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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

Pirate Articles
Pirate Links
Book Reviews
Thistles & Pirates

Modern Piracy: 2005 Update
By Cindy Vallar

Past vs. Present
Piracy and the Law
Cost of Piracy
Profiles and Tactics
Combating Piracy

Past versus Present

When did pirates first roam the seas?  While no precise answer to this question exists, historians do know that piracy predates the pyramids of Egypt.  The scourge of mariners and passengers alike, pirates dominated the seas in different places at different times.  In 75 B.C., they kidnapped a young Julius Caesar and demanded a ransom of fifty talents for his release.  Later, he crucified them.  Spain’s wealth from the New World gave rise to sea dogs and buccaneers, who plundered towns and galleons laden with gold, silver, and gems.  Peace between European nations in the early eighteenth century gave rise to the most prolific period in the history of piracy and made legends of pirates such as Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Bartholomew Roberts.  A century later Cheng I Sao commanded a confederation of pirates that threatened to destroy the Chinese Imperial Navy.  After a brief upsurge of piracy in the decades following the War of 1812, pirates faded from history, or so many believed.

In 1992 the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) established the Piracy Reporting Centre (PRC) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  The PRC has maintained statistical records on pirate attacks for fifteen years, and while in 2000 a record high of 469 attacks occurred, 2004 proved to be one of the bloodiest years with the slaying of thirty mariners during 325 acts of piracy.  Half of those sailors were murdered in waters off Nigeria.  According to the first and second quarter Piracy Reports in 2005 that Mark Bruyneel, an independent researcher, compiled, 149 attacks occurred during the first six months of the year.  The majority (51%) occurred in Southeast Asian waters, with African coastal waters coming in second at 20%.  Other parts of the world where pirates prey, according to IMB’s statistics, include America 7%, Asia 1%, the Far East 4%, and India 17%.  From 19-25 July 2005, the PRC’s Weekly Piracy Report noted attacks around Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Malacca Straits, the Singapore Straits, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, Somalia, West Africa, Brazil, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Peru.

Although the number of attacks during the first six months of 2005 was less than those that occurred during the same period in 2004, Somalia re-emerged as a danger zone after a lull of nearly two years.  Eight violent incidents were reported between May and July 2005.  Each involved pirates, armed with rifles and grenades, who fired upon the ships and held at least four crews for ransom.  One vessel carried United Nations’ food aid from Japan and Germany to feed tsunami victims in Somalia.  Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of IMB, said, “Pirates operating off the Somali coast have become increasingly audacious, routinely seizing vessels well outside territorial limits and forcing them closer to the lawless shore.  Demands for ransom are higher than ever before and negotiations for the release of vessels and crew are often difficult and prolonged.”1  No one has died yet, but thirteen were injured in the attacks2 and 176 have been taken hostage3.

Many centuries have passed since pirates first attacked sailing vessels, but similarities exist between the past and the present.  Regardless of time, piracy thrives when three requirements are met:

  • Somewhere to prowl.  In the sixteenth century, Spanish ships laden with treasures from the Americas and the Far East enticed pirates to hunt in the Caribbean.  Today, they favor tankers filled with products easily sold on the black market--palm oil, diesel fuel, steel.
  • Low risk of detection.  In ancient times, a favorite hunting ground was the Mediterranean.  The Caribbean proved lucrative during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Today, piracy thrives in the Malacca Straits and South China Sea.
  • A safe haven.  Tortuga and Port Royal welcomed buccaneers of old.  Today, Indonesia’s 17,508 islands provide ideal hiding places.  Marine Colonel Buyung Lelana of the River Mouth Task Force says, “People who are living on the coast always protect them.  The pirates are like Robin Hood.  They always give some of their takings to the people, so people protect them from us.”4
Blunderbuss - weapon of
                pirates of the past

In spite of these similarities, modern pirates differ from their predecessors.  Cutlasses and muskets are no longer their weapons of choice.  They wield automatic rifles and grenade launchers, and utilize modern communications equipment.  Small, high-speed boats have replaced wooden sailing ships.  Pirate crews once averaged one hundred fifty to two hundred men; today they take a prize with thirty men or less because large crews are no longer needed to sail cargo vessels, which usually average less than twenty-five sailors aboard.  Rather than attack any ship that crosses their path as their predecessors did, pirates now tend to plan their attacks.  Some even select their prey before the target vessel leaves port.

