Journal of World History 12.2 (2001) 293-319
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Cross-Cultural Perceptions of Piracy: Maritime Violence in the Western Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf Region during a Long Eighteenth Century
University of New Mexico
In the 1690s, a daring and competent mariner named Kanhoji Angre (or Angria) achieved both fame and notoriety along the coast of west central India. He was a sometime ally of the Marathas, and shared their goal of resisting Mughal imperial expansion. In diplomatic exchanges, the Mughals represented him as an enemy. The English East India Company (EIC), however, categorized him as a pirate because he and his men had attacked several company vessels. Some historians have depicted Kanhoji as a champion of Indian resistance to Europeans.
Another notorious mariner and contemporary of Kanhoji was the Englishman William Kidd. He spent a brief portion of his maritime career attacking vessels near the western shore of India. His targets included a royal Mughal ship and a few European merchant vessels as well. The Mughal ruler considered him a European enemy and the company called him a pirate, while Kidd defended himself as a privateer in the service of his country.
Examples of such disparate perspectives on maritime activity abound. This activity is distinct from naval warfare, although the two have some tangent points and are not always easy to distinguish. The concept of maritime violence that I want to examine involves the indiscriminate seizure of seaborne or coastal property, under threat or [End Page 293] use of force. It sometimes involves also the holding of passengers and crew for ransom. Such maritime violence sometimes overlaps with trade because it entails economic gain and because armed merchant ships could be defensive or aggressive. In this article, the word "piracy" is used to indicate a subset of maritime violence but is not exactly the same. The indiscriminate quality of my concept brings it close to most English definitions of piracy, but lacks the usual insistence on illegality. I use "maritime violence" in order to avoid loaded terms such as "banditry" and also to broaden my scope without losing too much specificity.
The intent of this article is to explore maritime violence over the course of a long eighteenth century. Although economic and political motivations for such violence are significant to the argument, the primary purpose here is to examine clusters of less obvious cultural elements, including vocabularies used in specific instances of violence and also including the rhetoric of maritime competition. My contention is that these cultural elements contribute significantly to an explanation for differing perspectives of maritime violence. This explanation is, I think, more convincing than others that rely heavily either on an absolute, universal concept of "piracy" or on a position of moral relativism. It is hoped that this analysis of language will recommend itself to other contested interpretations of "piracy."
The article consists of four sections and a conclusion. The first section discusses the historiography of maritime violence in the western Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf region. The second section is a discussion of the language of maritime violence, particularly the vocabularies of both the English and Arabic sources relevant to case studies in the third and fourth sections. Those case studies each occupy two blocks of thirty years: 1690 to 1720 and 1790 to 1820. The blocks of time invite comparison because each represents a striking concentration of maritime violence. They also happen to coincide, roughly, with the opening and closure of a long eighteenth century that encompasses the development of the British empire in and around India, a development from commercial participant to territorial power. The very different British roles in the two blocks afford more depth to the comparison. The earlier case study concerns maritime violence along the west coast of India. It contains the stories of Kanhoji Angre and William Kidd, mentioned above, and of Arabo-Indian mariners from coastal Oman. The later case study focuses on British India's suppression of what it considered piracy in...