Key to Ending Piracy Rests Ashore

Pirate City painting

Current efforts to end piracy are failing, and the realization is beginning to dawn that to be effective, strategies will eventually need to move from the sea, onto land.

Despite international naval pressure on pirates in the Gulf of Aden, “the problem is growing worse,” and “pirates have adapted their tactics to evade naval counterpiracy operations,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs in an address in Washington last March.

At the current rate, 2011 will set records for highest number of successive attacks and the highest number of hostages taken by pirates, which follows a record year in 2010. Attacks are also becoming more violent, according to Shapiro, in his remarks at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

He acknowledged that “there will be no end to piracy at sea until there is both political reconciliation and economic recovery on the ground in Somalia and a local government capable of and willing to enforce law and order on land and offshore.”

The terrible irony is that history is repeating itself. Maritime piracy cannot exist without a land base supporting it, and it was through the combined effort of naval pressure and eliminating this support on land that piracy all but ended in the 1800s.

“You can never understand high sea piracy unless you understand the land. Historically speaking, no one has ever been very successful attacking pirates 500 miles off the coast,” said Mark Hanna, professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, in a phone interview.

A simple fact has always existed with maritime crime, whether money or gold, what pirates capture is useless until they return to land. Without a base on land, their efforts become worthless.

It is nearly impossible to fight piracy by scouring the oceans searching for them—particularly today, when even if they are found, navies are barred from engaging pirates until after they commit crimes.

All pirates, however, eventually need to return to shore, and “I think the question should be going back on land and finding out where these people are from,” Hanna said.

Fighting Pirates on Land

One factor has held true throughout history—there is almost always a moral defense for piracy held by communities where it is rooted.

In Somalia, there is typically no stigma against piracy, as it is often justified as a response to the poaching and pollution of their waters by other countries. Similarly, in the Bay of Bengal and elsewhere, piracy is often the act of fishermen pushed over the edge.

“In the communities themselves, there was a very clear moral defense for what they did,” Hanna said.

Pirates have always held a land base—communities or countries that support them—and the one time in history when this was not true nearly brought about its end, which happened toward the end of the Golden Age of Piracy, roughly between 1713 and 1730.

It was a time of anarchy; when the oceans were crawling with the likes of Henry Morgan, Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts, Blackbeard, and William Fly.

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Photo Credit: Pyle, Howard; Johnson, Merle De Vore (ed) (1921). “Tom Chist and the Trasure Box”, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates: Fiction, Fact & Fancy Concerning the Buccaneers & Marooners of the Spanish Main, Plate facing p. 116, New York, United States, and London, United Kingdom: Harper and Brothers. Retrieved on 2010-04-14.