Piracy is a story about the importance of policing in crime suppression. Piracy abounded when there were rich cargoes afloat, but no one to protect them or pursue the criminals. Piracy withered when the navies of imperial powers (British, French, American, Dutch) went around making the world safe for peaceful commerce. “Blackbeard” famously ended up with his head nailed onto the bowsprit of a British warship. Still, piracy never ended in some parts of the world, notably in parts of East Africa and Southeast Asia. After the end of the Second World War, the retreat of the European navies from “Eastern Waters” began to take the lid off of piracy. Post-colonial governments were just as ill-equipped to fight piracy as to do anything else.
Consequently, piracy has increased from fewer than one hundred reported attacks on ships in 1997 to two hundred reported attacks in 2007. In such attacks during 2006 15 seamen were killed and 188 taken captive; $15 billion in lost goods is a fair estimate of the material cost. “Reported” is key here: lots of shipping companies would rather not report the attacks because it will only drive up their insurance costs without getting the generally dysfunctional governments of the countries from which the pirates operate to solve the problem. The same goes for fighting back against a pirate attack. Kill one of the sea-borne bastards and the pirates-in-suits ashore will be slapping injunctions all over you at your next port of call.
So, who becomes a pirate these days? Pretty much the same people who became pirates in the Caribbean in the 17th Century: local poor people who know something about boats. Dockworkers, fishermen, and beached merchant sailors provide much of the crew for pirate attacks. Occasionally they are government coast guard units run amuck. Many of these pirates call Indonesia or Somalia home because shipping must pass through narrow straits, rather than being able to stand well-out to sea. Oddly enough, there is a “pirate season”: the Indian Ocean is tossed by great monsoon storms in early Fall and early Spring, so pirates tend to stay ashore during these seasons, chewing khat and bothering the wife. Only when the seas calm do they return to their trade.
Rather than sailing the Seven Seas under the Jolly Roger, however, they operate in speedboats from ashore. Photographs taken from merchant ships under attack often show the pirates driving high-powered outboard boats and armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and grenade launchers.
Somalia is the Promised Land of modern piracy. There hasn’t been a real government in twenty years; everybody has guns and is dirt-poor; and oil tankers from the Persian Gulf pass by on their way to the Suez Canal. In April 2010 Somali pirates captured the “Samho Dream,” a South Korean supertanker. In November 2010 the owners paid a LeBron Jamesian $10 million to get the ship, cargo, and crew back. Each pirate got $150,000, minus whatever the pirate-boss had fronted him for rice and beans during the intervening seven months of gastro-intestinal catastrophe.
Lest anyone see this as a silver-lining-to-a-black-cloud story about impoverished Third World villagers getting together to cut through the red tape accompanying foreign aid, the pirate crews appear to be operating at the behest of local crime lords. In places like Somalia, the pirate-bosses use the ransom money to buy weapons so that they can set up as local war lords. Having hijacked ships, they’re now thinking about hijacking countries. (See: Normans.) Then some Paki scientist probably will sell them nukes.