AK47 - weapon of modern pirates9mm Assault Pistol

William Kidd after executionThroughout history, most pirates escaped punishment for their crimes.  Those of the Buccaneering Era (1620-1700) and Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730) knew the consequences if caught, but mocked the judicial system by staging pirate trials complete with judge, jury, and accusers.  Sometimes, however, pirate hunters succeeded in bringing the villains to justice--to dance the hempen jig (a hanging) or lose their heads.  Tried and found guilty of murder and piracy, Captain William Kidd was executed, then his body was tarred, placed in an iron cage, and displayed as a warning to others.  Blackbeard’s severed head dangled from the bowsprit of Lieutenant Maynard’s ship, while the legendary pirate’s corpse was dumped overboard.  In 1999, Chinese police arrested thirty-eight pirates who hijacked the Cheung Son and murdered her crew.  The following year thirteen were executed.  The court found six not guilty, but sentenced one to life in prison; the others received sentences of one to twelve years.

On the evening of 5 December 2001, eight armed and hooded pirates boarded the schooner Seamaster near the mouth of the Amazon River.  They believed her passengers were wealthy tourists and didn’t expect their victims to fight back.  One did, though.  Sir Peter Blake, who twice won the America’s Cup, died from two bullet wounds.  Local police captured seven of the intruders, who were eventually sentenced to thirty-seven years in prison.

Although most reports of piracy involve commercial vessels, pirates also attack yachts.  Klaus Hympendahl had heard vague reports about such attacks, but ignored them until he began collecting data for his book, Pirates Aboard!   “What I’d considered impossible had overnight become a painful reality…pirates were back on the high seas and…being informed was a matter of life and death for cruising sailors.”5  In 1996 he established the International Centre of Blue Water Sailors, and since then has recorded about two hundred attacks on yachts.  He believes, however, many more go unreported.

In May 2005, the Gandalf sailed off the coast of Yemen in the company of another American yacht.  Two Arab fishing boats, each with two men aboard, approached then fired AK-47s at the Gandalf.  “I saw bullet holes in the mast, the spray hood over the cockpit and in the rubber dinghy.  They were shooting to kill, not to warn.”6   While Carol Martini radioed for help from American naval ships in the area, Joseph Barry tried to outrun the pirates.  When he realized the futility of the attempt, he rammed his steel-hulled boat into one fishing boat, severely damaging it and injuring two of the attackers.  “The ones in the other boat approached [the] stern, still shooting, and were trying to climb on board.”7   At that point the sailor in the other yacht fired his shotgun, injuring the other two pirates, then he and Martini fled the area.

“The truth is that modern piracy…is a violent, ruthless, practice…made the more fearsome by the knowledge on the part of the victims that they are on their own and absolutely defenceless and that no help is waiting just round the corner,” said Captain Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of the IMB, at a piracy seminar held in Singapore in 1999.  Violence, whether actual or implied, has always been a hallmark of pirates.  Nor have their tactics changed much.  Captain Noel Choong, head of IMB’s PRC, says, “They shoot at the ship and if the ship is stupid enough to stop, then they will come aboard and rob the bridge or take the crew hostage.”8

Charles Dragonette, author of the weekly “Worldwide Threat to Shipping Mariner Warning Information” and senior analyst for the Civil Maritime Defense Department at the United States’ Office of Naval Intelligence, recently wrote, “The victims are…the least represented among the world’s seafarers.”9  Boris Kulpe, a yachtsman, agrees.  “When a plane is hijacked, it’s in the news all over the world, and the hijackers can’t expect to get away with it.  But when a yacht or freighter is hijacked, no one cares.”10

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Piracy and the Law
Cicero, a statesman of Ancient Rome, declared pirates to be hostis humani generis, enemies of mankind.  In Of Offenses Against the Law of Nations, Sir William Blackstone, an eighteenth-century English jurist, wrote, “[T]he crime of piracy, or robbery and depredation upon the high seas, is an offense against the universal law of society….”   He believed that a pirate “renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature, by declaring war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him…every community has a right, by the rule of self-defense, to inflict that punishment upon him….”

