If, like me, you regularly read the International Maritime Bureau's Weekly Piracy Report (a sort of naval police blotter), Sunday's news of the pirate speedboat attack on a cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden was no surprise. Over the past few years, there has been a seemingly exponential increase in piracy--the cruise ship incident was actually the third serious piratic effort off the shores of Somalia that day. What got my attention was that the cruise ship crew managed to use a gadget that fires harsh sound waves to fend off armed pirates.
I spent two years researching and writing a pirate book, albeit a novel, albeit about the sort of pirates who have peg legs and drunken parrots and aren't murderers. Also I've gone to a few "pirate conventions"--events around the country attended by tens and often hundreds of thousands of pirate history fans who are a cross between Trekkies and Hell's Angels. To such folks, the Somalia solution is obvious: Letters of marque and reprisal.
I probably ought to explain what that means.
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 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."
According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks dropped from 79 in 2005 to 50 in 2006. And the third quarter of this year, there were just two.
"We're very interested in helping in Somalia," Lee said, adding that his firm "would be willing to donate a portion of the proceeds to Somali hunger relief."
The sometimes-good name of pirates may yet be restored.
P.S. See also: IMB Live Piracy Map
Below, incidents listed in the current IMB's Weekly Piracy Report:
30.11.2008: 0528 UTC: Posn: 14:02.7N - 049:43.7E, Gulf of Aden.
Two pirate boats with three pirates in each boat attempted to intercept a passenger ship underway. Master sighted a gun on the second boat and later the pirates fired upon the ship. Master increased speed and the pirate boats were unable to follow the ship and aborted the attempt. UKMTO Dubai was informed.
29.11.2008: 0520 UTC: Posn: 12:20N - 044:11E, Gulf of Aden.
Two speedboats with ten pirates armed with guns and rockets attempted to board a bulk carrier underway. Boats closed the ship's bow and quarter. Master raised alarm, took evasive manoeuvres and activated fire hoses. After 25 minutes of chasing, the pirates aborted the attempt.
29.11.2008: 0300 UTC: Posn: 13:54N - 049:26E, Gulf of Aden.
Ten speedboats with 2 / 3 masked men in each boat came close to an oil tanker underway. One of these boats came very close and the pirates were sighted as carrying guns. Master raised alarm and took evasive manoeuvres. Pirate boats then moved away. A coalition warship was informed.
29.11.2008: 1950 UTC: Posn: 10:16.1N - 107:02.2E, Vung Tau outer anchorage, Vietnam.
Six robbers in a fishing boat approached a general cargo ship at anchor. Two robbers armed with knives boarded the ship. One of them threatened the duty crew with a knife while the other robber stole ship's stores. Later they jumped overboard and escaped in their boat with the stolen stores. Port control informed.
28.11.2008: 0447 UTC: Posn: 13:54N - 049:09E, Gulf of Aden.
Armed pirates attacked a chemical tanker underway. The tanker broadcast a distress message. A coalition helicopter arrived at the location but the pirates had already boarded and hijacked the vessel. They took the 28 crew as hostage. Further details are awaited.
26.11.2008: 0430 LT: Lagos anchorage, Nigeria.
Armed robbers in a small craft boarded a chemical tanker at anchor. They stole ship's property and escaped before the duty A/B raised the alarm. The craft was observed approaching another vessel. The tanker warned the vessel. The craft aborted the attempt and headed back to shore.
24.11.2008: 0605 UTC: Posn: 14:11.72N - 049:59.5E, Gulf of Aden.
Armed pirates, in two speedboats approached and chased a bulk carrier underway. Master took evasive manoeuvres, activated fire hoses and raised alarm. Pirates opened fire but could not board due to anti piracy measures. Later the pirates gave up the chase. A coalition warship proceeded to render assistance.