standing religious differences, were a central issue for the militantly Catholic Iberians, as they did not accept nor respect claims of sovereignty from local Muslim and Hindu rulers. Among Europeans, a similar dynamic applied after the Reformation, as rising Protestant empires, such as the Dutch and British, began to compete with the Portuguese, and each other, for control of the lucrative Indian Ocean commodities and markets as they battled for global trade dominance. Since the total number of Europeans in the region at any given moment remained quite low relative to the size of the Indigenous populations, they relied on violence and coercion to achieve their economic objectives. The persistence of European piracy in the Indian Ocean exposes a long-standing interconnected Indo-Atlantic world that is yet to be fully integrated into the historical narratives regarding European imperial and Atlantic histories.
European Piracy in the Indian Ocean
Kevin P. McDonald
Sebastian R. Prange
Piracy has been an important and persistent feature of Asia’s maritime history. In fact, the largest pirate organizations in all of history were found in Asia. Although often regarded as the antithesis of trade, piracy is actually closely related to the world of commerce. Pirates were themselves often traders (or smugglers) and relied on merchants to outfit their ships and sell their plunder. Despite the obvious and primary economic dimension of piracy, pirates were also political actors. This observation is significant because piracy has traditionally been distinguished from other forms of maritime predation (especially privateering, but also naval warfare) by stressing its supposedly inherently private nature. In Asia, however, the history of piracy is very much defined by its political contexts. Pirates themselves formed polities, whether as part of established coastal communities or in their endeavors to build their own states. What is more, as was the case in Europe, pirates often colluded with territorial states that used them as an instrument of state power, in order to harass and weaken their rivals. The political dimension of Asian piracy has long been overlooked due to the preponderance of European concepts and sources, which tend to depict all Asians involved in maritime predation as mere criminals. More nuanced studies of Asian pirates, especially when based on non-European sources, promise fresh insights into the commercial, social, and political worlds of maritime Asia.