In ancient times, a person who committed a piratical act was considered a traitor to his country if he attacked a vessel from the nation of his birth.  If his prey belonged to another country, then the deed was considered a felony.  During the time of Henry VIII, however, English law changed and all piracy now fell under common law.  This meant a robber at sea committed the same offense as a thief on land, who had always been charged with a felony.  The legal discrepancy stemmed from what constituted piracy.  The word leistes of Ancient Greece signified a plunderer or armed robber, but failed to specify whether the crime occurred on land or water; peirates specifically applied to a criminal who plied his “trade” on the sea.  An 1853 internal report for the British foreign secretary said:

“[A]ll pirates (whatsoever their origin, or under whatsoever flag or papers they may sail, or to whomsoever their ship may legally belong) will be pirates by the Law of Nations who are guilty of forcible robberies, or captures of ships or goods upon the High Seas without any lawful commission or authority.”11
American law in 1820 defined piracy as robbery at sea, but present-day statutes are more specific: robbery or murder at sea; privately waging war against the United States on the high seas and without the authority of a sovereign; assaulting a commander in defense of his ship during an attack; mutiny; and using a ship to launch attacks upon coastal targets.12

Over the years, many other countries have enacted laws to define piracy, but attempts to reach a universal definition that everyone agrees upon just began in the twentieth century.  Article Fifteen of the Geneva Convention of the High Seas (1958) says piracy consists of:

  • Any illegal acts of violence, detention or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed: (a) On the high seas, against another ship…or against person or property aboard such a ship…; (b) Against a ship…persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;
  • Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship…with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship…;
  • Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph 1 or subparagraph 2 of this article.13
According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is any act of violence, detention, or depredation committed on the high seas or any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation.  Several problems with this definition are that the attack must involve at least two ships (the one belonging to the pirates and their intended prize); personal gain must be the motivating factor for the attack; and the attack must occur on the high seas.  Every nation has its own territorial water that provides a buffer zone between the land itself and international waters.  During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a country’s territorial waters extended as far as a cannon on shore could shoot.  In the early nineteenth century, a nation’s territorial waters were defined as reaching three nautical miles from the coast.  UNCLOS extended those waters to twelve miles.  Charles Dragonette, perhaps, best sums up why this is a problem: “Almost everything that happens in the world of maritime crime that is called piracy, is nothing of the sort…the victim must be in international waters.  By most estimates 95% of all incidents happen in port, alongside or at anchor, or in port approaches when a ship is maneuvering slowly.”14

In October 1985, Palestinian guerillas hijacked the Achille Lauro and demanded the release of fifty countrymen held by the Israelis.  This unlawful seizure of the Italian cruise ship and the murder of an American played a significant role in the formulation of the 1988 Rome Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.  Article Three characterized piracy as any act involving the illegal taking of a vessel; the commission of a violent act against any person aboard that ship; and the destruction of or damage to or threat of doing either to the vessel.  A noteworthy omission from this definition was that the attack must occur on the high seas.  Why?  The incident involving the Achille Lauro took place in Egypt’s territorial waters.  While the Rome Convention defined piracy, it did not outlaw it.  It stipulated that those countries who agreed to adhere to the convention’s dictates must enact their own anti-piracy laws, and these governments must prosecute or extradite pirates and cooperate with other nations in apprehending and prosecuting these criminals.

The IMB disagrees with these narrow definitions of piracy.  This organization believes it is “an act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the attempt or capability to use force in furtherance of that act.”15  It matters not whether the act occurs on the high seas or in territorial waters.  Nor must pirates commit the crime for personal gain.  Also absent from this definition of piracy is the requirement that an attack must involve at least two ships.

