“The stigma of piracy,” writes Sugata Bose, “has provoked heated historical and political debate without always shedding much new light on its meaning and substance.” As a stigma, it has not only misrepresented the morality and motives of so-called pirates, but has also succeeded in ascribing an air of criminality to their activities, in an absence of any law that would actually have made it so. Moreover, recounting the spectacles of piracy in world history once nourished a faltering vision of imperial triumph, in which the maritime violence of empires, particularly the British Empire, was seen to be a wonderful thing. Since then, naval history has run aground, while other historians have begun to confront some of the questions head on: what is a “pirate,” and what made its violence illegitimate relative to the power of sovereign states? Most important to the present article is questioning how piracy developed into a central pillar of maritime-imperial expansion. Was it, as Bose suggests, part of a wider “extraterritorial and universalist anticolonialism” within the Indian Ocean arena, or was it merely an oppositional fantasy that legitimised sea power against a ubiquitous and ill-defined foe?