In the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia, international naval forces monitor suspected pirate crafts, such as this dhow, to protect international sea lanes and deter piracy.

This is an article from the spring 2019 issue of LSA MagazineRead more stories from the magazine.

When reports of maritime piracy began to make international news in the 1990s, it struck more than a few people as strange. Didn’t marauding on the high seas end back in the nineteenth century, along with Blackbeard and Billy Bones and ships that sailed under the Jolly Roger? In our age of radar and rocket ships, the idea of pirates pillaging across the briny deep seems impossibly anachronistic. But by the late 1990s, piracy really did make a comeback off the coast of Somalia and flourished until 2013, the first year in recent memory when there were no successful Somali pirate hijackings.

People usually think of piracy as an apolitical crime motivated by greed. But Jatin Dua, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, says that piracy is more than violence isolated in the vastness of the sea. 

Dua researches maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean and its relationship to governance, law, and the economy along the East African coast. The connective tissue that ties these topics together is the concept of protection. 

Protection, Dua says, is a historical idea that traces back to the control of ancient trade routes over land and sea. “Arab and Indian traders hired Somalis to take them from point A to point B, and European explorers hired Somalis as guides and protectors,” Dua says. “But when Somalis claimed that they were levying a protection tax on passing ships in the nineteenth century, the British saw them as pirates. 

“If you say someone’s a pirate, it delegitimizes them,” he says. “It’s a way of creating hierarchy and sovereignty at sea.” 

Today in Somalia, the distinction between being seen as a pirate and being seen as part of a volunteer coast guard, Dua says, “is usually tied to how closely pirates relate to the rest of the economy. As long as the pirates are seen as part of a redistributive economic system, then they have legitimacy.” But when the redistributive aspect of acts of piracy start to disappear, the pirates’ hold on legitimacy starts to disappear, too. 

The ongoing instability in Somalia began when its civil war created a power vacuum that left regional factions clashing with each other and ultimately caused a humanitarian crisis. It also left 2,000 miles of coastline unprotected, and fishing fleets from around the world came to plunder Somalia’s fertile coast. The Somali fishermen tried to safeguard their waters against illegal trawlers, and these were the first Somali pirates.
The fishermen who demanded payments from illegal fishing boats quickly received them because the boats didn’t want to be caught breaking international maritime laws. The Somali people considered the coastal pirates heroes.
Over time, these coastal pirates created networks that made them more successful and more efficient. By the mid-2000s, the pirates had set their sights on bigger ships that were farther out — a step they were able to take by hijacking Indian cargo vessels called dhows.
Bigger than fishing trawlers, dhows bring goods to smaller ports along the Indian Ocean where the larger container ships don’t go. “The pirates who targeted dhows were typically coastal fisherman who didn’t actually know how to get to the bigger shipping lanes where the larger cargo ships were,” says Department of Anthropology Assistant Professor Jatin Dua. The pirates hijacked the dhows and held their crews hostage, but they weren’t after ransoms: They were after expertise.
Once they had a presence in international waters, pirates set their sights on hijacking the ships themselves. Stealing the cargo wasn’t the goal. Hearkening back again to the historic notion of protection, the pirates wanted to control the ships’ passage. “It was more saying, ‘If you want to reach your destination, you have to pay us,’” Dua says. “‘And we will hold you hostage until you do.’”


The blunt contrast between Somalia’s poverty and the incredible wealth that moves around it makes the issue of wealth redistribution omnipresent. The international community acknowledges it, too. There have been tepid efforts to cultivate economies to replace piracy in Somalia, such as creating fishing collectives, but they tend to be received as either fatuous or tone deaf. “This idea that, ‘Oh, we’ll just start some Somali fishing collectives,’ misses the point that most of the people working in piracy are no longer fishermen,” says Dua. 

To Somalis, the more germane question is how Somalia relates to global capitalism, and from the 1990s until 2013, the answer was through its pirates.

In the Hold

In his research, Dua has spent a lot of time with pirates, but he has never been present, he stresses, during an attack. “There were certain questions that I never asked,” he says, “and one of those questions was, ‘Are you currently negotiating?’ We would always talk in hypotheticals.” 

Though the scenarios Dua discussed with the pirates were hypothetical, the experience of being on board was very real. 

Part of his research entailed being on board a number of ships, including the Indian dhows pirates used to expand their operations into the Indian Ocean. “It was sometimes a little claustrophobic,” Dua says. “I hadn’t realized that we would all be sitting in a hold and sort of sleeping in this shared space. The pirates often described the dhows as wonderful places, and I guess in comparison to a fishing skiff, where you’re just bobbing up and down in waves and you have no idea where you are, they were.”

Luckily, Dua is not prone to motion sickness. “That would have made research very difficult,” he says. “A lot of pirates are, though, and that was one of the number one complaints. They would often talk about piracy in these very visceral ways — what it does to your body, like seasickness, and also of their loneliness and fear.”

Territorial Waters

In 2008, the UN Security Council passed an authorization for international naval forces to fight piracy off Somalia. American naval forces, which had been battling insurgencies in the War on Terror, were reinvigorated by the call and the chance to demonstrate their relevance by keeping international sea lanes open. The call vitalized other navies around the world, too. As piracy took root and spread, insurance companies recognized they had the opportunity to sell a new type of protection. Private security companies also began to appear, and they provided armed guards for hire. 

Because of a significant international naval presence, counter-piracy patrols, and a vigorous private security industry, the number of Somali piracy attacks fell until, in 2013, there were none. There have since been some reports of subsequent pirate attacks, but, overall, piracy has stayed pretty quiet. Though it now looks as if piracy might have been defeated, this level of vigilance is expensive, and, Dua says, piracy never quite goes away. 

“Piracy is not just something that happens at sea,” Dua says. “It’s also very much located on land, and it cannot be understood without also implicating British insurance companies, private security contractors, and navies.

“Piracy in Somalia is not just a Somali story,” he concludes. “Because it feels far away and happens out at sea, it disappears from everyday experience. But in fact, it’s deeply connected to so many other things happening in the world.” 


Photo credits: (top) Will Haigh/Crown Copyright; (inline) Stuart Hill/Royal Navy