Britain, with her long experience of fighting piracy, and America - once the home of the ill-begotten trade - must now take a lead in extirpating piracy in the Indian Ocean. Even in British waters, piracy, including kidnap and slavery, has been a problem since the 1600s. Dunkirk was once a base for pirates and Barbary pirates, based in North Africa, raided British coasts. However, as soon as Britain possessed a strong enough navy and could deter them, the Barbary pirates turned to easier victims, in the Mediterranean. For the British home-grown piracy spread to North America where, in the 17th and early 18th centuries, many pirates found conniving authorities who accommodated their excesses. Some started as privateers, who were licensed by those government authorities to wage war on the country’s enemies and, from a guise of legitimacy and a want of legal prey, turned to piracy. Many more were out-and-out pirates who had no licence or letters of marque and no pretence to being anything other than robbers, kidnappers and rapists on the high seas. Piracy was clearly a profitable business and expeditions from the east coast of North America regularly brought back great quantities of silver in coins and bullion, much of it church plate from raids on the Spanish Main. The swash-buckling Tudor mariners of Plymouth in the county of Devon had earlier preyed on the same rich territories. They had also lain in wait in the Atlantic for the treasure-laden convoys to Spain, but they had operated under the commission of their sovereign Queen Elizabeth - sometimes the backing of the Crown was covert and sometimes overt. But that was in an era when the law of the sea was not so well defined and countries acted routinely in pursuit of selfish self-interest to the exclusion of most other concerns, at least on the open ocean. When the British suppressed piratical outlaws operating in waters off the Colonies, North America became the centre for a new venture, namely piratical voyages to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. One exponent of these new ventures was William Kidd, who, as a privateer in the West Indies had made himself rich enough to marry well in New York and to become a merchant. However, his next privateering adventure in 1695 was less fortunate. He had sailed from the Thames where the Royal Navy had pressed many of his best crew, and when he recruited replacements in New York he was obliged to take some dodgy characters. He then sailed for the Indian Ocean, with a commission to clear the sea of pirates, but the prizes he took were doubtful and he was arrested when he returned to New York, sent to London for trial where his privateering was adjudged to have become piracy, and was hung at Execution Dock in 1701. Another pirate, Edward Teach, or Blackbeard, was chased into Pamlico Sound, where he ran aground and Lieutenant Robert Maynard, who followed him in the boats of the 40-gun Pearl, fought Blackbeard in hand-to-hand combat and killed him.
Maynard returned to Nassau with Blackbeard’s head hanging from his bowsprit, and other pirates were subsequently captured and hanged. The suppression of piracy would become one of the Royal Navy’s permanent duties. Once the Great War against French tyranny of the late 18th and early 19th centuries was won, Britain could address the remaining problem of the Barbary pirates, who raided shipping and took Christian slaves. The United States Navy had conducted desultory anti-piracy operations in the Mediterranean throughout the Great War, and, now in 1816, sent out a squadron of ships, which achieved little success. However, after an atrocity committed against a Spanish fishing fleet, Britain decided to act decisively. The fleet, which sailed from Plymouth, under Lord Exmouth, consisted of six line of battle ships, four frigates, five brigs and four bomb ships. In Gibraltar, a squadron of Dutch frigates joined forces with the British. Exmouth had already compelled the Dey of Tunis to release his Christian slaves, and now he acted against Algiers. His demands included the abolition of Christian slavery, the release of prisoners, the repayment of ransom money paid for Neapolitan and Sardinian slaves, peace with the Netherlands and the return of boats crews whom the Dey had captured. The Dey refused all demands, and battle opened, with the Anglo-Dutch fleet anchored between 50 and 250 yards from the walls of Algiers. It was a fierce bombardment, which lasted all day, until 10pm. The ships suffered heavy casualties and withdrew under cover of darkness. Maybe they would not have been able to renew the fight, but the Algerians had also suffered and, after negotiations the next day, the Dey acceded to Exmouth’s demands. The terms were simple: Full restitution and never more to make slaves. The bombardment of Algiers effectively ended the operations of the Barbary pirates, and for the remainder of the 19th Century, Britain waged war on another kind of piracy, the slave trade. The Royal Navy’s war on slavery was global, one of the longest and more successful in its history. By the 1860s the dreadful cross-Atlantic slave trade was largely suppressed, and the Royal Navy then turned its attention to slaving on the East African coast and to stamping out people-trafficking in the Pacific.
