When the Ever Given recently blocked the Suez Canal, some tankers carrying commercial goods considered traveling around the southern tip of Africa instead. This not only would have added weeks to their journeys, but it would also have taken them through the most dangerous seas in the world for shipping off the coast of West Africa—a region known for piracy.
Here at the School of International Service, we have an entire seminar devoted to pirates, taught by Professor Dylan Craig. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about international shipping and contemporary piracy.
Q: Some experts predicted that freeing the Ever Given cargo ship could have taken weeks, but it was dislodged on Monday, March 29, after six days. Would we have seen a significant increase in piracy if the blockage of the Suez Canal had continued, and more ships were diverted around the southern tip of Africa?
I don’t think so. Whether we’re talking about contemporary or historical piracy, it’s important to see the maritime side of things—the vessels themselves—as only half of the story. The other half are the littoral or land-based communities that serve as the “back of house,” meaning receiving and distributing stolen goods, holding prisoners until they are ransomed, and providing a base of operations for pirates and their vessels to refit, recruit, and rest up between voyages. To put it another way: you generally don’t get your Jack Sparrows without your Tortugas, and it takes time to set up Tortugas.
Granted, there are a couple of sensible places to put together a modern Tortuga, if your aim is to catch ships on their way around Africa. We have both historical and contemporary precedents for this—in the 1690s, Madagascar was a key base of operations for pirates hitting the East Indies trade coming around the Cape of Good Hope, and today, states like Namibia, South Africa, and Mozambique all struggle to contain maritime smuggling and poaching, specifically because of the power of the land-based criminal networks that sustain them. But in all those cases, it took years or decades to set the networks up. A few weeks just isn’t long enough.
Q: Many people’s understanding of piracy is limited to popular culture depictions like those in Pirates of the Caribbean. In reality, how do pirates attack commercial ships, and how often do these types of incidents happen?
Contemporary piracy is far less focused on the resale of goods and far more focused on ransoming ships and passengers than historical piracy. There are certainly exceptions on both sides: the fledgling US got its first standing navy in with the 1794 Naval Act, which was a response to ransom-based piracy on the Barbary Coast of North Africa, and cargoes are certainly boosted off of ships for resale today, especially in the Malacca Straits between Malaysia and Indonesia. But the cargo thefts of the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” would never have happened without imperial tariffs that have no parallel today.
Most Americans think of the Boston Tea Party when they think about having to pay “unfair” prices for goods sent out to the colonies, but those unfair prices also meant a huge demand for stolen goods sold off the back of pirate ships. Don’t feel like buying tea at the government rate? Buy some that a pirate just stole. In fact, several colonial governors in the Americas only stayed in power by keeping their colonists happy with a steady stream of illicit goods provided by piratical business associates. So for every Tea Party, let's imagine two dozen pirates kept in business by imperial tariffs and trade wars.
Today—and without that emphasis on capturing and reselling cargoes—modern pirates act more like carjackers or kidnappers than their Golden Age forebears. You use fast motorized skiffs to pull up alongside a big slow-moving cargo ship or luxury yacht, threaten its crew with heavy weapons, take control of the bridge, steer it to a friendly port where it’s harder for naval forces to surround and isolate you, and then tell your broker to fire up their cellphone. How much will the ship’s owners pay for their vessel? How much will governments pay for their citizens? Get the money wired to your account or airdropped onto the ship’s deck, and you’re good to go.
Q: Why have pirates historically preyed on ships off the coast of Africa? What factors contribute to the increased rates of piracy in this region?
As with all regions of the world, piracy around Africa has had its ebbs and flows. Pirates are figures that crop up only when conditions are right, and historically, the biggest pirate-producing conditions for Africa have been imperial expansion and rivalry, civil wars spilling out over their borders, and unjust exploitation of natural resources.
The first of those is the oldest and most persistent producer of piracy in the region—whether we’re talking about Portuguese corsairs raiding Muslim pilgrim convoys in the Indian Ocean in the sixteenth century, Ottoman and Omani privateers retaliating against them, Anglo-Dutch tit-for-tat raids along the Slave Coast, or submarine warfare during World War Two—it’s fair to say that when Europeans fight at sea, they also pirate in African waters.
But the other two factors play a huge role as well. I would put the Confederate commerce raider Alabama and the Ansar Al-Sunna insurgents currently fighting a littoral war in Mozambique into the same category—civil wars that open a maritime front in Africa to extract some strategic advantage in some wider conflict. And I would put illegal trawling off the Horn and oil extraction in the Gulf of Guinea into another, in terms of Africans going to sea as a way of striking out against what they perceive to be the extraction, without due remuneration, of African resources. It’s not only American colonists who don’t like getting a raw deal from the powers that be and who will court pirates as a way of evening the score.
Q: Since the Suez Canal opened in 1869, it has been closed to international shipping on a number of occasions. If or when another closure like that with the Ever Given happens, will we need to worry about piracy? Is there anything that can be done to deter pirates from targeting shipping routes in these instances?
We should certainly take more notice of incidents like this, but probably not because of how they'll encourage pirates. Instead, we should use them as a reminder of how much geography still matters. We often like to think of our world as “flat”—instantly and frictionlessly global—but if that were true, jamming a ship sideways into a canal somewhere wouldn’t have had the effects it did. Piracy draws its shape from the spatialization of trade, force, and privilege just like the global economy does. If thinking about piracy helps drive home the point that our world’s geopolitical systems are something we get to shape—and also that they are something which will come back to bite us when we shape them sloppily, or ignore them until they break—then I'm happy to keep yelling about it from the crow’s nest.