There Be Pirates!

028 croppedPirates have probably been around ever since boats were invented. We have all heard of the pirates made famous in legend and films, but in some parts of the world the danger of piracy is as bad as it has ever been.

The exploits of Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Black Bart, and others were recorded during the golden age of piracy in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. They plundered shipping in the Caribbean, off the West African coast, and along the Spanish Main.

Image of pirate flags from the Copenhagen Maritime Museum

Image of pirate flags from the Copenhagen Maritime Museum

It is often thought that pirates all flew the skull and crossbones as their flag. In fact, pirates all had their own flag, or “colours”, to identify their ships, which numbered up to fifty or more. Some of the European pirates had flags of similar themes, but it is the flag of Edward England (top right) that flew from the Pearl that has become known in popular culture as the pirate flag.

Source: Engraved by Benjamin Cole (1695–1766) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Engraved by Benjamin Cole (1695–1766) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

While famous, some of these pirates had very short careers. Rob Ossian’s research shows that John “Black Bart” Bartholomew Roberts, for example, lasted less than four years, but is credited with taking over 400 ships.

Less well-known in the western world is the piracy that took place in Asia—particularly by a successful woman pirate—in the early nineteenth century. In her article, Women and the Jolly Roger, Cindy Vallar describes the success of Cheng I Sao in the South China Sea. This article reports that Cheng I Sao and her husband organized a confederation of pirates that eventually numbered over 50,000. After her husband died, she took over and enjoyed a prosperous three-year career, eventually negotiating an amnesty and moving ashore to a more sedate business of gambling houses and smuggling.

The focus of the media on pirates today seems to be about attacks on international shipping off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden. The report, CruiseBruise, claims that piracy tripled between 1993 and 2003, and that the first half of 2003 was the worst six-month period on record, with 234 pirate attacks. This website shows the pirated cargo ships as well as attacks on all kinds of ships.

Photo is a work of the U.S. federal goverment and is in the public domain

Photo is a work of the U.S. federal goverment and is in the public domain

Modern technology enables the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to post a live piracy map, called Piracy and Armed Robbery Map 2013, on their website. It also lists, among other things, piracy-prone areas and warnings for shipping. Their Piracy Map 2012 shows that while the most attacks still occur around Singapore and Malaysia, half of the successful hijackings occurred in Somali waters. Somali pirates are currently holding eight vessels and 127 hostages.

In 2009 Rasmus Krath, a Danish adventurer, took an extreme risk to travel to the pirates’ main town of Eyl in northern Somalia to meet and interview the pirates. He made an incredible, fifty-minute documentary film, “A Journey into Piracy—Meeting the Somali Pirates” in collaboration with Danish film director Lasse Spang Olsen. The documentary aired on Danish television in February of 2010.

US Navy photo-​​Jason R. Zalasky [Public domain] via Wikimedia

US Navy photo-​​Jason R. Zalasky [Public domain] via Wikimedia

In this film, the pirate leader explains that the piracy began only after the Somali government fell into ruins and couldn’t enforce laws against dumping of toxic waste and foreign overfishing. He claims that the fishermen lost their livelihoods and began shooting at foreign vessels to try to force them away. With no other way to support themselves, they have now taken the law into their own hands and escalated their efforts to piracy, organizing themselves into a military-like hierarchy. Their victims have included cargo ships, cruise ships, and private yachts.

For anyone planning to take a cruise or go offshore with their yacht, they should plan carefully to avoid falling prey to the real masters of the sea. Give me the South Pacific anytime!

Featured image of the Jolly Roger flag courtesy of Whirlybird

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