Today there is much talk and hand wringing about what to do about the latter day corsairs who emanate from the Horn of Africa. Naval officers know that tracking a tiny dhow ‘mother ship’ and its predatory skiffs in the vastness of the Indian Ocean is virtually impossible (after all it took virtually the entire Royal Navy to track down and destroy battleship Bismarck in 1941, and even that 50,000 tons leviathan nearly got away). Meanwhile, shipping firms re-route their vessels via the Cape, at a cost of many thousands of pounds while those vessels unfortunate enough to be seized by the Somali pirates are awaiting the delivery of huge ransoms so they, and their crews, can be released from the threat of death. The paying of ransoms provides a short-term solution, but in the long-term will lead to increased misery, as no doubt pirates in the Malacca Strait (another chokepoint, but one that is reasonably well policed) and elsewhere around Africa will be encouraged to renew their efforts in the same dastardly trade. Shipping firms have been advised to hire mercenaries to provide protection and fit passive defences, such as noise emitters that deafen and blind pirates. Foam devices that make it impossible for pirates to board, have already been deployed by cargo vessels and cruise ships under attack in the Indian Ocean. But all this is messing about and surely the sovereign states of the world need to get their act together? The pirates have spotted a wide open security hole that surely terrorists see is well worth exploiting - the world’s trade goes by sea, in vast ships that it appears, following the hijacking of the Sirius Star, are there for the taking by anyone with the cheek and criminal intent to do it. How long before the terrorists are locking into the profits to be made and, possibly, the doomsday scenario security experts have long feared, using a pirated vessel as a vast suicide bomb? The attacks on Mumbai last month came from the sea. See P27. With many nations, including Britain, having divested themselves of the very escort ships that are shown to be so vital, the right solution to the problem is a strike, or strikes, on the nests that play host to the pirates. We know where they live - in some style on the proceeds of their evil trade - so, instead of searching for them on the high seas, how about the USA and UK using their expensive amphibious capability and firepower, along with the best marines in the world, for a job that will have direct benefit for the international community?
This is not made up evidence, such as drew the USA and UK into invading Iraq, nor is it an impossible war that neither country can hope to win (as is likely in Afghanistan).
The threat, with the global economy in meltdown, is clear and present and easily explained to the civilian populations who will see their weekly shopping bills rise, Christmas toys scarce plus fuel and gas bills rocketing. There is also the principal of the freedom of the seas, the right of merchant mariners, cruise ship passengers, yachtsmen, whoever, to be secure from kidnapping and the threat of murder.
Yes, there are hostages in the Somali pirate ports, and we also do not wish to see innocent civilians killed as ‘collateral’ damage, but such challenges are for the military to deal with in their usual professional manner. Target the pirates. Wipe them out. Release the hostages and the ships. Lesson delivered, withdraw. Attempts by BBC reporters and others to portray the Somali pirates, as ‘fearless’ former fishermen turning to piracy to feed their families are utter rot.
Are these not the same people who preyed on World Food Programme (WFP) ships, endangering the lives of two million Somalis facing starvation, so they could see the grain and other supplies on the black market for huge profits?
The lessons of history are clear. Piracy, in all its forms, must be defeated at sea and the bases used by pirates should be destroyed.
It is time for the United Nations to act and for the navies of the world, led by the RN and the USN, to police the Indian Ocean and to root out the bases of pirates in Somalia or wherever they may be.
Pictured: American sailors battling pirates in the early 19th Century.
Image: Via US DoD