Editor's Note -- April 9, 2009: In the first capture of an American crew in over 100 years, Somali pirates took hostage the captain of the ship Maersk Alabama after an aborted attempt to seize the cargo on board. Smithsonian revisits its August 2007 article on the challenges facing those who are trying to bring an end to the piracy in the Indian Ocean.
The attack came after daybreak. The Delta Ranger, a cargo ship carrying bauxite, was steaming through the ink-blue Indian Ocean in January 2006, about 200 nautical miles off Somalia's coast. A crewman on the bridge spied two speedboats zooming straight at the port side of his vessel. Moments later, bullets tore into the bridge, and vapor trails from rocket-propelled grenades streaked across the bow: pirates.
A member of the Delta Ranger's crew sounded the ship's whistle, and the cargo ship began maneuvering away as bullets thudded into its hull. The captain radioed a message to distant Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) operates the world's only pirate reporting and rescue center. In describing the attack, he added that the pirates seemed to be using a hijacked Indian dhow, a fishing vessel, as their mother ship.
The center's duty officer immediately radioed an alert to all ships in the Delta Ranger's vicinity and found that two other cargo ships had escaped similar attacks in recent days. The duty officer's next message went to the USS Winston S. Churchill, a Navy guided-missile destroyer on patrol about 100 nautical miles from the pirates' last reported position. Soon after, the Churchill headed for the dhow.
Pirates have been causing trouble ever since men first went down to the sea in ships, or at least since the 14th century B.C., when Egyptian records mention Lukkan pirates raiding Cyprus. A millennium later, Alexander the Great tried to sweep the Mediterranean clear of marauding bandits, to no avail. In 75 B.C., ship-based cutthroats took Julius Caesar hostage and ransomed him for 50 talents. The historian Plutarch wrote that Caesar then returned with several ships, captured the pirates and crucified the lot of them.
That hardly spelled the end of pirating. At the beginning of the 13th century A.D., Eustace the Monk terrorized the English Channel, and the European colonization of the Americas, with all its seaborne wealth, led to the so-called golden age of piracy, from 1660 to 1730—the era of Blackbeard, Black Bart, Captain Kidd and other celebrated pirates of the Caribbean. The era ended only after seafaring nations expanded their navies and prosecuted more aggressively to deal with the threat.
Now the seedy romance of the golden-age legends may be supplanted by a new reality: as governments cut their navies after the cold war, as thieves have gotten hold of more powerful weapons and as more and more cargo has moved by sea, piracy has once again become a lucrative form of waterborne mugging. Attacks at sea had become rare enough to be a curiosity in the mid-20th century, but began to reappear in the 1970s. By the 1990s, maritime experts noted a sharp increase in attacks, which led the IMB to establish the Piracy Reporting Centre in 1992—and still the buccaneering continued, with a high of 469 attacks registered in 2000. Since then, improvements in reporting, ship-tracking technology and government reaction have calmed the seas somewhat—the center counted 329 attacks in 2004, down to 276 in 2005 and 239 last year—but pirates remain very much in business, making the waters off Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Somalia especially perilous. "We report hundreds of acts of piracy each year, many hundreds more go undetected," says Capt. Noel Choong, head of the Piracy Reporting Centre, in Kuala Lumpur. "Ships and their crews disappear on the high seas and coastal waters every year, never to be seen again." Even stationary targets, such as oil platforms, are at risk.
Global commerce would collapse without oceangoing ships to transfer the world's fuel, minerals and bulk commodities, along with much of its medicines and foodstuffs. According to the U.S. Maritime Administration, about 95 percent of the world's trade travels by water. Boston-based Global Insight, a forecasting company, estimates the value of maritime trade for 2007 to be at least $6 trillion. Estimates of the pirates' annual global plunder range into the billions.
Unlike the galleons of old, which sat low in the water and were easily boarded, the supertankers and bulk carriers of today may rise several stories—and yet they pose no great obstacle to thieves. Bullets and rocket-propelled grenades have persuaded many a captain to stop at sea; at that point, almost any pirate can climb to the deck by tossing grappling hooks over the rail.
Today's pirates range from villainous seaside villagers to members of international crime syndicates. They ply their trade around the globe, from Iraq to Somalia to Nigeria, from the Strait of Malacca to the territorial waters off South America. No vessel seems safe, be it a supertanker or a private yacht. In November 2005, pirates in two speedboats tried to attack the cruise liner Seabourn Spirit off Somalia. The liner's captain, Sven Erik Pedersen, outran them while driving them off with a Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD—a sonic weapon the United States military developed after the USS Cole was attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in Yemen in 2000.