In the past, pirates influenced international politics, participated in wars, and affected the treasuries of many nations.  England and France used them to protect their colonies in the Caribbean islands.  Grace O’Malley, an Irish pirate during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, nearly bankrupted England; Sir Francis Drake’s raids on Spanish towns and treasure ships robbed King Philip II of much needed monies to finance his armada.  Over time, however, the attitude toward pirates changed, especially once they interfered with commerce to such a degree that the victims complained enough to force governments to take action against the pirates.  The intent, as the Reverend Cotton Mather said in November 1717, was to “extirpate them out of the World.”16  Yet, piracy continues to the present day, and without an internationally accepted legal definition, countries will continue to face the difficult challenge of bringing pirates to justice and to wage “a perpetual War with every Individual.”17

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Cost of Piracy
Venice, Italy once thrived as a commercial center.  In the late sixteenth century, however, pirates attacked Venetian ships in the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas.  Between 1592 and 1609 they seized between two hundred fifty and three hundred ships, almost as many as were shipwrecked.  As a result insurance rates more than doubled, if anyone was willing to insure the goods in the first place.  “It is estimated that from an expected return of 10,000 ducats on a voyage in 1607, 8,500 would have been consumed in expenses for port dues, soldiers, sailors, and insurance.”18  Eventually, the Venetians turned away from sea trade and found other means to make a living.

During 1688, two hundred thirteen merchant ships put in at Port Royal, Jamaica, a safe haven for pirates.  New England ports saw only two hundred twenty-six vessels that same year.  The thriving Caribbean port’s main rival after 1670 was Boston, Massachusetts until calamity struck Port Royal in June 1692.  Sixty-six percent of the city sank beneath the water during an earthquake, killing about two thousand people instantly.  Eleven years later fire swept through the city.  Today, it’s “an isolated place at the end of a long sand spit.”19

Regardless of whether events are man-made or natural, they impact our lives, as evidenced by the rapid rise of gas prices as a result of Hurricane Katrina.  The same holds true for piracy; “the losses may be considered as immediate, both direct and indirect, and as dynamic, resulting from the adverse effects on future production.”20  When pirates attack, they seize ships and/or cargo and sometimes kill or wound sailors.  As a result of frequent attacks, shipping costs increase, and prices consumers pay for merchandise rise.  An example of how piracy affects maritime trade can be seen in the waters off Yemen.  In 2002 “[m]aritime insurers tripled the premiums they charge tankers passing through Yemeni waters….”21  The cost to insure the ship, not the cargo, for a typical supertanker that carries two million barrels of oil, jumped from $150,000 to $450,000 for a single trip.  Just that increase translated into an additional “15 cents a barrel to the delivered cost of the oil….”22

Hijacking a ship and holding crew members for ransom has gained popularity among pirates of late.  This, too, has an economic impact on maritime commerce.  In January 2002, pirates seized the Princess Sarah, a cargo ship sailing off Somalia.  They demanded a $200,000 ransom for eighteen mariners.  After two weeks and receipt of $50,000, the pirates released their hostages.  Armed pirates captured the Cherry 201, a tanker sailing from South Africa to Indonesia, in January 2004.  Their ransom demand equated to $10,000 in American dollars.  The ship owner only paid a portion of the money, so the pirates, believed to be affiliated with GAM (the Free Aceh Movement), killed four hostages.

To protect the cargo, ship, and sailors, ship owners can hire naval security firms like Background Asia Risk Solutions.  This company, based in Singapore, conducts about six escort missions each month for $100,000 per mission.  How does that compare to the going ransom rate for a kidnapped captain in the waters off Singapore?  On average the ship owner pays $120,000 to get him released from captivity.

Maritime commerce is roughly a two-trillion-dollar industry, and from an economic perspective, piracy barely makes a dent in it.  Since only 40-60% of attacks are actually reported in any given year and no one keeps statistics on the cost of piracy, any attempt to put a price tag on it is only a rough estimate.  Jack Gottschalk and Brian Flanagan, authors of Jolly Roger with an Uzi (Naval Institute Press, 2000), calculated the loss at thirty-two cents per ten thousand dollars of goods shipped in 1997.  Alan Chan, owner of Petroships in Singapore, lost an oil tanker to Indonesian pirates in 1999.  “He estimates that insurance premiums jumped about 30%” between then and 2001, and “tallies the cost of piracy at about $500 million a year, as shippers like him are scuttled by higher premiums, delays, and added onboard security costs.”23  In 2002 the estimated price tag of piracy to world trade reached sixteen billion dollars.  Between 1997 and 2002, Japan estimated the cost to industry for its country alone at close to $24,000,000.

