Piracy – an Historical Perspective
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Piracy – an Historical Perspective. 55 th International Safety Seminar April 20, 2009. Hans Van Tilburg NOAA ONMS [email protected] “Views expressed herein do not represent official NOAA policy”. UNCLOS definition. Types of piracy.

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Piracy an historical perspective

Piracy – an Historical Perspective

55th International Safety Seminar April 20, 2009

Hans Van Tilburg NOAA ONMS [email protected]

“Views expressed herein do not represent official NOAA policy”

Piracy an historical perspective

UNCLOS definition

Piracy an historical perspective

Types of piracy

  • Parasitic mode Piracy grows with flourishing trade, revolves around points where trade routes converge… (Aegean Sea, Japanese Wako, Spanish Main, Barbary Coast)

  • Episodic modePiracy occasioned by disruption or disturbance of normal trading patterns during times of weakened state mechanisms… (Koxinga and the Qing Dynasty, Opium Wars)

  • Intrinsic modePiracy is a part of the fiscal and commercial fabric of the society, part of the nation building process… (Elizabethan seadogs, colonial buccaneers, Dutch “sea beggars”)

Piracy an historical perspective

A universal human condition?

Approximately 3,500 years of documented violence (Dark Age of the Sea Peoples: 1250-1150 BC)

Greek Cilician Norsemen Ghazis Malabar Wako Chinese Bugis Buccaneers

“Theft, whether armed or not, is no disgrace, if committed at the expense of an enemy or foreign people…”

Piracy an historical perspective

Obstacles to understanding pirates

  • Field research can be deadly

  • Role of piracy in western history (intrinsic piracy)

Golden Age of European Piracy 1570-1680 (deep sea marauders)

Blackbeard Calico Jack Rackham Anne Bonny Mary Read Henry Morgan Charles Vane Henry Avery Captain KiddRed BeardBartholomew Roberts


Piracy an historical perspective

Who are they today?

Pirate-infested waters: South China Sea

Indian Ocean

East and West African coast

South American coast

Caribbean Sea

Strait of Malacca

Most attacks are the work of small bands (5-10 individuals) armed with knives or guns, in territorial waters while ships are anchored

Piracy an historical perspective

The International Maritime Organization (IMO)

  • established in Geneva 1948; first meeting in 1959

  • develops comprehensive regulatory framework for shipping

  • forum for sponsoring a host of anti-piracy measures

  • began tracking piracy in 1984

  • issues monthly and quarterly IMO circulars

  • has initiated responses from the UN Security Council

  • advice often ignored by shippers

Piracy an historical perspective

Piracy on the increase?

  • Recent downward trend follows a period when attacks tripled between 1993 and 2003. The first half of 2003 was the worst 6-month period on record

  • Ships reported 239 incidents to the IMB during the year 2006, down from 276 in 2005, and 329 in 2004

  • Government involvement currently increasing

  • Yet hotspots develop quickly. Reported attacks rose by 14% in the first nine months of 2007. 35% increase on reported attacks involving guns

  • Episodic and parasitic piracy never wiped out, never went away

Piracy an historical perspective

Somalia: (parasitic and episodic piracy)

  • Ancient location for piracy, the “Babs” (Babs-al-Mandab) and Socotra

  • Somali fishermen powerless against foreign poachers learn the trade of piracy…patriots or pirates?

  • 1991 functioning government dissolves in Somalia

  • 2005 rise in piracy leads IMO to request action from UN member states

  • 2006 UN Security Council urges states to use naval vessels and aircraft to fight piracy and armed robbery

  • 2007 IMO requests Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) to allow incursions into territorial state waters

  • 2008 TFG allows foreign forces to use all means necessary to stop piracy, including deploying naval vessels and military aircraft, as well as seizing and disposing of boats, vessels, arms and related equipment, etc.

Piracy an historical perspective

What is the real threat?

Human:direct confrontation minimal (hostage-taking dominating attacks, merchant crews generally unharmed);

Economic:majority of loss through increases in vessel and cargo insurance premiums (not direct costs); Gulf of Aden carries some 22,000 vessels annually, around 8% of the world's trade, including more than 12% of the total volume of oil transported by sea

Political:potential for anti-state terrorism connection (has not really materialized)

Environmental:potential for major environmental disaster (grounded tankers, etc)

Piracy an historical perspective

How did we stop it then?

  • Diplomacy

  • Technology

  • Firepower (merchants armed)

  • Terror (gibbeting = public display of executed criminals)

  • Modern states evolved beyond the need for intrinsic piracy

Punishments for pirates:






keel hauling


hanging in irons

The Liburnian: Roman

Piracy an historical perspective

How do we stop it now?

Naval response (short term):

United States Britain Canada France Germany Greece Netherlands Spain Pakistan India Russia Malaysia China

  • collaborative multinational coordinated response

  • CTF-151 (currently 14-nation 20-vessel effort)

  • UN Resolution 1851: allowing naval force at sea and ashore

  • Establish a transit corridor for merchant vessels

  • Intercept pirates before they board

  • prototype LCS-1 (1-4 planned)

Maersk Alabama, April 8, 2009:

“It was not clear what the military crews would do when they got to the scene…”

Direct action – escalation?

American policy on anti-piracy measures, 2007

Piracy an historical perspective

The Industry response:

  • avoid the area (add 2,700 nm?) $$$$$

  • technology (AIS, acoustic devices, electrified rails) $$

  • train crew in resistance $

  • private security arrangements (contractors) $$$$

  • or simply pay the ransom $

  • (Maersk reviewing piracy response plans)

"This is not a problem the group or the shipping industry can or should solve alone."

Losses to piracy in 1995:

$62M lost from worldwide from a commerce of $2 trillion

(29.3 cents per $10,000 shipped)

Piracy an historical perspective



  • water canon

  • lights

  • anti-boarding measures

  • citadel design

  • Long Range Acoustic Device LRAD (150 dB)

  • drills

  • visible deck patrols

  • evasive ship action

  • notification

  • submission

Range 300 m (more?)

Countermeasure: headphones

Piracy an historical perspective

Currently: 16-18 ships being held, estimated 300 crew members hostages

Average length of captivity: 53 days

Piracy an historical perspective

Lessons from history

Has the sea effort in Somalia stopped the attacks? No

  • piracy is ultimately a socio-economic problem ashore; fighting pirates at sea is only a partial answer

  • the functioning modern nation state has been the only unit capable of dealing with piracy (what if the state doesn’t cooperate?)

  • engaging an irregular force in a politically compromised state is never easy

Find a way to assist Somalia’s government (?) in controlling its own coastline before the ransom money from piracy proves intrinsically beneficial…

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