The Return of Pirates

By  W. Andy Knight

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In February 2006, my son and I attended my grandmother’s funeral in Barbados. The day we were heading back to Canada, we ran into Pirates of the Caribbean star, Keira Knightley, in the Grantley Adams airport. Naturally, my 16 year old son wanted a photo with Keira and I obliged. In chatting with her, we discovered that she was taking a break from filming a sequence of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and chose to spend some down time in Barbados.


Little did I know at the time that a decade later I would be co-researching and co-publishing serious studies on the “return of piracy” in places like the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Malacca Straits, off the West Coast of India, in the waters of South East Asia, off the coast of Lagos (Nigeria), in the anchorage areas of Tianjin/Caofeidian (China), in the waters near Cotonou (Benin) and Abidjan (Ivory Coast), off the coasts of Ecuador and Peru, and, yes, in the waters of the Caribbean.

The historian, John Fiske, wrote about the “Golden Age or Piracy” in the 17th and 18th century, when the Barbary Corsairs, the Buccaneers, and the Mussulman pirates thrived in the waters of Eastern Asia and the Caribbean. During that time, most of the pirates were from Wales, England, Holland or France. Piracy flourished in the Caribbean during that time as pirate seaports sprung up in places like Port Royal in Jamaica, Tortuga in Haiti, and Nassau in the Bahamas. In those good old days, Pirates were often former sailors who were well versed in naval warfare. In some cases, they were supported by colonial powers competing against each other for prime territory in the Caribbean. They looted merchant ships, treasure fleets, slave ships, and cargo vessels and, in some cases, accumulated much wealth in the process.

Pirates thrived during that period, especially in the Caribbean, because there were no laws governing the oceans and very little military enforcement of those waters. It  became a lucrative profession for castaways. It was only after some of the colonial countries decided to develop a military presence in the waters of the Caribbean and to pursue of ruthless counter-piracy strategy that we saw the decline of this illegal maritime activity. But over the years pirates, like Samuel Hall Lord, were able to amass a huge amount of wealth and even launder the ill-gotten gains into legitimate businesses. The famous Sam Lord’s castle in Barbados was a byproduct of that pirate wealth.

Interestingly enough, the 21st century has witnessed a return of piracy in a big way. Most of the attention has been paid to the piracy that has occurred in the Horn of Africa waters and has threatened the security of the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea and the Western Indian Ocean. Like the historical cases of piracy, this new form is also the result of lawlessness — the absence of proper ocean governance and the failure to punish pirates when they are caught. Somali pirates in particular have attacked more than 1100 ships and hijacked at least 300 of them since 1995. As the World Bank reported, piracy in the Horn of Africa cost the global economy in excess of 18 billion dollars each year from 2008 to 2012. So again, piracy has become a lucrative endeavor. The absence of governance both inland and offshore allowed Somalia to become a haven for these modern day pirates.

But, as we have found out in our study of piracy, governments are beginning to beef up the protection of their flag vessels in areas where piracy is prevalent. I spent part of the month of August discussing the issue of the protection of maritime vessels and commercial ships with members of Protection Vessels International and Protection Group International in Tiverton and London, respectively. What I discovered is that there are several former British marines and members of the British Navy who provide protection for British ships in several parts of the world where pirate activity poses a grave threat. The use of private security firms in many of these cases is but a band-aid solution to the problem of piracy.

It took the international community several years to acknowledge the magnitude of piracy in the Horn of Africa and the risks it poses to global security.  The United Nations Security Council has invoked chapter VII of the UN Charter to indicate that Somali pirates are a “threat to world peace”, The world body has subsequently passed ten resolutions that deal with this issue.  The Security Council called on all countries to use “all necessary means” to defeat piracy, while encouraging member nations to patrol the Somali coastline, particularly the Gulf of Aden.

Barack Obama was emboldened by the UN Security Council’s position of treating piracy as a threat to world peace. His decision to use force against Somali pirates proved exceedingly successful; so much so that soon after the Navy SEAL sharpshooters shot and killed the pirates who held captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama hostage, Hollywood made a movie about it. Some argue that Obama’s gutsy authorization of military force in that case may have been the reason why the number of piracy cases in the Horn of Africa has diminished.

However, there have been new cases of piracy off the coast of West Africa and in the Caribbean Sea. In 2016, we have witnessed an increasing number of incidences of maritime armed robbery and piracy in places like the Middle Long Cay in Belize; St. Croix in the British Virgin Islands; Marigot Bay in St Martin; Wallilabou Bay in St Vincent; SVG, Tobago Cays, and between Trinidad and Venezuela. What this signals is the need for a comprehensive examination of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) to see how best the international community can shore up the weaknesses of ocean governance laws. To counter piracy will require collective enforcement combined with effective punishment for those who decide to take up this criminal activity. But those two things require improvements in maritime laws and a strengthening of ocean governance.


(Professor W. Andy Knight has collaborated with Dr. Afyare Elmi on a three year research project aimed at countering piracy in the Horn of Africa waters. This project was funded by the Qatar Foundation.)