Piracy has been one of the more dreaded perils of the sea and has existed since man first put to sea – in fact was the sole reason for some societies to put to sea. It has become more newsworthy of late because of its growing levels of success, the rising costs of shipping (insurance rates, lost earnings and ransom payments) and the interruption of trade. Furthermore, the cost of policing grows as ever more countries send their navies to help combat the current scourge in the sea-lanes through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. To confound the situation, there is deep confusion as to how best to prevent piracy, how to deal with a boarded ship and finally, where to prosecute captive pirates and under which laws. Many books, paper and Dissertations have been written on the above so I shall not attempt to summarize them here.

Since piracy has been around for such a long time, it might be useful to consider the lessons of history – since no situation is ever unique. Technology may have changed considerably which makes it all the more remarkable that the most sophisticated armed forces are unable to adequately combat the (relatively) low technology of the pirates. One of the lessons of history that was clearly forgotten during the First World War was the use of convoys to protect shipping from submarine attack. For those of you with access to “The Oxford Companion to Ships & The Sea” I would recommend the entry under Convoy: The history of naval warfare has always shown an immense loss in merchant shipping, in the older days at the hands of privateers and corsairs…The only naval method of minimizing such loss is by the institution of convoy, in which adequate naval protection can usually deter enemy attacks on trade.. During the Napoleonic War against France, the losses…were so immense that no merchant ship was allowed to sail out of convoy. In the First World War, the principle of ocean convoy was not introduced until 1917, a failure in established and proved naval practice that very nearly lost the war.

Lloyd-George claimed that he had to force a reluctant Admiralty to re-instate the old system rather than their preferred patrolling of sea-lanes (as is currently favored in the Gulf of Aden). The lesson had to be partly re-learnt in 1942 when losses due to U-Boat were at their highest (1 million tons per month): in a rare moment of perspicacity, the First Sea Lord (Sir Dudley Pound) realized: If we lose the war at sea, we lose the war.

Interestingly, although the Americans could build merchant ships almost as fast as Germans could sink them, there was no quick-fix solution for the irreplaceable loss of merchant seamen. The strategy of convoys of ships under naval escort (using sonar and radar) augmented by air support was sufficient to tilt the scale of war against the German Wolf Packs whose technology then is still considerably superior to your average Somali pirate.

In reading all the advice issued to ships intending to transit these areas, it would appear that there is still a reluctance to properly organize convoy protection and it is left to individual navies (e.g. Japanese and Korean) to arrange escorts and even then only in the Gulf of Aden. Convoys in WWII stretched across the North and South Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. Ships in the Indian Ocean are left to their own devices. It seems obvious that if ships are in convoy, then the pirates have to converge in those areas where the convoy escort can confront them with superior deterrent.

Going further back in history, Plutarch relates how Julius Caesar was captured by Cilician (Sicilian) and ransomed for twenty talents. Caesar laughingly told them he was worth fifty. When the amount finally arrived after 38 days in captivity, Caesar was released: he then fulfilled his promise to them and returned with force, captured their treasure and crucified them all. But Julius Caesar was an honorable man. The reason why the Roman Senate had not moved before against the pirates was that they provided the slaves needed for their plantations. When Rome finally decided to clear the Mediterranean of pirates it was because the grain trade from North Africa was so interrupted that Rome itself was in danger of starvation. Vested interests are always a powerful motivator. One must first ask: who is profiting from piracy? Might it be insurers and arms manufacturers?

There was an incident related by Augustine of Hippo where a pirate, questioned by Alexander the Great as to what right has he to menace the seas, boldly answers that because he has a small ship, he is considered a robber, but Alexander – who menaced all the Earth – was considered an emperor. His bold response is just as relevant today, as it is important to discern who is the bigger pirate and what has driven the Somalis to take on the might of the corporate West and incur the wrath of their military machine.

Because of the lack of proper government in Somalia these last 20 years, the vast coastal region has been unprotected from all manner of ruthless exploitation by more powerful forces: the fishing grounds have been both plundered for fish and used as a dumping ground for toxic waste.

In previous times, the crime of piracy was punishable by death, but we like to think that we live in more enlightened times, where the law is upheld and Human Rights respected. But when states wage war without proper legal process, are those morals any better than the pirates’ – who after all may see themselves as wealth re-distributors much like the outlaw Robin Hood? There has been a recent incidence of pirates suspending their victims upside–down in water, then afterwards handing the victim a mobile phone to arrange his ransom. Yet how can we complain of torture when it is sanctioned in the West? Are we guilty of double standards?

As always, it is the innocent seafarers who have to bear the brunt of naval ineptitude, financial skull-duggery and political hypocrisy: there are currently about 800 of them being held hostage. Concerted action is called for in the application of trans-oceanic convoy protection: in the process of this much needed international cooperation, it would be hoped that the rule of International Law could be respected and that the Human Rights of the seafarers receive their rightful due. It is relatively easy to stop piracy; the bigger challenge is to combat the causes of piracy — both on the high seas and in the Boardroom.