During the first three quarters of 2004, the incidents of piracy worldwide dropped twenty-seven percent from the previous year.  The number of attacks in the Malacca and Singapore Straits during the same three quarters, however, rose thirty percent.  “The increase in both the number and lethality of piracy attacks have driven up shipping costs through higher insurance rates….  Estimates of the cost of pirate attacks have put it around US$250 million a year.”24

Ships could avoid Southeast Asian waters, where piracy is a major problem, but doing so adds four days of travel time at a per-trip cost of $500,000.  After an attack on a French oil tanker in the waters off Yemen in October 2002, insurance rates for any ship wishing to put into a Yemeni port rose an additional $150,000.  One option to avoid paying such increases would be to detour around pirate-infested waters in the Middle East, but that “could cause up to three or four weeks’ extra shipping time, the same period many companies have inventory for,”25 says Dominic Armstrong, the research chief for Aegis Defence Services in London.  As a result, the company might find itself “with no goods to sell and no money coming in, producing a devastating--perhaps terminal--cash crunch.”26

A shipowner, who attended the Fourth International Meeting of Piracy and Phantom Ships in Malaysia in June 2001, said, “It has been estimated that losses in piracy amount to about sixteen billion dollars U.S.  The total sum of sixteen billion means roughly two and half dollars for every human being.  That is for one year and that is the cost to the world.”27

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Profiles and Tactics
“How is it physically possible for anyone to steal an object that is larger than a city building, operated by a couple dozen men and women, and carries a cargo worth millions?  …It is easier than hijacking a truck.”28  The stealing of a ship might seem like a new tactic for pirates, but it resembles what pirates of the past did.  Since vessels weren’t built expressly for piratical use, the villains stole their vessels.  They converted them to fit their needs and renamed them.  Bartholomew Roberts acquired his last ship, Royal Fortune, when he seized the Royal Africa Company’s OnslowBlackbeard captured a French slave ship, adapted and renamed her Queen Anne’s Revenge.  Although modern pirates have other uses for hijacked ships, they sometimes alter a vessel’s appearance to make the ship disappear.  A pirate captain and his crew, from Babi Island in Indonesia, hijacked a Thai tanker laden with palm oil in 2001.  After marooning the captain and crew on a deserted island off Sumatra, the pirates gave the ship a new coat of paint and put “a new English name over the Thai lettering on the bow.”29  A Hong Kong syndicate arranged forged papers for the ship under her new name, and she disappeared.

Not all pirates fall under the category of “professional,” as those who took the tanker do.  For some, piracy is a necessity--the only way they can survive.  This is particularly true for those who live in Third World countries, where natural disasters and political unrest play major roles in a nation’s economic instability.  Poverty and violence thrive, and both breed piracy.  The lack of effective law enforcement compounds the situation.  “Much of it [piracy] occurs where trading patterns bring considerable numbers of merchant ships into contact with the developing world where there are large numbers of people still living at a low subsistence level.”30  For example, Indonesia has an unemployment rate of 9.2%; 27% of its population lives below the poverty line; and inflation stands at 6.1%.31  To complicate these problems, the tsunami in December 2004 caused massive destruction.  Pirates are often fishermen who steal ship’s stores, food, and personal items, oftentimes from yachts, which they believe rich tourists own.  If armed, these thieves most likely carry machetes.  Some, however, have guns.  This type of piracy is unorganized and more often than not, a crime of opportunity.

Another classification of perpetrators is the pirate gang.  Depending on the level of organization, they arm themselves with automatic weapons, grenade launchers, pistols, and knives.  They threaten their victims with bodily harm, and sometimes carry out the threat.  Hijackings may fall under this category, as do seizures of ships with the intent to hold the victims for ransom.  If the pirates’ intent is to rob the crew and abscond with money from the ship’s safe, they may only pillage the living quarters then leave.  If they intend to hijack the ship or kidnap the crew, they often lock up their victims.

This type of piracy flourishes in Somalia in part because “[n]umerous warlords and factions are still fighting for control of the capital city as well as for other southern regions.”32  The gang that hijacked the United Nations’ food relief ship on 26 June 2005 demanded $500,000 to free the cargo vessel and her ten crew members.  The Director of the UN World Food Program gave the pirates forty-eight hours to release the ship, its cargo, and her crew or he would blacklist the area for the ten years.  The gang’s leader, Mohamed Abdi Hassan, denied the ransom demand.  He impounded the vessel because she lacked proper documentation.  While he released the eight sailors from Kenya on 1 August, he detained the captain, who was a Sri Lankan, and the single Tanzanian crew member.

