In 75 BC, Julius Caesar was kidnapped by Cilician pirates on the Aegean Sea for a ransom of twenty talents of gold. Caesar in true royal fashion insisted that he was worth at least fifty. Once the ransom was paid and Caesar released, he captured the pirates and had them executed.
Gothic pirates raided Cyprus and Crete, Frankish and Saxon pirates raided the areas of Gaul and Irish pirates kidnapped Saint Patrick amongst many others in the Roman province of Britannia. The most far-reaching pirates in medieval Europe were the Vikings who plundered Western Europe, North Africa and reigned over the Baltic Sea. Muslim and Arab pirates operated in the Mediterranean Sea, the Maniots targeted the Ottomans as well as European ships, and the Haida tribes of southern Alaska raided as far as California. Thus piracy has been around since man can remember and spanned the entire globe.
Piracy in the Indian sub-continent is so old that it is recorded in the Vedas . Pirates raided ships transporting horses from Persia, merchant vessels trading in pepper and Mughal ships en route to Mecca for Hajj. East India Company ships were attacked unless they paid the Marathas tax. The Barbary pirates of North Africa, in addition to raiding merchant vessels, also captured people who they then sold into slavery.
Books such as Peter Pan, Treasure Island and movies such as Sindbad the Sailor and Pirates of the Caribbean have been instrumental in popularizing the modern-day image of a pirate; the eye patch, parrot on the shoulder, wooden leg, hook, beard, bad teeth, earrings and an evil grin. Most pirates do not fit that description.
Contrary to popular belief, pirates did not always have chests full of treasure and jewels. Most of the time the captured items included food, water, weapons and clothes; thus basic survival and necessities were what they were fighting for. Jewels were not popular finds as they were hard to sell and of much less value than they are now. There is a case recorded where a pirate was given a large diamond worth a great deal more than the value of the handful of small diamonds given to his crewmates. He felt cheated and had it broken up to match what they received.
Piracy is not something that we just read about in books and can consider a menace of ancient times. The tradition and life-style of pirates continues to this day. The weapons have changed from swords to RPG’s, the tactics have evolved and the demands differ, but piracy is alive and kicking across the globe. The Red Sea, Indian Ocean and Somali coast are witness to extremely high levels of piracy and pirates take advantage of narrow straits that commercial ships have to pass through. The narrow bodies of water make it possible to overtake the ships in small motorboats. Modern pirates are less interested in the cargo, and instead take the belongings of the crew as well as the contents of the ship’s safe, that usually contains a lot of cash. The use of technology as well as sophisticated weaponry makes it easier to take over these vessels, and pirates have realized that holding the crew and ship for ransom is much more lucrative than looting and fleeing. Approximately losses of 13-16 billion dollars worldwide are incurred each year.
Piracy is usually found in impoverished areas such as Somalia, where people have limited options, chaos reigns and where the government rule is almost non-existent. The lack of law and order and opportunities acts as a breeding ground for pirates. The waters off the coast of Somalia are the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world, with Somali pirates conducting record number of attacks/hijackings in 2009. The origins of piracy in this area go back a decade as a response to illegal fishing. As commercial fleets plundered these tuna-rich waters, Somali pirates took to the sea demanding taxes as reparation, and they never looked back.
The pirates gained worldwide attention in September 2008 when they seized a Ukrainian freighter packed with tanks, antiaircraft guns and other heavy weaponry, and were paid $3.2 million in cash. In response to patrolling in the Gulf of Aden, Somali pirates have shifted their focus to the eastern coast where patrolling is non-existent. Fast speed-boats, heavy weapons, sophisticated electronics and gadgets mean that they can operate further away from land for longer periods of time.
“All you need is three guys and a little boat, and the next day you’re millionaires,” said Abdullahi Omar Qawden, a former captain in Somalia’s long-defunct navy. The Somali town of Boosaaso is thriving due to this trade. Pirates drive the fanciest cars, run big businesses and are almost celebrities in their own right. They treat it strictly as a business and people from all over the country are flocking to these pirate dens to get recruited. People long divided by clan differences are coming together to partake in this trade.
This war ravaged, corrupt country suffering from anarchy, is losing out tremendously from this trade. A few individuals might be getting richer but piracy has caused commercial ships from coming to the port, drastically reducing port taxes, the fishing industry has collapsed, and the security situation, rife with kidnappings and bombings have caused humanitarian agencies and foreign investors to leave as well. Government officials are equally involved in this trade and are paid huge sums of money for their silence or support.
These pirates are totally the opposite of the image the word pirate evokes in most people’s minds. They are normal people who are addicted to the easy money that comes from the trade, who enjoy dancing and driving fancy cars, who have families and hobbies. They consider this their job, and in an environment such as Somalia where survival is an everyday reality it is difficult to talk of ethics and laws. Till the country stabilizes and has a credible government, these people see piracy as the best option of survival. Someone once said, “Merchant and pirate were for a long period one and the same person. Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality.”