Piracy has enjoyed a surge of attention in recent months, especially this past week as pirates based in Somalia unsuccessfully attempted to capture a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. Three pirates were killed and another is being held in custody while the heroic captain of the vessel, Richard Phillips, is free after a hellish ordeal. Yet pirates still hold over 200 hostages and continue to stage brazen attacks on merchant vessels at an alarming rate.
Things were not so different in Cervantes’ time, when piracy was a huge concern for nations with Mediterranean coastlines. Pirates of all nations terrorized coastal villages and took captives for the purpose of raising ransom money. Moreover, piracy was not limited to one region or religion. Cervantes, who was a captive himself in Algiers for years, writes of Christian, Muslim, and renegade pirates who would often claim whatever religion was convenient. The famed Knights of Malta and Francis Drake are two other examples of Christian pirates, reminding us that piracy was perceived as a legitimate activity if undertaken in the service of a sovereign state or military/religious order. Perhaps most fascinating about piracy in Cervantes’ time is that after the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in 1609 and afterward, Northern Africa became home to thousands of disaffected former Spaniards with an intimate knowledge of the country and its coast, many of whom became pirates. Piracy was a perfectly acceptable source of income for people of all nations and religions.