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From cutlass to AK-47

Engraving of Blackbeard (Stratford Archive) and pirates leaving the MV Faina (Getty)
The fight against piracy is a thread running through naval history

By Angus Konstam

The Royal Navy this week shot dead two Somali pirates after intercepting a boat in the mouth of the Red Sea. But Britain's battle against international piracy goes back a long, long way.

Anyone who thinks piracy is something from the past should really think again. Piracy never really went away. After all, piracy is nothing more than 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.

A typical piratical encounter

This week the Royal Navy did its bit in the international fight against the pirates off the Horn of Africa. But 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 the distinguished military leader Pompey the 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 have conducted regular anti-piracy patrols for centuries, from the mid-17th Century until the eve of World War II. During the "Golden Age of Piracy" - 1700 to about 1725 - the main trouble spots were in the Caribbean, America's Atlantic seaboard and off the West African coast.

Infested waters

By 1718 the British government was so alarmed by the rise in pirate attacks that it ordered the Admiralty to deal with the problem.

As well as Royal Navy patrols of pirate-infested waters, ships were sent to actively hunt down the pirates in their lairs. During this anti-piracy offensive there were some spectacular successes.

While piracy could be contained, the problem never went away

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.

Mass hanging

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 west African waters.

Engraving of Blackbeard's head hanging from a spar
This was considered a successful piece of maritime law enforcement

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 Navy warships hunted down pirates off the Cuban coast during the 1820s, around Singapore in the 1830s, and in the bays and inlets around Hong Kong in the late 1840s.

By the early 19th Century piracy had become endemic in the Far East. For the best part of a 100 years 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.

The persistence of this problem was demonstrated by the Sunning affair, which the Illustrated London News of 18 December 1926 called "the most sensational instance of piracy for over twelve years".

US warship captures a Barbary pirate ship
The fight against piracy was an international headache in the 18th and 19th Centuries

A month earlier, some 40 pirates disguised themselves as passengers and took passage on the British streamer Sunning, bound from Shanghai 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 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 Royal 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.

Engraving of Bartholomew Roberts (Stratford Archive)
Bartholomew Roberts was feared by merchants across the Atlantic

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.

Angus Konstam is the author of Piracy: The Complete History.

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