The most sophisticated pirate attacks usually involve hijacking the entire ship.  Sometimes the pirates confine the crew for a time, then set them adrift.  Other times, they murder their victims.  After the cargo is offloaded, the ship is set adrift and the pirates escape, or the vessel becomes a phantom ship.  While the latter is the rarest type of piracy, it is often the most brutal.  “The hijacking of a whole ship and the resale of its cargo requires a mother ship from which to launch the attacks, a supply of automatic weapons, false identity papers for the crew and vessel, fake cargo documents, and a broker network to sell the stolen goods illegally.  Individual pirates don’t have these resources.  Hijackings are the work of organized crime rings.”33

Maritime security experts have identified seven phases to a typical ambush.

1. Stalk
2. Site
3. Stop
4. Shock
5. Smother
6. Secure, search, and snatch
7. Scram34
In essence the pirates do any necessary reconnaissance of the intended victim.  After planning their attack, they move into position to launch the operation.  They approach the ship in high-speed boats from the stern, then board the vessel and storm the bridge.  After disabling communications, they round up the crew.  They conduct a search of the ship and seize their targets (plunder and/or hostages).  Then they depart.

A favorite target for pirates of late are tug boats and their barges, particularly in Indonesian waters.  On 3 July 2005, Sumdra Sindo VIII and her barge, Aganda 7, waited for a berth in a Malaysian port to offload palm oil.  Masked pirates armed with guns and knives seized the ship, took the crew hostage, then siphoned off the cargo onto the MT Palm Chem.  Later, police discovered the cargo vessel and arrested her crew.  Tugs and barges make ideal prey because they move slowly, have few sailors aboard, and hug the coastline.  If pirates don’t want the cargo, they usually hold the crew for ransom.  Yoshihiko Yamada, Maritime Affairs Department of the Nippon Foundation, believes the pirates target these vessels and their crews because of anti-piracy measures instituted on larger ships.35

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Combating Piracy
When I first wrote about modern piracy in 2000, I did not find much information on anti-piracy measures or their successes.  The PRC was only eight years old, and bringing pirates to justice wasn’t a high priority for many countries.  A few conferences had been held to discuss the problem of piracy, especially in Southeast Asia.  Ships could follow certain procedures to lessen the risk of being boarded, but not all vessels had protocols in place to thwart an attack.  ShipLoc, a satellite tracking system, had just come on the market, as had Lorica’s Armoured Lifevest, which protects the wearer from knife and bullet attacks.  Five years later, more governments are taking actions to combat piracy.  This maritime crime won’t be eradicated anytime soon, but cooperation and initiatives show an inroad into curbing attacks and bringing pirates to justice.

IMB continues to lead the fight against piracy.  A bureau within the International Chamber of Commerce since 1981, they are charged with fighting maritime crime.  While their PRC doesn’t have the authority to apprehend pirates, it receives reports on attacks, alerts naval and marine law enforcement officials, broadcasts piracy alerts to ships worldwide, and coordinates searches for hijacked vessels.  On 17 March 2002, seventeen pirates hijacked MT Han Wei.  After forcing the crew to abandon the vessel, the pirates offloaded her cargo.  In May, the Royal Thai Marine Police, with the assistance of the PRC, recovered the ship.  Pirates attacked the Indonesian tug Christian and the barge it towed in December 2004.  Information from IMB and the ships’ owners led the Royal Malaysian Marine Police (RMMP) to the two vessels, which now flew the Belize flag and had new names.  The nine crew members remain missing, but police did detain three pirates.

