Pirates, Privateers, and Neutrals: Aegean Maritime Violence and International Law, 1770-1830

Will Smiley - Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University



Between 1770 and 1830, maritime raiders made the Aegean Sea an increasingly dangerous place. These were not always pirates, however; often, they carried papers from various governments that licensed their activities. They were, legally, privateers. Whatever their legal standing, and whatever flag they flew, these raiders were variously Maltese, Venetian Greek, Ottoman Greek, or even British. They were often licensed by the Russians, in their frequent wars against the Ottoman Empire, but by the 1820s a new sponsor emerged: the independent Greek state. This paper argues that their legal maneuverings helped shape ideas about maritime law in the Aegean and beyond.

It is revealed how these non-state networks prompted a series of legal debates that illuminate the changing contours of maritime and international law. At one level, these debates revolved around what rights belligerent and neutral states had over people and property. At a broader level, though, these debates revolved around who could exercise those rights – who had the authority to license violence? I will put the Ottoman answers to these questions in the context of larger contemporary global debates about sovereignty, legitimacy, and belligerent rights, manifested in the Atlantic World by the 1780 and 1800 Leagues of Armed Neutrality, the 1856 Declaration of Paris, and the U.S. Supreme Court cases Rose v. Himely (1808) and The Prize Cases (1863). The paper thus reveals hidden Ottoman and Greek angles on a broader global story about licensing and constraining maritime violence, showing how legal debates about individuals’ and states’ particular rights and duties became the site for larger questions about legitimacy, sovereignty, and what it meant to be an independent state at a moment of imperial transformation and the rise of the nation-state.




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