By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
Modern piracy takes all the forms that older piracies did, simply stealing anything not nailed down. Fuel and fish are popular targets, hostage taking in ransom operations, and protection rackets, all pop up. Pirates still exist as independent operators, but increasingly much piracy is well-organized and tied to larger criminal syndicates.
Pirates and Digital Surveillance
The Straits of Malacca, were once a key piratical stomping ground because of their ideal geography for raiding trading ships, moving between the east and west. Even today, a huge amount of world shipping still depends on traversing the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. Needless to say, the pirates are still there as well, not to mention in the other traditional pirating areas of the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Gulf of Thailand.
And it still is true as ever that piracy cannot exist independent of land. A pirate stealing a cargo of let’s say, diesel, has to have a buyer lined up. It’s not an especially useful commodity without one.
And yet, one might think that with cell phones, satellite imagery, and our constant state of digital surveillance on land, it would be difficult now for pirates to exist. For independent ships, answering to no nation, and flying no true flag to evade instant capture, it is not. The ocean is still very large, and very unorganized. Stolen ships with expired or false registrations, are perfectly real, some of them merely poor, and desperate, and some of them dangerous and well-armed.
False flags are still widely employed by pirates and poachers, to throw off pursuit. And the confusion over Providence that got men like Captain Kidd in such trouble, where a ship with a multinational crew, might be equipped in one nation, hired by another, and granted passes by a third, has only become more common, and more complex.
Even legal ships are often owned by one multinational corporation, charted by another one, actually operated by a third, captained and crewed by mariners from all over the world, and registered with some convenient nation attached to none of the above. Figuring out who is responsible for any particular vessel, is a daunting task in and of itself.
Actual ghost ships are quite real, too, not just ships sailing with no registry, and no AIS transponder signal, but ships floating the seas with no living crew aboard.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
MV Lyubov Orlova
There are also much larger ghost ships, as it turns out, there are huge radar blind spots, and if the ship turns off its transponder, and is not in any satellites visual range, it can be pretty effectively lost. The 2400 ton MV Alta, was abandoned by its crew in 2017, and just drifted around for 17 months, before washing up near Cork, in February 2020.
One might also be aware of the case of the MV Lyubov Orlova, a huge cruise ship built in the 1970s and destined for the scrapyard in 2012. On the way there, though, its towline snapped, and it drifted free. With a little help from Canada, it reached international waters, and was not an immediate threat to any particular country. It was then that the world lost track of it.
At one point, there was some concern that it might be headed for Ireland, prompting the famously excitable Daily Mail to ask, “Could this Russian ghost ship infested with Cannibal Rats beach in Britain?” The Orlova is presumed to have sunk cannibal rats and all, but in any case, it’s never been seen again.
Finite Natural Resources
At the same time, while the ocean is vast enough to hide a wandering freighter or two, it is not infinite. Its natural resources are also finite enough to create strife and competition, something, traditionally, landsman are reluctant to believe.
When it comes to eliminating piracy, Captain Johnson had a very unusual solution to offer. A General History of the Pyrates insisted fervently, that encouraging British fisheries would put an end to the pirate problem. Captain Johnson, in support, claimed irreverently, it must be admitted, that fishing had entirely cured the Dutch of piracy.
Unfortunately, Johnson was mistaken. When it comes to fish, the sea is not wide enough for us all.
A major difficulty in eliminating piracy, is that its causes are often international, but pirate cultures are local, and not easily amenable to international solutions.
An example that explains this point succinctly is, actually, a joke, about when the Americans came to the Indian Ocean to look for pirates. The patrol ships traveled along the Somali coast and having found none, they were convinced that they had scared the pirates away. They organized a press conference where they congratulated themselves on eliminating piracy. However, the joke was on them as the Americans had come in the month of June.
That is, the Americans came during the monsoon season, when rough seas would keep pirates’ home from the Indian Ocean.
No Local Understanding
The joke clearly mocks the gap between long, established rhythms of life, and concert with the natural world, and the international counter pirate forces that have technology, and military might, but no local understanding, or even memory, of the days that Europeans too depended on the monsoons for travel and trade.
Virtually all the scholars who have paid serious attention to Indian Ocean piracy, especially, agree, that the conditions that allowed it to flourish a decade ago, are still in place. In other areas, such as the margins of river deltas in widespread archipelagos, piracy continues under the radar, but unabated.
Common Questions about Piracy in the Modern World
It still is true as ever, that piracy cannot exist independent of land. For example, a pirate stealing a cargo of diesel has to have a buyer lined up. It’s not an especially useful commodity without one.
Legal ships are often owned, by one multinational corporation, charted by another one, actually operated by a third, captained and crewed by mariners from all over the world, and registered with some convenient nation attached to none of the above.
A major difficulty in eliminating piracy is that its causes are often international, but pirate cultures are local, and not easily amenable to international solutions.