Today, when a tall-masted ship appears on the horizon, it is not uncommon for a well-meaning parent to point and say, ‘Oh, look! There goes a pirate ship.’
This misconception shows little regard for the unfortunate victims who have suffered from pirate attack in the past and for those who will suffer in the future.
Whether you refer to today’s pirates as hijackers or terrorists, it matters little, the acts of boarding and seizing a ship, of extortion, murder, sabotage at sea and shipwrecking, constitute piracy under customary international law.
History of Piracy
The recorded history of piracy stretches back for millennia. In ancient Roman times, pirates were regarded as renegades waging their own private war against both individuals and nations. Motivated by their own needs, they showed no allegiance to any flag.Pirates were active in the Mediterranean in the 12th century. When returning from the Crusades in the Holy Land, King Richard’s ship was blown off course and became separated from the rest of the fleet. Before being shipwrecked on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, his ship was set upon by pirates.
The pirates of the Barbary Coast preyed on shipping not only in the Mediterranean Sea and on the west coast of Africa but reputedly, they sailed as far north as Iceland.
Following the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the United States entered into peace treaties with the Barbary States paying dearly for protection from attack. In 1800 ransom and tribute amounted to 20% of the US government’s annual expenditure.
Also during the 17th and 18th centuries there were almost 1,000 pirates located at Île Sainte-Marie in Madagascar. From this convenient location, pirates laid in wait for ships returning from the East Indies laden with cargoes of exotic goods.
By the end of the century, Britain’s commercial trade and its growing maritime economy was being damaged by seafaring raiders.From 1698, with the passing of the Piracy Act, pirates were no longer shipped to Britain for trial, but could be tried and judged in any place at sea, or on land by a hastily convened court-martial or admiralty court. In extreme circumstances, a ‘drumhead court-martial’ was convened by the officers of the capturing ship. Those found guilty were immediately hung from the ship’s yard-arm. Following the introduction of the Act, about 600 of the 6000 pirates operating in the Caribbean were executed.
According to mare librum – the sea is common property. It belongs to all humanity and all ships have the right of sail over it. As such, its perils are shared in by mariners of all nations. The Law of the Sea is an umbrella of amity and reciprocity among seafarers. In the event of a ship being in distress, it is the obligation of ships of any nation to render assistance.
Because piracy is regarded as a crime against all nations, the perpetrators hold the peculiar status of being hostis humani generis, the enemies of humanity. The term "hostis humani generis" has been expanded to include slavers, who, by trafficking in human flesh upon the high seas, are regarded as being enemies of mankind.
Privateering, on the other hand, is not considered piracy but licenced warfare sanctioned by a letter of marque, against a particular national enemy. Under the condition of the agreement, privateers were permitted to legally seize enemy ships without committing a crime against international law. Over the centuries, a fine line has often existed separating privateers from pirates.
Punishments for piracy
In the medieval period, English admiralty courts sentenced pirates to be drawn and quartered. During the 17th and 18th centuries, once pirates were caught, justice was meted out in a summary fashion, and many ended their lives by "dancing the hempen jig". Public execution attracted huge crowds and were seen as a popular, albeit sadistic, form of entertainment.
Execution Dock, on the bank of the Thames, was a popular venue. As in the case of William "Captain" Kidd, after being hung, the body was enclosed in an iron cage and left dangling in a prominent position to rot. It served to remind others of the penalty for piracy.
While the age-old law of the sea and admiralty laws were directed against pirates and their activities, the pirates themselves followed their own code and meted out justice for disloyalty, treachery and other minor misdemeanours aboard their own ship. The punishments suffered were often more brutal than the justice handed down by the courts. Keelhauling or abandonment on an inhospitable island were two options.
Pirates' Loot – past and present
From fiction stories, such as Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the images of pirates stealing hordes of treasure in the form of plate or gold coins and burying it on an island is largely a myth. Though plundered ships carried valuable treasure, pirates were unlikely to bury it but would use it to barter for more practical goods. Also, because they were feared and outlawed, pirate ships were not welcome in major ports, victualling yards and naval dockyards or at chandler’s stores. As such, they had to steal the goods they required both to satisfy their daily needs and to keep their ships seaworthy. Their loot, therefore often comprised of basic food, water, alcohol and weapons. They also stole personal necessities like soap and clothing, and ship’s gear like rope, spars and anchors.”
According to International Maritime Bureau the waters around Indonesia continue to be the world’s most dangerous, with 19 pirate attacks in the first three months of 2010. Strait of Malacca is most heavily trafficked strait in the world and is a popular stretch of water that gangs of pirates target. In 2010, two ships carrying United Nations food aid to Aceh, the Indonesian area still suffering the ill-effects of the December 2004 tsunami, were attacked.
Being armed and dangerous, the demands of modern pirates are not limited to stealing the large cash amounts carried by ships to pay for expensive port fees. Sometimes their demands involve extortion, murder and sabotage, including the taking of hostages.
Today’s many instances of pirate attack are reported from Somalia, the Malacca Strait, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, India, Bangladesh, the Singapore Strait, the Ivory Coast, and from the Niger Delta and Peru.
To a lesser extent, there are the questionable activities of such groups as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Funded by public donations, the ships of this environmental group blatantly sail under a black flag today with an image resembling the iconic skull and crossbones.
The society professes to be to be against marine poaching and overfishing and claims to be saving the maritime environment, yet its tactic are tantamount to piracy. By deliberately ramming other ships, putting lives at risk and on two occasions boarding a Japanese whaling vessel, Sea Shepherd’s actions have resulted in it being accused of piracy and terrorism.
Finally, an event that will always stay in my mind is one of the most tragic, gutless and unforgettable acts of modern day piracy. It occurred in 1985 when the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 fell into the hands of member of the Palestine Liberation Front. Not only was the ship seized at gunpoint, and demands made, but a wheelchair-bound tourist was shot and his body thrown overboard. This was certainly not a Yo-ho-ho! situation.
The Unfortunate Isles is available as an e-book from Amazon US (http://goo.gl/HjSglt) and UK (http://goo.gl/8jTLz2).
Refs: WikipediaPics: Pirates of the Caribbean – Johnny Depp, Captain Kidd at Execution Dock, the Sea Shepherd and its flag, and the Achille Lauro at Capetown Photograph: © Errol Cornish.