Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
Somalia's Piracy Problem?
Send in More Pirates
By Keith Thomson, author of Pirates of Pensacola
If, like me, you regularly read the International Maritime Bureau's Live Piracy Report – a sort of maritime police blotter – the news of the pirate attacks off the east coast of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden has grown tiresome. In the past decade, there has been a seemingly exponential increase in piracy. And not by the sort of pirates you and I are fans of: the ones with peg legs and drunken parrots, the ones who are cutthroats, figuratively—not murderers. The pirates in Somalia are giving our pirates a bad rap.
If, like me, you are a regular reader of Pirates & Privateers, the Somalia solution is obvious: Letters of marque and reprisal.
As you'll recall, in seventeenth century, piracy had exploded on the Spanish Main, due to its seaways’ placement smack on European merchant ship routes. Like the administrations in and around Somalia today (NATO notwithstanding), the European governments then lacked both the unity and the funds necessary to create an adequate patrol fleet. They effectively threw up their hands and adopted a policy of “if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em.” Pirates were designated “privateers” when they bought or were otherwise granted letters of marque and reprisal by their own governments. These were essentially licenses to raid and seize ships belonging to parties with whom the issuing nation was at odds.
The system worked effectively, analogous to modern bounty hunting except the privateers were de facto government employees. In fact many received colonial political appointments. The greatest, perhaps, the pirate captain Henry Morgan, was awarded the lieutenant governorship of Jamaica, as well as a knighthood (and, of course, the enduring adulation of rum drinkers). Another pirate, Lancelot Blackburne, ascended as far as Archbishop of York.
Letters of marque and reprisal exist to this day. The Marque and Reprisal Act of 2007, brought before Congress, sought authorization for “the President to issue letters of marque and reprisal to commission privately armed and equipped persons and entities to seize outside of the United States the person and property of Osama bin Laden, of any al Qaeda co-conspirator, and any conspirator with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda who are responsible for . . . air[craft] piratical aggressions against the United States . . ."
Of course, the pirate game has changed since the days of Blackbeard, whose signature method of intimidation was placing lit matches in his hair and beard so it appeared to his adversaries that his head was spouting fire. Whereas today they might simply call Bellevue, in that less media-savvy time, they took him for Satan and leapt overboard.
John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur, who along with Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers created Talk Like A Pirate Day in 1995, is quick to draw a distinction between today’s “real evil pirates attacking cruise ships” and the pirates he celebrates. “When you say ‘pirate,’ you almost always are talking about the buccaneers of the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy, roughly 1650 to 1715,” he says. “You’re talking about the stereotypical seafaring adventurer, a rogue and a rebel and a rascal rather than a bloody handed knave – even though that’s what they often really were. That’s what we celebrate when we dress up in a puffy shirt and tricorn and bucket boots, strapping a cutlass to our sides. Or when we open the collar of our business shirt, wrap the silk tie around our heads and say, ‘Aaarrrr!’ It’s a fantasy – but it’s a fantasy with an edge. It’s all about the freedom of the filibuster, the adventure. And in this buttoned-down, corporate world how often do you get to swagger?”
Adds Richard Zacks, author of the best-seller Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd, “I think the Somali pirates are spoiling piracy for the rest of us. Even authors such as yours truly who have spent years in rare book rooms chronicling authentic pirates can’t help but have a little Treasure Island/Johnny Depp/Capt. Jack Sparrow in our psyches. I mean, many of the pirate myths are indeed accurate: foul-mouthed, lecherous, booze-crazed youngish men on the prowl for under-manned merchant ships full of portable treasure, preferably gold. I'm sorry but these little motorboats full of Kalashnikov-toting Somalis, ready to negotiate a cell phone ransom, just don't make for a good new chapter for Robert Louis Stevenson.”
The new generation of privateers would likely consist of maritime private security forces, like Miami's McRoberts Maritime Security. I spoke to Michael Lee, a former Lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard and now McRoberts’ Assistant Vice President. Citing Southeast Asia’s Malacca Straits as an applicable case study, he said, “A private security company was hired, and over a short period of time, just the show of force decreased piracy.”
Indeed, after McRoberts sailed onto the scene, pirate attacks there dropped from 79 in 2005 to 50 in 2006. From 2009-2011, there were a total of just five incidents.
Here’s hoping the powers that be take similar action in Somalia, and that the sometimes-good name of pirates will be restored.
To learn more about Keith Thomson and his books, visit him at his website. You'll find my review of his book, Pirates of Pensacola, it's here. You can also visit Keith at his official author page.
If you would like to read more about Somali piracy, Cindy recommends the following resources:
Bahadur, Jay. The Pirates of Somalia: Inside Their Hidden World. Pantheon, 2011.
Baldauf, Scott. “Does a Military Solution for Somali Piracy Work?”, The Christian Science Monitor 9 May 2012.
Brewer, James. “Somali Piracy: The Quest for a Solution Continues,” MaritimeSecurity.Asia 14 February 2013
Chandler, Paul and Rachel. Hostage: A Year at Gunpoint with Somali Pirates. Chicago Review Press, 2012.
Coping with Capture: Hostage Handbook on Somali Pirates. Danish Maritime Officers, 2012.
Corbett, Peter. A Modern Plague of Pirates: Modern Piracy in the 21st Century. Offshore and Marine Publications, 2009.
“Ending Somali Piracy Will Need On-shore Solutions and International Support to Rebuild Somalia,” The World Bank 11 April 2013.
“Foreign Solutions to Piracy Abound,” Somalia Report 14 March 2011.
“IMB Adds Its Voice to Calls for Further Action to Curb Somali Piracy,” ICC Commercial Crime Services 8 March 2011.
IMB Piracy Reporting Centre
Live IMB Piracy and Armed Robbery Map
Lusztyk, Andrew. “Somali Piracy: The Solution is on Land, Not at Sea,” The Globe and Mail 21 July 2011.
Marley, David F. Modern Piracy: A Reference Handbook. ABC-Clio, 2011.
McKnight, Terry. Pirate Alley: Commanding Task Force 151 off Somalia. Naval Institute Press, 2012.
Modern Piracy Resources (bibliography)
Murphy, Martin N. Somalia, the New Barbary?: Piracy and Islam in the Horn of Africa. Columbia University, 2011.
Plumer, Brad. “Economics of Somali Piracy,” The Washington Post 3 March 2013.
Ron Paul on “Letters of Marque and Reprisal”
Szabo, Christopher. “Op-Ed: A Possible Solution to Somali Piracy,” Digital Journal 24 September 2011.
Copyright © 2013 Keith Thomson
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