Piracy, robbery upon the sea. Spelman says that pirata once meant in England sea knight or soldier; and he cites an instrument of the time of King Edgar, in which one of the witnesses styles himself archipirata, that is, as Spelman translates it, admiral. He also quotes Asser and another ancient chronicler, who write that the war galleys of Alfred and of William the Conqueror were manned by pirates,. The legal definitions of pirate and piracy are derived from the civil law, whence they were transferred to the maritime and admiralty laws and the law of nations The civil law applied pirata, prmdones, and latrones to the same kind of offenders; indeed, the latter terms were sometimes used interchangeably with the former. But the proper, and in fact the sole difference between the terms, was that prcedones and latrones described robbers upon land, while piratoz meant robbers on the sea. The writers upon the civil, the international, and maritime codes agree in defining piracy as robbery or depredation on the sea. Strictly speaking, piracy is not an offence known to the common law. As it is a crime committed on the high seas, it is committed out of its jurisdiction. Until the statute 28 Henry VIII. it was exclusively a civil law offence, cognizable only by the admiralty courts.
But the procedure under the forms and rules of the civil law includes no trial by jury, and it was plainly an encroachment on the liberties of the English subject that his life should be forfeited without judgment by his peers, according to the law of the land. Furthermore, as the statute itself recites, there could be under the civil law no conviction for a crime unless the accused plainly confessed it, or it were directly proved by witnesses who saw it committed. The statute therefore enacted that the offences which it contemplates should be judged in such shires and places as should • be designated by the king's commission, and in the same form as if the alleged crime had been committed upon the land. This commission is directed to the admiral or his deputy, and to three or four others, among whom, says Blackstone, are usually two common law judges. The indictment is found and tried by grand and petit jury, and the trial follows, in other respects, the course of the common law. Yet it is to be observed that the court thus constituted is still essentially an admiralty court.
The statute, said Chief Justice Mansfield, merely altered the mode of trial, but the jurisdiction of the court rests on the same foundation as before the act; it is regulated by the civil law, and by maritime customs, grounded on the law of nations. Piracy, therefore, can be said to be an offence at common law only when this term is taken in its most comprehensive sense, and so inclusive of the law of nations. - In the United States, the cognizance of piracy is reserved by the constitution to the general government. The eighth section of the first article of that instrument gives to congress the power "to define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations." Under this constitutional provision, and because the United States courts have no common law jurisdiction, the definition of piracy in our law is to be sought exclusively in the acts of congress, and it will be seen that they have materially enlarged the usual conception of the offence.
The act of April 30, 1790, declared that murder or robbery committed on the high seas, or in any river, haven, or bay out of the jurisdiction of any particular state, or any other offence which, if committed within the body of a county, would by the laws of the United States be punishable with death, should be adjudged to be piracy; and if any captain or mariner should piratically and feloniously run away with any vessel, or any goods of the value of $50, or yield up any such vessel voluntarily to pirates, or if any seaman should by force attempt to hinder his commander from defending the ship or goods committed to his trust, every such offender should be adjudged a pirate and a felon, and be punishable with death. The words high seas here apply to any waters near seacoasts which are beyond low-water mark. A temporary act in 1819, revived and continued in 1823, authorizes public and private ships to seize pirates wherever they may be found. The act of May 15, 1820, provides: "If any person shall upon the high seas, or in any open roadstead, or in any haven, basin, or bay, or in any river where the sea ebbs and flows, commit the crime of robbery in or upon any ship or vessel, or upon the lading thereof, or upon the crew, he shall be adjudged a pirate.....If any person engaged in any piratical enterprise, or belonging to the crew of any piratical vessel, shall land and commit robbery on shore, such person shall also be adjudged a pirate, and upon conviction shall suffer death." The act of March 3, 1847, provides that subjects or citizens of foreign states found and taken on the seas making war on the United States, or cruising against the vessels and property thereof, or of the citizens of the same, contrary to the provisions of any treaty existing between the United States and the country of such persons, shall, when such acts are declared by such treaties to be piracy, be arraigned, tried, convicted, and punished in the courts of the United States. Finally, citizens of the United States who are engaged in the slave trade are declared by the statute of 1820 to be pirates, and upon conviction are to suffer death.
These are the existing laws concerning piracy. The general rule, that robbery on the high seas is piracy, has no exception or qualification in favor of commissioned privateers in any act of congress, or in the law of nations; and accordingly a privateer bearing a commission of the United States, who feloniously seized the goods of a neutral, that is to say, robbed him on the high seas, was adjudged a pirate. A recent act (Aug. 5, 1861) makes vessels built, purchased, fitted out, or held for piratical acts subject to seizure and condemnation, whether any act of piracy has been committed or attempted from such vessel or not.