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An Old Scourge, Piracy, Is New Again

Piracy is flourishing off the coast of Somalia, despite an intensive effort by an international fleet of warships to protect the busy shipping lanes between Africa and Asia. What once seemed an archaic crime is back and putting a serious strain on the world's purse strings.

As long as there have been ships, there have been pirates ready to plunder them. Very little about this latest round of robbery on the high seas ought to surprise Americans, whose history is steeped in piracy.

Last month, the world's attention was transfixed by a small but deadly drama in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. A U.S. Navy destroyer confronted a group of Somali pirates who were holding an American merchant sea captain hostage in a lifeboat.


When the opportunity came, Navy snipers killed three of the pirates and rescued Capt. Richard Phillips, who returned home to a hero's welcome.

The action may have struck a blow for law and order, but it didn't deter new attacks. Pirates struck again soon after the captain's release. The International Maritime Bureau, which tracks attempts to hijack merchant shipping, says pirate attacks are likely to surpass the record of 111 last year off the Somali coast. Various gangs are holding about 300 merchant sailors and 18 vessels for ransom.

Difficult To Protect Merchant Fleets

More than a dozen nations, including the United States, have warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. These countries generally agree on the need for robust action to combat piracy. But military commanders point out that a relatively small flotilla of naval vessels can only do so much in a vast ocean with busy shipping lanes.

Somalia's strategic position on the Horn of Africa and its status as a lawless, poverty-ridden state have made it a breeding ground for pirate operations.


But as striking as the headlines are from that troubled region, crimes like these were commonplace along the coast of America in colonial times, during what was known as the Golden Age of Piracy. In the 17th and 18th centuries, pirates needed ports to unload their captured ships, and the American colonists were noted for their willingness to cooperate.

"All kinds of colonial officials were involved with pirates," says historian Marcus Rediker, "and this became a serious problem for the people in London who were administering the empire."

Rediker, who heads the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, says the situation got so bad that colonial governors were ordered to take drastic measures. "So one of the things that you would see in almost any port city would be the bodies of pirates hanging in chains. Public hangings were very big events. There was great drama on the gallows," says Rediker. "Pirates would sometimes curse the governor, and the crowds would cheer."

Cheers For The Pirates

Crowds at those hangings were generally poor colonials who saw pirates as folk heroes, Rediker says, a phenomenon that seems to be taking place in Somalia today.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress licensed privateers — a kind of officially sanctioned piracy, to harass British shipping, and at one point, privateering vessels are said to have outnumbered U.S. Navy ships by 10 to 1.

But after the revolution, the young republic took a dimmer view of plunder at sea.

The first use of American military power abroad came in response to piracy — a demand for tribute from the so-called Barbary States of North Africa.

A decisive battle of the First Barbary War, in 1805, is commemorated with a line in the Marine Corps hymn, "to the shores of Tripoli." A small party of American Marines led a mercenary army on a 500-mile trek from Alexandria, Egypt, to capture the town of Derne, in what is now Libya. It is recorded as the first American military victory on foreign soil.

That war didn't end the problem of Barbary piracy, and it wasn't until 1815 that the U.S. was finally able to stop paying tribute to keep its vessels unmolested in the Mediterranean.

Robert Ritchie, historian and director of research at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., says the Barbary pirates helped settle a debate in the young American republic — the question of whether to build a deep-sea Navy or to concentrate on coastal defense.

Because of the need to protect American commerce overseas, the Navy won out.

The Barbary pirates were unusual in that they came from city-states.

Most piracy was seen as a stateless crime, and the laws for combating it became a key building block for today's international legal system, according to Kenneth Randall, dean of the University of Alabama law school.

A Crime Nations Can Agree On

"Piracy, for about five centuries, really has represented an exception to the lack of consensus on much of international law," Randall says. "The crimes are viewed to be against the whole world order, the entirety of international commerce."

Randall says the problem is that, even though every nation has the right to arrest and try pirates, very few modern nations want to take on the cost and controversy of doing it. For that reason, he says, the world community should find some collective legal way to deal with piracy.

There are efforts to prosecute captured pirates in various courts.

The U.S. is prosecuting the lone survivor of last month's hostage drama off the Somali coast, and the government of Kenya has agreed to try other captured suspects. Randall says there is ample precedent for a United Nations special tribunal to prosecute pirates, adding that it would make more sense than dealing with them on an ad hoc basis.

"If the international community collectively, collaboratively can't go after this offense, you know I think it really shows the impotence of some of these organizations," Randall says.

Pottengal Mukundan, director of the Commercial Crime Services of the International Maritime Bureau in London, says that the international enforcement effort against piracy must be tough. "What the United States did is exactly, in our view, what a flag state should be doing," Mukundan says.

"If all the flag states took a similarly robust action when their vessels were taken, they would not see the problems with piracy in Somalia at the levels they are today," he says.

Can Merchant Sailors Protect Themselves?

Analysts say that merchant sailors need to do more to protect their ships, and some even say that merchant vessels should carry weapons. But Ritchie says that is unlikely to happen. The reason, he says, is simple economics — ship owners don't want the headaches and the insurance costs, and civilian sailors have no incentive to be fighters.

"When you're dealing with men with big machine guns and RPG's, and you don't own a penny of the cargo, you're being paid to do a job," Ritchie says. "If you're going to have to fight, you're going to want a whole lot more money. If you really wanted to fight, you would've joined the Navy."

Most officials and experts agree that the solution to piracy off the Somali coast will require more than enforcement by foreign militaries. It will require mending the failed Somali state, by helping to restore stability and a government in Somalia strong enough to enforce laws and police the coastline.

Until then, the historian Rediker says, pirates are likely to find support along the lawless coast. "Pirates have almost always been poor people attacking wealthier traders. And this, in fact, is one of the reasons why they have popular support. This is true in 18th century America, and it's true in Somalia today," he says.

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Corrected: May 7, 2009 at 7:01 AM PDT
We incorrectly referred to Robert Ritchie as a historian at the California Institute of Technology. His correct title is historian and director of research at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.