Piracy Research Paper

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Piracy on the high seas—the theft of a ship’s cargo, the ship itself, and the violence or kidnapping it involves—has existed since ancient times. In the twenty-first century piracy poses an ever-greater threat, costing commercial shipping enterprises billions, disrupting international trade, and endangering lives.

According to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is any illegal act “of violence or detention . . . committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed . . . on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft.” This definition is the product of high-level deliberations in an age of nation-states, but it captures the essence of piratical activity throughout history. Because of their mobility, their tendency to operate in places frequented by commercial shipping, and the fact that the theft of a ship’s cargo—and often of the ship itself—disrupts international trade, piracy often has far-reaching implications.

The tendency to romanticize pirates as a class of seagoing Robin Hoods tends to obscure the violent and criminal nature of their actions. Certainly no victim of modern piracy speaks fondly of his or her assailants. It is true, however, that pirates generally create and operate within hierarchies that are relatively flat when compared with those of commercial shippers, privateers, and navies. In the eighteenth century, for instance, the distribution of prize money, for instance, was more equitable than it was among privateers or naval sailors, where the share system favored officers, shareholders or the government. Likewise, there have always been divergent views of piratical behavior. In the first century BCE, Cicero held that a pirate “is not specified as belonging to the ranks of combatants, but is a foe in all men’s eyes,” (Walsh 2001, 121) a sentiment echoed by the seventeenth-century English jurist Sir Edward Coke, who called pirates the enemy of mankind. A contrary perspective is found in St. Augustine’s City of God, which relates a conversation between Alexander the Great (Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 BCE) and a pirate who asks: “How darest thou molest the whole world? But because I do with a little ship only, I am called a thief: thou doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor” (Pennell 2001, 25). Modern practice follows Cicero and Coke, and “enemy of humankind” (hostis humani generis) is used today not only to describe pirates but also in reference to people engaged in terrorism, torture, and genocide.

The conditions in which piracy flourishes make the concept of legality difficult to pin down. One classification of maritime predation distinguishes between parasitic, intrinsic, and episodic forms. Of these, only parasitic qualifies as pure piracy conducted without any legal constraints, such as was found in the Caribbean and western Atlantic during the classic age of piracy, from about 1650 to 1725. This was the era of flags emblazoned with a skull and crossed bones, one of many symbols—albeit a popular one—intended to strike fear in the minds of prospective victims. Government efforts to suppress piracy were every bit as ruthless as the pirates themselves. In 1701 Captain William Kidd, a privateer-turned-pirate wanted for crimes committed in the Indian Ocean, was captured in Boston, hanged at London’s Execution Dock, and displayed at Tilbury Point on the River Thames as a warning to others. Kidd was only one of many early-eighteenth-century pirates who were tried by government authorities anxious to encourage peaceful trade. The ruthless Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, was hunted down and killed in North Carolina in 1718. In Jamaica two years later, Calico Jack Rackam and his consorts Mary Read and Ann Bonny were captured, tried, and sentenced to death. Rackam hanged, but Read and Bonny, both pregnant, were spared; Read died in prison, Bonny’s fate is unknown. The tough measures worked, and within a few years piracy was all but eradicated in the western Atlantic.

An early form of episodic piracy is found in the second century BCE, when Cilician pirates from Asia Minor evolved from relatively small groups into a full-fledged navy that fought against Rome in the Mithridatic Wars. Determined to crush the Cilicians, the people endowed Pompey the Great with the administrative power of the imperium for an unprecedented period of three years in 67 BCE. His campaign was swift and decisive, but the lingering effects of his imperium are regarded as a milestone in the metamorphosis of Rome from a republic to an empire.

In the fifteenth century, China’s Ming dynasty banned overseas trade, putting tens of thousands of seamen out of work. While the state was unable to suppress smuggling at sea, imperial authorities attempted to check the pirates on land. In the ensuing round of reprisals violence became endemic. Many of the pirates—perhaps forty thousand in all—operated out of bases in Japan. This period of piracy ended when the ban on trade was relaxed and other economic reforms were instituted in the 1560s.

Privateering and corsairing are forms of intrinsic or institutionalized piracy. In the early modern period, European navies routinely commissioned merchant ships to sail as privateers against enemy commerce. These were issued letters of marque that outlined the scope of their operations and afforded captured privateers legal protection. The degree to which these niceties were observed depended on the strength of the legal authority. During the American Revolution, privateering in the Gulf of Maine degenerated into indiscriminate violence by “privateers” who owed allegiance to neither crown nor colonies.

Corsairing is another example of state-sanctioned “piracy,” as American Federalists called it. The North Africa regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli raised money by capturing merchant ships and ransoming their crews, passengers, and cargoes. Many governments found it expedient to pay the regencies for safe conduct passes, but this practice ended in 1816 when European powers decided to take advantage of their overwhelming superiority and the state of peace prevailing at the time to put an end to it. Privateering was formally outlawed by the 1856 Declaration of Paris.

Piracy has by no means been eradicated, and since 2001 there has been growing concern over the potential collaboration of pirates, whose motives are essentially economic, and terrorists with political aims. The trend toward privatizing certain military and security undertakings also suggests that a return to some form of private naval warfare is a distinct possibility.

Piracy of commercial transport vessels in the waters between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and especially off the coast of Somalia, continue to cost upwards of $15 billion a year and threaten lives. In April 2009, during a week-long spate of attacks along the Somali coast, Somali pirates captured the MV Maersk Alabama, a U.S.-flagged, 17,000-ton cargo ship on its way to Kenya with relief supplies. When the crew managed to take back the ship the pirates kidnapped the captain, Richard Phillips, to a lifeboat. After four days, believing that Phillips’s life was in danger, U.S. Navy SEAL snipers shot and killed the captors; Phillips was rescued and determined to be in good condition.


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  2. De Souza, P. (1999). Piracy in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Ellen, E. (Ed.). (1989). Piracy at sea. Paris: International Maritime Bureau.
  4. Exquemelin, A. O. (1969). The buccaneers of America (A. Brown, Trans.). Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
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  6. Lane-Poole, S. (1890). The story of the Barbary corsairs. New York: C. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  7. Pennell, C. R. (Ed.). (2001). Bandits at sea: A pirates reader. New York: New York University Press.
  8. Petrie, D. A. (1999). The prize game: Lawful looting on the high seas in the days of fighting sail. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
  9. Rediker, M. B. (1987). Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Merchant seamen, pirates, and the Anglo-American maritime world, 1700–1750. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  10. So, K. (1975). Japanese piracy in Ming China during the 16th century. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
  11. Walsh, P. G. (2001). Cicero, on obligation. New York: Oxford University Press.

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