Piracy is theft at sea, using violence, or the threat of violence to coerce compliance. However, ‘pirate’ is a fluid label, one that has been adapted across time to suit shifting national agendas. While piracy is commonly assumed to be the work of outlaws, individuals acting outside national jurisdictions, there is a long history of states, especially relatively weak states, working closely with such actors for economic, political and even strategic benefit. The border between state supported privateers or corsairs and common piracy remained porous. Many of the Greek ‘pirates’ in this essay were hungry privateers. Critically these are not new issues, and the past provides a rich and rewarding reservoir of experience, especially at the policy level. Here it is important to distinguish between Seapower states, like post 1688 England/Britain, Denmark, Japan and Singapore, where commerce and trade have far greater political and economic importance than the terrestrial and domestic concerns that dominate the structures of their continental peers. Over the past two thousand five hundred years Seapower states have responded to the challenge of piracy with striking consistency. This paper explores that response through the British experience.
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