Piracy Act 1698
|Long title||An Act for the more effectual Suppression of Piracy.|
|Citation||11 Will 3 c 7|
The Piracy Act 1698 (11 Will 3 c 7) was an Act of the Parliament of England passed in the eleventh year of King William III. The long title of the Act is "An Act for the more effectual suppression of Piracy". 
The main purpose behind the statute was to make some corrections to the Offences at Sea Act 1536 (28 Hen 8, c. 15). The 1700 statute states that “it hath been found by experience” that the courts met with “great trouble and charges in sending them into England” to be tried for their crimes or cannot easily “be questioned for such their piracies and robberies” because this was the necessary measure for enforcing the law under the statute of Henry the VIII. The 1700 statute changed this law to allow for acts of piracy to be “examined, inquired of, tried, heard and determined, and adjudged in any place at sea, or upon the land, in any of his Majesty’s islands, plantations, colonies, dominions, forts, or factories”. This enabled admirals to hold a court session to hear the trials of pirates in any place they deemed necessary, rather than requiring that the trial be held in England.
The statute then proceeds to explain what is required for these admiralty court sessions to function, how they will run, and what powers that statute grants to the commissioners. The commissioners can “call and assemble a court of admiralty when and as often as occasion shall require”. In addition, these courts shall consist of at least seven people who “are known merchants, factors, or planters, or such as are captains, lieutenants, or warrant officers” and who are “fitting and voting in the said court”. The statute also grants the commissioners of these vice-admiralty courts with “full power and authority” to issue warrants, summon the necessary witnesses, and “to do all thing necessary for the hearing and final determination of any case of piracy, robbery, or felony”. The statute then moves to instruct the commissioners on the proceedings of the courts in a significant amount of detail ranging from the oath that the president of the court must take, what actions were to be taken upon pleas of guilty or not guilty, and how to examine witnesses and give sentence.
In addition, the statute adds additional instances, not listed in the Offences at Sea Act of 1536, which expanded the legal definition of piracy as a capital crime. The first of these includes any subject of the crown who commits any act of piracy “under colour of any commission from any foreign prince or state.” Additionally, any commander who “piratically and feloniously run away with his or their ships", anyone who may “consult, combine, or confederate” with any pirates, or “shall lay violent hands upon his commander whereby to hinder him from fighting” pirates who may be attempting to capture their vessel.
This statute also added the offence of being an accessory to piracy. Under the 1700 statute, any individual who may “knowingly or willingly … aid and assist, or maintain, procure, command, counsel, or advise” and persons to commit any act of piracy “shall be deemed and adjudged to be accessory to such piracy”. This title of accessory was also extended to any persons who “receive, entertain, or conceal any such pirate or robber”. These accessories “shall be enquired of, tried, heard, determined, and adjudged” following the statute of 1536 by Henry VIII and “shall suffer such pains of death” just as the pirates themselves would.
The majority of the cases tried under these admiralty courts followed the exact proceedings laid out in the 1700 statute. In addition, most pirates appeared to have been given a fair trial because, if the accused could not be confirmed to have taken part in the said piracy by witness testimony, they were often acquitted. However, in the admiralty court, murder was almost always considered the more serious charge. In fact, during a 1737 case in which Edward Johnson and Nicholas Williams were being tried, the Counsel proceeded with the murder charge after stating: “I will not touch upon the Piracy, that will come under your consideration hereafter.” This shows that the Counsel prosecuted the accused for piracy only after the trial for murder was finished.
The death penalty under this Act was abolished by the Piracy Act 1837.
- The citation of this Act by this short title was authorised by section 5 of, and Schedule 2 to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1948. Due to the repeal of those provisions, it is now authorised by section 19(2) of the Interpretation Act 1978.
- These words are printed against this Act in the second column of Schedule 2 to the Statute Law Revision Act 1948, which is headed "Title".
- 'William III, 1698-9: An Act for the more effectual suppression of Piracy. [Chapter VII. Rot. Parl. 11 Gul. III. p. 2. n. 5.]', Statutes of the Realm: volume 7: 1695-1701 (1820), pp. 590-94. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=46966. Date accessed: 16 February 2007.
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online (accessed 29 November 2012), Trial of Edward Johnson, Nicholas Williams, Lawrence Senett, Nicholas Wolf, Pierce Butler, and John Bryan. (t17370224-2, 24 February 1737).
- PDF copy