Hostis Humani Generis’ — The Pirate as Outlaw in the Early Modern Law of the Sea

  • Christopher Harding
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The purpose of this discussion is to explore the legal perception of maritime piracy, primarily with reference to English source material, during the period 1550–1650. How was piracy characterized and defined as a matter of legal regulation and what was the nature and extent of the enforcement of such law dealing with piracy during that period? The starting point for this enquiry is the conventional legal view of maritime piracy as a distinctive form of criminal behaviour. According to this view, historically piracy has represented an unusual case of personal and individual behaviour directly subject to rules of international as well as national law, as a species of ‘international crime’, the pirate being the ‘enemy of all humankind’ — ‘hostis humani generis’. In accounts of legal history and international law, this categorization has elevated the pirate offender to a special status, as an exceptional and serious kind of criminal, whose behaviour has been subject to universal condemnation — almost a precursor of the archetypal international criminal of the later twentieth century, the war criminal. First this chapter considers the validity of this standard depiction of the pirate as an exceptional type of criminal, before examining in more detail the early modern legal view of piracy. My argument will seek to qualify and clarify what is often understood by the description ‘hostis humani generis’, and then point to the ambivalent view of piratical activity during the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth centuries, prior to the much more definite criminalization of piracy at the turn of the eighteenth century.


Seventeenth Century International Crime Universal Jurisdiction Early Modern Period Territorial Jurisdiction 
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© Christopher Harding 2007

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  • Christopher Harding

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