By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
When it comes to small-scale piracy, river piracy has been a long-standing problem. It has often been treated as a local issue, until fairly recently, when the media took interest in attacks on non-Brazilians, such as those on the American Harteau family and the British teacher Emma Kelty, both of which occurred in 2017. Even more widely reported incident occurred back in 2001, when the famous Sir Peter Blake, a yachtsman who had won multiple America’s Cup trophies for New Zealand, made headlines for a final and very unfortunate reason.
Sir Peter Blake
Sir Peter Blake held the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe, from 1994 to 1997. He was a UN goodwill ambassador, and was on an environmental touring trip, whose purpose was raising awareness, and gathering information, on the impacts of deforestation along South American waters. While his yacht, Seamaster, was anchored near the Amazon delta, off the coast of Brazil, a group of pirates or what the locals call ‘water rats’ boarded the ship. After stealing some watches and loose money, they stabbed two crew members and fatally shot Blake.
“There is no law on the Amazon” has become a common refrain in foreign media reporting on the phenomenon, the event was particularly shocking because of how experienced Blake and his crew were at sea, and because they had finished their trip up the Amazon in safety.
Blake was considered the ‘world’s greatest sailor’, and they had been careful about the potential for pirate attacks while on the river but relax their caution once they were in the Atlantic Ocean, and out of the actual waters of the Amazon.
Small-scale piracy persists even in the, supposedly, pirate-free Mediterranean and Caribbean. Wealthy people traveling in private yachts are understandably vulnerable to robbery, particularly when moored at anchor.
Pirates working on the Amazon River delta have garnered a few headlines in recent years as well, for increasing rates of predation on river vessels. Using small, fast, speedboats, such pirates use surprise, and, as needed, terror to overwhelm travelers, grab whatever they can, often including as much fuel as they can siphon, and then disappear quickly into the huge waterway of the Amazon, whose geography they tend to know better than law enforcement.
Tourists, and adventurers can be targets, but most often local riverboat passengers, and fishers are the ones attacked, as are cargo boats, and even drug traffickers. Remote riverbank communities are often underserved by the infrastructures that would discourage organized piracy.
Stateless, Indigenous Peoples
A potential source of small-scale piracy comes from stateless, indigenous peoples who have historically been attached to life at sea on ships, or other littoral habitations. The Orang Laut of Southeast Asia, nomadic seafarers, are one such group. Their name is a Malay term (meaning sea peoples) and were, for a long time, one of the most formidable maritime groups around the Straits of Malacca.
The Orang Laut lived nearly their entire lives at sea, and were gatherers, traders, who later served the Malacca royal family, and other local rulers by controlling shipping, and repelling rival predatory groups, including pirates and European powers. They were also, on occasion, very fearsome pirates in their own right, at least according to the definition of European governments.
Many of the Orang Laut intermarried with other ethnic populations in the 19th and 20th centuries. But the remaining members of the group are essentially stateless, unprotected by the larger land-based communities around them, and denied access to healthcare and public infrastructures.
The Moken People of Thailand and Myanmar are in a similar predicament, as are other groups such as the Sama-Bajau. Though the Orang Laut no longer practice piracy on any appreciable scale, but other disenfranchised fishing groups do, lacking other means of accessing resources. Their livelihoods are endangered by pollution, and overfishing, making it easier to hire them to act as pirates on behalf of militias, or on their own.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
As the Indonesian government recognizes, it’s extremely difficult to address the problem of fishing communities turning towards piracy, without also addressing the problem of IUU fishing, that is, ‘illegal, unreported, unregulated’ fishing.
Small beys in the Indonesian archipelago still host pirate nests, and as long as the pirates primarily lie low, and restrict the harassment to Singapore and other shipping, their eradication may not be a high priority for a government with plenty of other pressing maritime issues.
A Globalized Phenomenon
It is also now claimed that piracy has become a globalized phenomenon. Pirates can now be backed by, and share profits with finances from all over the world, hiding behind the ease of electronic currency transfer. Well, Peter Layer has argued that the days of the nobleman pirate, the Walter Raleighs and even Steve Bonnets are long over.
It’s less clear that modern piracy is not sometimes tangled up with some corporate aristocracy, and even terrorist organizations of its own.
Piracy: A Defense against Western Powers
Many scholars also warn of growing link between piracy, and modern terrorism, the former being ideologically, and potentially economically useful to the latter.
Jihadists such as ISIS or al-Shabaab sometimes glorify piracy conducted by primarily Islamic populations as a legitimate defense against Western powers. Even so, to conflate piracy with more widespread terroristic groups is a mistake, piracy does not originate as terrorism, although pirates may use terroristic tactics.
However, if the causes of piracy are left to fester, it is certainly possible for larger criminal or terroristic syndicates to move in and take control of pirate ventures. Unfortunately though, globalized as it may now be, piracy remains fundamentally a local issue, little remarked upon, until it begins to disrupt international trade, and imperial ambitions.
Common Questions about Piracy, a Local Issue
While Sir Peter Blake‘s yacht, Seamaster, was anchored near the Amazon delta, off the coast of Brazil, a group of pirates boarded the ship. After stealing some watches and loose money, they stabbed two crew members and fatally shot Blake.
The Orang Laut lived nearly their entire lives at sea, and were gatherers, traders, who later served the Malacca royal family, and other local rulers.
Jihadists such as ISIS or al-Shabaab sometimes glorify piracy conducted by primarily Islamic populations as a legitimate defense against Western powers.