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"Piracy", in international law, is the crime of robbery, or other act of violence for private ends,
on the high seas or in the air above the seas, committed by the captain or crew of a ship or aircraft outside the normal jurisdiction of any nation, and without authority from any government. The persons who engage in acts of piracy are called "pirates". International treaties and national legislation have sometimes applied the term "piracy" to attacks on the high seas authorized by a government, in violation of international law; to actions by insurgents acting for political purposes; or to violent acts on board a vessel under control of its officers.

Such acts, however, are not regarded as piracy under the law of nations. Piracy is distinguished from "privateering" in that the latter is authorized by a belligerent in time of war; privateering was legally abolished by the Declaration of Paris of 1856, but the United States and certain other nations did not assent to the declaration.

Piracy is recognized as an offense against the law of nations. It is a crime not against any particular state, but against all humanity. The crime may be punished in the competent tribunal of any country in which the offender may be found, or carried, although the crime may have been committed on board a foreign vessel on the high seas. The essence of piracy is that the pirate has no valid commission from a sovereign state, or from an insurgent or belligerent government engaged in hostilities with a particular state. Pirates are regarded as common enemies of all people. In that nations have an equal interest in their apprehension and punishment, pirates may be lawfully captured on the high seas by the armed vessels of any state and brought within its territorial jurisdiction for trial in its tribunals.

Piracy is of ancient origin. The Phoenicians often combined piracy with more legitimate seafaring enterprise. From the 9th through the 11th century the Vikings terrorized western European coasts and waters. The Hanseatic League, formed in the 13th century, was created partially to provide mutual defense against northern pirates roaming the North and Baltic seas. Muslim rovers, meanwhile, scourged the Mediterranean Sea, commingling naval war on a large scale with thievery and the abduction of slaves. In the 17th century the English Channel swarmed with Algerian pirates, operating out of northern Africa; Algiers continued to be a piratical stronghold until well into the 19th century. Piracy waned with the development of the steam engine and the growth of the British and American navies in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

In municipal law, the term piracy has been extended to cover crimes other than those defined above, such as slave trading. An independent state has the power to regulate its own criminal code, and it may declare offenses to be piracy that are not so regarded by international law. These municipal laws can have binding force only in the jurisdiction creating them. Although similar regulations may be adopted by other states, in the absence of special agreement between two states, the officers of one may not arrest or punish subjects of the other for offenses committed beyond its jurisdiction.

"Buccaneer" was a title applied to English, Dutch, and French seafaring adventurers of the 17th century. In the previous century such daring fighters and seamen as the Englishmen Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Hawkins had obtained wealth in privateering operations against Spain, in the Caribbean Sea and off the coasts of North America. Inspired by the success of these men and the lure of riches, a group of wandering pirates called "freebooters" or "buccaneers" began to harass the Spanish colonies in the New World, particularly during the second half of the 17th century.

The most famous buccaneer, Sir Henry Morgan, was from England. Buccaneers are usually distinguished from privateers, who had official government commissions; buccaneers rarely had valid commissions. They are also distinguished from the pirates who attacked ships of all nations and were outlawed in the 18th century. At first the headquarters of the buccaneers was on the little island of Tortuga (Īle de la Tortue), off the north western coast of Hispaniola (now Haiti) in the main line of the Caribbean commerce.

The term "buccaneer" was derived from their practice of raiding Hispaniola and taking the cattle from the Spanish plantations; they dried the meat on grills, known in French as "boucan", and sold it to vessels that put in for provisions. The buccaneers later used Jamaica as a base of operations, and with Morgan as their leader, they captured Panama in 1671. Buccaneering came to an end in the 18th century when the buccaneers were hired by their respective governments to fight as privateers in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Several buccaneers wrote exciting tales of their adventures which, subsequently, inspired further exploration in the New World.

"Privateer", in international law, is the term applied to a privately owned armed vessel whose owners are commissioned by a hostile nation to carry on naval warfare. Such naval commissions or authorizations are called "letters of marque". Privateering is distinguished from piracy, which is carried out without enlistment by a government.

Privateering was abolished by the Declaration of Paris of 1856, but the declaration was not supported by the United States, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. The Hague Conference of 1907 prescribed the conditions under which a private merchant vessel converted to war purposes has the status of a warship. Under the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to issue "letters of marque" and therefore to make use of privateers. The practice of privateering preceded the creation of national navies. During the Middle Ages, European states having few or no warships hired merchant vessels for hostile purposes. The issuing of "letters of marque" to shipowners or procurers, authorizing them to prey on the commerce of the enemy, eventually came into general use. By way of compensation, privateers were allowed to share any booty captured. Privateering was carried on during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Congress authorized the president to commission privateering in 1863 during the American Civil War, but the power was not exercised; the Confederacy, however, engaged in privateering during this period. Privateering was expressly renounced by the United States during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

At the Hague Conference of 1922-23, called to formulate the regulation of the use of aircraft and radio in time of war, the countries then present issued a joint declaration against the use of privateers in aerial warfare. The report stated that because belligerent rights at sea could be exercised only by units under the direct authority, immediate control, and responsibility of the warring nation, belligerent rights in the air should also be exercised only by military aircraft.

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