Piracy vs Privateering: an historical and contemporary conundrum

The MV Albedo, a Malaysian-flagged container ship held by Somali pirates since November 2010, sunk last week, raising fears that its crew (the hostages) had drowned. The incident has once again drawn attention to the ongoing threat caused by Somali pirates in the coastal waters off the horn of Africa.

Wielding assault rifles and RPGs, Somali pirates stand in stark contrast to their predecessors
Wielding assault rifles and RPGs, Somali pirates stand in stark contrast to their predecessors

Carried out in an often sophisticated manner, modern piracy is no less threatening that its historical descendant, with crews robbed and held to ransom, cargoes plundered and ships sunk. Why then is modern piracy seen as a barbarous pursuit when historical piracy is often regaled as a chivalrous and heroic endeavour?

Part of the reason lies in the blurring of the distinction between piracy and privateering. In the Middle Ages and during the Early Modern Period, governments would often sanction (through law) the taking of foreign ships if they belonged to a state perceived to be the ‘enemy’. This was privateering.

National heroes such as Sir Francis Drake, Piet Heyn and Jean Bart conducted successful privateering missions which often trod a fine line between ‘legality’ and piratical ventures. The ‘enemy’ was not always well-defined and it remained a matter of dispute whether one had to be at war with an opposing vessel to take it legally.

The Dutch were particularly fond of privateers. Heyn amazingly captured the whole of the Spanish treasure fleet – complete with gold and silver booty from its American colonies – during the Battle in the Bay of Matanzas in September 1628. Heyn became a folk hero and part of a Golden Age of Dutch enterprise, which saw an expanding commercial empire buoyed by the maritime prowess of its sailors. Simultaneously, however, the Dutch were quick to punish piracy. Without sanction, and an agreed fee to the Crown, pirates would be executed.

Battle in the Bay of Matanzas - P.J. Schotel
Battle in the Bay of Matanzas – P.J. Schotel

This was, of course, before international law evolved and global laws regulating the security of the seas ensured that privateering, by definition, was impossible.

But what about an anarchic, ungovernable state like Somalia? In a lawless state, blighted by the failure of international law to remedy its many ills, could there not be some justification for the piratical adventures of its citizens who, it should be reminded, range from militant Islamists to poor fishermen? Why abide by international law when it is failing you?

As is often the case, the Western world appears hypocritical. Whilst the exploits of privateers/pirates in the past are much vaunted, there is no understanding of the desperate realities confronting the Somali pirates. Few, if any of them, dream of world renown. Many simply seek a means of survival and target the ‘enemy’, in this sense an international collective, which has failed to offer them succour.

The impoverishment of Somalia is a direct root of piracy
The impoverishment of Somalia is a direct root of piracy

As such, they could be seen as modern privateers, sanctioned by a human law beyond UN conventions that justifies their actions. Alternatively, they could be viewed as ruthless villains who, whatever their circumstances, are merely criminals seeking to exploit the efforts of others. If so, then we must look at our heroes of the past in a new light altogether.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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