somali pirates

Today, September 19, is some sort of semi-official “Talk like a Pirate” day. Every time this day comes around I continue to be amazed at how little people know about pirates in real life. The stuff that “Talk like a Pirate” day lampoons–ridiculous sayings like “Shiver me timbers!”, eye patches, grog, frilly clothes, Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow–is all fiction. It has virtually no connection to anything that any real life pirate ever did, whether back in the 17th or 18th centuries or today.

I also reject the notion that there was a “Golden Age of Piracy” during those past centuries. There is a golden age of piracy, but we’re living in it, or by some accounts it has only just ended. Since the turn of the 21st century there have been more pirates sailing the seas and menacing the shipping lanes of the world than there ever have been, and none of them say “Arrrgh!”

Piracy is today a big business. Losses from pirates range about $15 billion a year, and modern pirates are very cunning in their tactics. Believe it or not most of the world’s major cargo still moves by ship, just as it did 200 years ago, and the shipping lanes are totally controlled by geography. That’s why narrow passages such as the Gulf of Aden (in the Indian Ocean) and the Strait of Malacca (off Malaysia) are the world’s hotbeds of pirates.

piracy map

A map of pirate attacks emanating from Somalia between 2005 and 2010. Click for larger/more detail.

Modern pirates are mobile, fast and vicious. They usually attack slow-moving cargo ships in motor craft, come aboard and take hostages among the target vessel’s crew. Most of the time pirates don’t bother with the actual cargo, but they usually want to rob the crew of their personal belongings and empty the ship’s safes, which often contain large amounts of cash to pay port fees. They also sometimes hijack ships. Despite the incidence of piracy, not very many people are killed. In 2006, out of 239 pirate attacks, 15 innocent people were killed. Obviously that’s 15 too many.

Piracy is a for-profit enterprise, carefully organized. Pirates have backers on shore that supply their speedboats and weapons (the speedboats often take off from a mother ship), and take a cut of the loot. Criminal gangs are very good at organizing this sort of thing, which is why Somalia, a virtually lawless nation, has been the headquarters of world piracy since the early 1990s. There are also river pirates that operate in Europe, principally along the Danube, and even on the Amazon in Brazil. Authorities have the same problem today in combating pirates that they did 200 years ago: in order to clean out a pirate base you have to know where it is, you need manpower and firepower to take it out, and once you do the pirates will just set up somewhere else.

Sometimes larger powers get involved in interdicting pirates. Two U.S. Presidents have pirate “kills” to their credit–Thomas Jefferson, who dispatched U.S. Navy ships to attack pirate nests on the coast of Africa in 1805, and Barack Obama, who authorized an operation in early 2009 that killed three Indian Ocean pirates who had taken U.S. citizens hostage. There are numerous international organizations whose primary or secondary role is to combat piracy.

As long as cargo and assets move by water, there will probably be pirates. “Talk like a Pirate Day” is a fun exercise in popular culture, but its tropes obscure a much more interesting real-life story that has a fascinating history.

The photo at the top of this article, of British forces raiding a pirate ship, is used by Creative Commons license and attributed to the (British) Royal Navy. The map of pirate attacks was created by the (Indian) National Institute of Design, Bangalore Campus, used by Creative Commons license.