The most effective anti-piracy measures are those carried out aboard a ship.  The goal is to stop pirates before they board.  On 29 May 2004, three speedboats approached a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) tanker in the Malacca Straits.  After forty minutes of being tailed, the LPG’s crew scared off the pirates by sounding the ship’s whistle and shining search lights on the villains.  In late October, the crew of a containership turned on their fire hoses and the vessel increased speed after sighting four boats.  Once again, the crew foiled the armed pirates’ intent.  Even yachts should have some procedures to put into effect if approached by suspicious craft.  Such defensive measures might mean the difference between life and death.  James C. Wiener of the Austria says, “Every boat that approached us met with a very powerful spotlight.  We shined our combined flashlight beams right in their faces.  In that way, they didn’t know how big our boat was, whether we were carrying guns, or how many of us were standing behind the spotlight.  The pirates always turned tail fast and we weren’t harassed.  They might have been just fishermen, but, really, would a fisherman approach a solitary, anchored yacht in the dark?”36

One of the newer inventions to protect sailors and cargo is the Secure-Ship System.  This collapsible electric fence is mounted around the deck, and can be activated in its entirety or by zones on either side of the ship.  When triggered, it turns on the lights and activates alarms and sirens to alert the crew.  Anyone who touches the fence receives a 9,000-volt shock, painful but not fatal.  The fence works in all types of weather and salt water doesn’t affect it.  It is suitable for use on any ship except those carrying flammable materials such as oil.  “All but the most determined pirates will quickly take their activities elsewhere when faced with an electric fence.  This anti-boarding device will also prevent stowaways, deterring illegal immigration and possibly thwarting would-be terrorists,” says Captain Pottengal Mukundan, Director of IMB.37

A key component to fighting piracy is for governments to get involved.  Cooperation between different nations is also important because states’ rights prevent one country from pursuing pirates into the territorial waters of another.  While “hot pursuits” have yet to be allowed, nations where piracy is rife are making the fight against pirates a top priority, and they have initiated cooperative programs to tackle the problem.

Since 2001 Japan has taken an active role in combating piracy in Asian waters.  The country deploys patrol vessels in the region and has proposed new anti-piracy measures.  It works with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to persuade the member nations to work together to curb piracy.  In 2005 Singapore, Laos, and Cambodia signed the Japanese Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP).  Japan hopes that China, South Korea, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh will also sign.  An important aspect of this agreement includes the establishment of the Information Sharing Centre in Singapore, but ReCAAP won’t become effective until three months after ten nations have signed the agreement.  Japan also came to Indonesia’s aid in March 2005, giving that nation several dozen boats to patrol its coastal waters.

Indonesia, where fifty reported incidents occurred in 2004 and forty-three were reported between January and June 2005, has also stepped up to the plate.  Admiral Bernard Kent Sondakh, Chief of Naval Staff, is working to modernize the navy and to promote programs that limit maritime crime.38  Two Navy Control Command Centres will respond to armed hijackings and piracy.

Malaysia erected radar tracking stations along the Malacca Straits to monitor maritime traffic.  The country also acquired new patrol boats, and the RMMP cruise on a regular basis to limit attacks.  With the upsurge in attacks on tugboats and barges, armed and uniformed police officers randomly sail on these vessels while in Malaysian waters.  On 13 June 2005, ten pirates hijacked the oil tanker Nepline Delima and took the crew hostage.  Mohamed Hamid, however, hid from the pirates, then took one of their speedboats to alert the RMMP, who located the tanker six hours later.  After another six hours of negotiations, the ten pirates surrendered.  All pled guilty and face caning and up to twenty years in jail.  Two of the tanker’s crew were also detained on suspicion of abetting the pirates.  The owner of one of the speedboats was also arrested.

With an integrated surveillance system and information network, Singapore tracks and investigates suspicious marine activity.  The navy and coast guard have increased patrols and escort merchant ships carrying expensive cargoes as they travel the Singapore Straits.  The government has reworked shipping routes to limit the navigation of merchant vessels in close proximity to small craft.  It implemented the International Ships and Port Facility Security Code and signed the 1988 Rome Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.  Singapore also works with Malaysia to reduce piracy in the Malacca Straits.  Before this coordination began there were seventy-five attacks in 2000.  A year later only eleven incidents were reported.

On 20 July 2004, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia launched Operation MALSINDO.  Seventeen ships from these countries patrol their respective territorial waters year-round to curb piracy and prevent maritime terrorism.  In addition, communications between their three naval command centers has improved through the use of a hotline.  Vessels sailing these waters are given radio frequencies that provide direct contact with naval vessels in case of an attack.  Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Najib Razak says, “[W]e have been successful in reducing pirate attacks by about 25% from previous years.”39  In September 2005, the three countries began joint air patrols, as well.

Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom conducted exercises to hunt down and board hijacked ships in the South China Sea in September 2004.  In 2005 Thailand and India agreed to cooperate in patrolling the waters adjacent to the Malacca Straits to limit piracy and smuggling.  After two Italian merchantmen were attacked off Somalia within seven days of each other, Italy’s navy sent patrol vessels to the region in August 2005 to conduct surveillance and deter future attacks.  They also escort Italian ships through pirate-infested waters where the risk of attack is greatest.

These are but a few of the efforts, alone and together, that countries are implementing to counter piracy.  It’s a start, but much more must be done, especially coordinated efforts, if we hope to successfully suppress piracy.

Comprehensive list of sources on modern piracy

1. "IMB Report Finds Piracy Declining," IMB Press Release (20 July 2005).
2. "Sea Piracy Plummets Worldwide," Muzi.com (19 July 2005).
3. See #1.
4. "Tsunami may have washed away pirate problem," Reuters (10 February 2005).
5. Klaus Hympendahl. Pirates Aboard! 40 Cases of Piracy Today and What Bluewater Cruisers Can Do About It. Sheridan, 2003, 3.
6. Crittenden, Jules. "Couple outwits pirates: High seas drama," Boston Herald (7 June 2005).
7. Ibid.
8. See #4.
9. Charles N. Dragonette. Marine History Information Exchange Group discussion, Pirates of the Third Millennium, posted to list on 10 August 2003.
10. Hympendahl, page 242.
11. Scott D. Banker. Enemies of Mankind: the Developing Threat of Modern Maritime Piracy and Terrorism. Southwest Missouri State University, 2003, 7.
12. Ibid.
13. Justin S. C. Meller. “Missing the Boat: the Legal and Practical Problems of the Prevention of Maritime Terrorism,” American University International Law Review, 18:34 (2002), 376-377.
14. Dragonette.
15. Banker, page 13.
16. Marcus Rediker. Villains of All Nations. Beacon Press, 2004, 127.
17. Rhode Island prosecutor John Valentine’s words during trial of 36 pirates in 1723. Rediker, 128.
18. John L. Anderson. “Piracy and World History: an Economic Perspective on Maritime Predation,” Bandits at Sea. New York University, 2001, 87.
19. Donny L. Hamilton. “History of Port Royal,” The Port Royal Project. 2001.
20. Anderson, 85.
21. Ali M. Koknar. “Buccaneers to Revolutionaries: Modern Day Maritime Piracy and Terrorism,” The Capital Chatter Newsletter (March 2004), 11.
22. Ibid.
23. Eric Ellis. “Singapore’s New Straits: Piracy on the High Seas is on the Rise in Southeast Asia,” Fortune International Asia Edition (29 September 2003), 24.
24. Joshua Ho. “The Security of Sea Lanes in Southeast Asia,” Military Technology (May 2005), 15.
25. Simon Elegant. “Dire Straits,” Time Asia (29 November 2004).
26. Ibid.
27. John S. Burnett. Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas.
     Dutton, 2002, page 271.
28. Ibid., page 224.
29. Alex Perry. “Buccaneer Tales in the Pirates’ Lair,” Time Asia, 2001.
30. Banker, page 47.
31. Unemployment and inflation are 2004 estimates, and the percentage for those living below the poverty line is from 1999.  CIA World Factbook (30 August 2005).
32. CIA World Factbook (9 August 2005).
33. Banker, 58.
34. Ibid., 54.
35. Bruyneel, Mark. Piracy Reports in 2005: April-June.
36. Hympendahl, 202.
37. “Electric fence for ships steps up fight against pirates,” ICC Commercial Crime Services press release (23 January 2003). [http://www.iccwbo.org/icccbdd/index.html -- link no longer active -- 7/30/2015]
38. Ho, 16.
39. “Enhancing Maritime Security Cooperation.” Speech given at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore on 5 June 2005. [http://www.pacom.mil/speeches/sst2005/050606-emsi-shangrila.shtml -- link no longer active 7/30/2015]


© 2005 Cindy Vallar
Originally written for No Quarter Given  - September and November 2005

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