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Capsule Review

Two Books on Piracy

In This Review

Pirates: A New History, From Vikings to Somali Raiders
Pirates: A New History, From Vikings to Somali Raiders
By Peter Lehr
Yale University Press, 2019, 272 pp. Purchase
Marque and Reprisal: The Spheres of Public and Private War
Marque and Reprisal: The Spheres of Public and Private War
By Kenneth B. Moss
University Press of Kansas, 2019, 464 pp. Purchase

In his lively, vivid history of pirates, Lehr finds some striking continuities from ancient to modern times. Although pirates are motivated above all by greed, creed and religion have often influenced their choice of targets. The lure of large rewards from little effort has always attracted the impoverished. Careers tend to be short, as much because of the hazards of the sea as the threat of legal sanction and punishment. Most pirates have preferred to ambush their prey, frightening the crew into surrender and only fighting their way onboard if necessary. The best defense against pirates is having a vessel faster than theirs. Regions plagued by weak governance and local corruption enable piracy. Certain coastlines have long been favorable hunting grounds: in the 1990s, Somali pirates “loitered in the approaches of the Bab el-Mandeb in the Gulf of Aden,” just as John “Long Ben” Avery did in the seventeenth century.

There has always been a fine line between piracy and privateering. Queen Elizabeth I declared Sir Francis Drake to be “her” pirate because the rival Spanish suffered the most from his depredations. Moss’ account overlaps with Lehr’s book in showing how otherwise illegal acts could be sanctioned in the name of the state under letters of marque and reprisal. This thorough and thoughtful history focuses on the pivotal role of privateers in the struggles for control of the sea and the spread of European empires. Moss highlights the legal and political issues raised by privateering, including the right of privateers to defend themselves, the ownership of the booty they seized, and their relationship to the states that gave them licences. Privateers remain active today, just in different forms. The private sector has expanded to fill in gaps left when all-volunteer armies handle the complex demands of counterinsurgency. Contractors have joined the fighting in Iraq, for instance, often to detrimental effect. Moss brings the book right up to the present with a discussion of the private sector’s participation in cyberconflict.

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