Pirate-Hunting – A Historical Perspective

From Cutlass to AK-47

Earlier this week, crewmen from HMS Cumberland captured a pirate sailing vessel off the coast of Yemen in the mouth of the Red Sea. In the process British sailors were fired upon and they retaliated with force, killing two Somali pirates before the rest of the crew surrendered. Then, pirates hijacked a super tanker, and are holding her multinational crew to ransom. Anyone who thinks piracy is something from the past should really think again.

The truth is, piracy never really went away. After all, piracy is nothing more than the commitment of robbery on the high seas, and like any criminal activity, it thrives in places where law and order is lacking or where opportunist criminals think they can get away with it. This week the Royal Navy called time on the pirates of the Red Sea.

Cover scan of Piracy by Angus Konstam

The involvement of the armed forces in the suppression of piracy is hardly a new phenomenon. As early as 67 BC, the Roman Senate decided to deal with piracy in their waters. It granted Pompey the Great dictatorial powers, an immense budget, and the command of over 120,000 Roman troops, supported by a fleet of 500 warships. His orders were to clear the Mediterranean of pirates – a task he achieved with spectacular speed and efficiency. The equivalent today would be if the US Government diverted half its annual budget and most of its armed forces to combat piracy on the high seas. The Romans clearly took the threat of piracy very seriously indeed.

As for the Royal Navy, its warships conducted regular anti-piracy patrols for centuries, from the mid 17th century until the eve of the Second World War. Most of the time, these patrols took place in waters where piracy had become a big problem. For instance, during the so-called “Golden Age of Piracy” – from 1700 to about 1725, the main trouble spots were in the Caribbean, America’s Atlantic seaboard or off the West African coast. By 1718 the British government was so alarmed by the rise in pirate attacks that it ordered the Admiralty to deal with the problem.

The Royal Navy sent ships to patrol these pirate-infested waters and to actively hunt down the pirates in their lairs. During this anti-piracy offensive it had some spectacular successes. In November 1718, two small vessels under the command of Lieutenant Maynard cornered the notorious pirate Blackbeard off an island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In the short, brutal hand-to-hand fight that followed, Blackbeard was cut down by a British sailor and Maynard returned to his base in Virginia with the pirate’s grizzled head swinging from the bowsprit of his ship.

This success marked a turning point in the war against piracy. As the waters of the Americas were tamed several of the surviving pirate crews crossed the Atlantic to hunt in the safer waters of the West African coast. Inevitably, the Navy followed. In February 1722, Captain Challoner Ogle, commanding HMS Swallow captured the pirate ship Great Ranger after a two-hour sea battle fought off the coast of what is now Nigeria. Five days later he was in action again, this time fighting the celebrated pirate Bartholomew Roberts and his pirate ship Good Fortune. Ogle was lucky – “Black Bart” was cut down by the first broadside, and his crew quickly lost heart. Captain Ogle’s double victory resulted in the mass hanging of his pirate prisoners in front of Cape Coast Castle and the complete eradication of piracy in Africa waters.

This early 18th century campaign against piracy was played out on a global stage and by its end the sea lanes were considered safe once again. Other later anti-piracy operations were carried out on a smaller scale as fresh waves of piracy came and went. Royal Naval warships hunted down pirates off the Cuban coast during the 1820’s, around Singapore in the 1830’s, and in the bays and inlets around Hong Kong in the late 1840’s. By the early 19th century piracy had become endemic in the Far East, and for the best part of a century, pirate-hunting was one of the Royal Navy’s main tasks in these dangerous waters. While piracy could be contained, the problem never went away.

Just how persistent this problem was is demonstrated by the Sunning affair, which the Illustrated London News of 18th December 1926 called “the most sensational instance of piracy for over twelve years”. A month earlier, some 40 pirates disguised themselves as passengers and took passage on the British streamer Sunning, bound from Shangai to Canton. They hijacked the ship, threw four crewmen overboard, and ordered the rest to sail the steamer to a remote anchorage. Amazingly the crew broke free, and arming themselves with revolvers they seized the bridge and held it against all-comers. Unable to recapture the bridge, the pirates set fire to the ship.

Fortunately the gunboat HMS Bluebell came to the rescue, and a boarding party was sent over. The fire was put out, the pirates were captured, and the Sunning was towed to a safe port. The incident was part of a miniature pirate crime wave which plagued the Chinese coast from 1926 onwards. To counter it the Navy deployed a squadron of gunboats in Chinese waters, and spearheaded the international community’s war against the pirates. The crime wave lasted until 1935, when the Navy finally managed to eradicate the last of these pirates. This is almost exactly the situation facing the international maritime community today, in the waters of the Red Sea.

The trouble with our view of piracy is that the word has become romanticised. It conjures up images of Jack Sparrow rather than someone wielding an AK-47. The hard-edged reality of modern piracy involves murder, kidnapping, extortion and rape.

Historically, piracy was best countered by a combination of naval patrolling and the enforcement of law and order on land. In other words, by increasing the pirates’ risk of capture at sea, and by depriving them of a safe haven. The state of near anarchy in Somalia makes the job of enforcement at sea all the more important.

Fortunately the Royal Navy has had several centuries of experience dealing with crime on the high seas, and as the sailors of HMS Cumberland demonstrated this week, it still has the skills and firepower needed to cope with this new resurgence of piracy. What still gets in the way, though, is the “rules of engagement” they have to abide by. For instance, while they can shoot at pirates before they board a vessel, afterwards it became a “hostage situation”, and the Navy has orders to keep away. This is what stopped them dealing with the super tanker, whose crew are still in the hands of the Somali pirates. These restrictions are hampering the anti-piracy battle. Instead, we need to look at the ways we dealt with piracy in the past, and adapt these more draconian measures for use today. After all, the sailors of the Bluebell didn’t hesitate, nor did Captain Ogle, or Lieutenant Maynard. Only by showing that piracy doesn’t pay will the problem ever be solved, allowing the container ships, super tankers and freighters of the world to carry on their business in peace.

Angus Konstam

Angus Konstam, who lives in Edinburgh, is one of the world’s leading authorities on piracy. His latest book; Piracy: The Complete History, was published in August by Osprey Publishing. This article first appeared on November 2008.

  • Cover scan of Piracy: The Complete History
    Piracy: The Complete History
    Angus Konstam - Hardback - Osprey
    Pirate expert Angus Konstam sails through the brutal history of piracy, from the pirates who plagued the ancient Egyptians to the Viking raids and on to the era of privateers. He then discusses the 'Golden Age of Piracy' and colourful characters like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd, before examining the phenomenon of the modern pirate.