Tuesday, April 28, 2009


I have recently waded into the murky waters of the history of piracy in the Greco-Roman world. As a participant in a graduate seminar here at Berkeley on ancient Greek economic history, I prepared a presentation on a dossier of Greek inscriptions to do with attacks by sea and on the seas, and to do with local efforts to recoup losses, secure captives, and honor the benefactors who bailed the victims out in their time of need. All this amidst the first direct confrontation between the US military and Somali pirates, and more prolific bloggers weighing in on possible connections between the ancient Mediterranean and the contemporary Gulf of Aden.

It is often said that one man's pirate is another man's...well, you get the idea.  There is quite a debate in ancient history about whether piracy should be understood as just another form of economic activity. The Greeks of "Homeric Society," at least were somewhat ambivalent; as Nestor asks Telemachus in the third book of the Odyssey, "Are you a pirate (leistês) or a trader?" And, as Thucydides later noticed, Nestor was basically fine with the visitor being either. The term peiratês, when it appears in the Hellenistic period, is certainly one of abuse. No one self-identifies in our sources as one. Some then would argue that what distinguishes "piracy," which fed into markets for slaves and produced new ones for "protection," from any other normal, albeit violent, economic activity, was merely its lack of a state-issued grant of legitimacy, unlike Sir Walter Raleigh with his "letters of marque," or national armies when they engage in plunder under the cover of their uniforms. 

That isn't my position, but it got me thinking: what if the pirate draws his legitimacy -- and more than enough, at that -- from his immediate societal context? That the reaction of the Somali pirates to the ultimately lethal Navy Seal operation was to retaliate against non-US vessels, one Lebanese, I believe, was another hint that these people are playing by different rules. In other words, they have their own sources of legitimacy.

This is certainly one of the lessons to draw from this BBC interview with an active pirate, twenty-five years old and living in "the notorious den of Harardhere in central Somalia." Somehow, I don't think this is an unedited transcript.
"So it is no surprise to see us in the same water [as migrants], pirating in search of money - there is no difference. We have local support; most of the people here depend on pirates directly or indirectly. Because if there is a lot of money in the town they can get some through friendship, relatives or business. Also our work is seen by many in the coastal villages as legal and we are viewed as heroes."
Speaking of the economics of piracy, how about the significant Israeli presence in the security industry for both cruise and commercial ships in the region? Yet another high-value, specialized security export. On Saturday, a private Israeli security detail beat back pirates from a large German-Italian cruise ship. As it turns out, the Defense Ministry doesn't keep any statistics on the numbers of ex-IDF, many of them with specialized nautical training, working in that sector, though they do for arms dealing. It seems kind of unwise to me. Could we see a situation in the near future where an Israeli national gets more involved out there than the government would prefer?


Amos said...

Yossi Melman, who writes on military affairs, has an article on Israeli security teams, which adds a few more details about the companies working in this field. Nothing incredibly revealing though.

redel said...

I don't agree with your statement that what separates piracy from any other economic activity is state issued legitimacy. That is what separates it from any other form of warfare. (well perhaps that and its profitability). A privateer's letters of marque allow him to rob in the same way a soldier is allowed to kill.

It seems to me that piracy is just another form of robbery and extortion. Sure these can have local benefits to companies providing security, just like an oil spill provides benefits to a company that cleans it up, or a bombing provides benefits for construction. But in the end impeding trade and disrupting business is a net harm on the economy.

If you want to compare piracy to some legitimate economic activity, perhaps a tax or tariff makes more sense. It could be considered fee for travelling through the waters near somalia, collected in a rather destructive and random way. This seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but more reasonable than thinking of it as a business.

Amos said...

Hey Redel,

Excellent point ("A privateer's letters of marquee allow him to rob in the same way a soldier is allowed to kill"), but Noah was simply paraphrasing a position not his own.

As for legitimacy, I don't really care if people from the same clan as the pirate or his village believe that he is engaging in legal activity. The net economic impact for shipping nations is bad. Should I be happy about the entrepreneurship shown by these Somali pirates? I guess I am as happy about it as I would be about the business acumen of a protection money racket anywhere else. I'm not particularly enthused by mini-warlords making money to buy more weapons and run their local towns or villages in Somalia.

Noah K said...


I tend to concur with your position, that analytically it is more useful to think of piracy as a form of warfare than a kind of *productive economic activity.


Perhaps I am sounding too much of a note of "we should try and understand the pirates," while you are more pragmatic: what they are doing has deleterious effects on world commerce. I think my point is more than academic. The only way to curtail piracy in the region is to understand the social and economic context from which it springs -- there is no political context, after all, as there is no state. As you the American military itself is on record saying, you can't eradicate it. That said, to me, it's very significant that these guys don't see themselves as outlaws, and have that version of reality reinforced by their communities. That has a tangible effect on outcomes here -- will they keep doing it, will their skill, manpower, weaponry be taken over by Al Qaeda? It has a bearing on answering those kinds of questions.

Amos said...

I think the pirates are starting to learn that their occupation has become a whole lot riskier. Recently, they tried to take over what, to their apparent surprise, turned out to be a French navy ship. They're now in custody and their mother ship was seized. I'm not sure if this approach will prove effective. So far, it seems relatively cheap and not terribly dangerous. I think the French are enjoying it too.

I agree that it's good to understand where the pirates are based and what kind of support they enjoy. I would try to use that to think of how to target them more effectively, in order to keep them from trying to hijack ships.

Of course, one could say that all this doesn't address the "roots" of the problem - the failed Somali state, etc. But no one has time to wait that long. Basically these guys will always be there to cause trouble of some sort. The aim of shipping nations should be to keep these outlaws from causing harm to their economies.

Noah K said...

And I am saying the "roots" of the problem are more than that the outlaws are broke. Why aren't the wretched of the earth near other strategic shipping lanes doing this? I think part of the story is the legitimacy they can stand on locally.

Amos said...

We might be putting too much emphasis on the local legitimacy. The coast off Somalia historically has not been the only hotbed of piracy. I don't know if the cultural factor is so important. I'm not really sure they even have so much "legitimacy." I think they just have power, based on money and weapons ... just like other brigands.

This is what you need for piracy today:

1. proximity to lucrative shipping lanes
2. naval skills
3. easy access to weapons, speed boats, GPS, etc. = result of weak central authority, war-torn regions, etc.
4. relatively vulnerable targets

I think the Philippines and Malaysia used to be centers of piracy; latter still is. Notice that Filipinos also provide many of the world's sailors ("naval skills"). You know more than me about the Mediterranean context.

Noah K said...

Right, that's where we disagree: I think the cultural factors might matter more. But how can we know for sure or not unless we investigate? This interview gives some insight in that regard.

But I agree all of those other factors matter too, particularly naval skills. The same places that produce sailors produce pirates -- and anti-pirates, as we see with the ex-Israeli navy security teams. There is definitely a significant amount of piracy in S. Pacific and has been for sometime. On vulnerability, I would emphasize how daring the Somalis are rather than how vulnerable these ships are. That to me needs some explanation, and that is why I am interested in cultural factors.

Amos said...

That's a good point. These guys are daring. Very motivated. And I guess for that you do need some sense that what you're doing is a) necessary for your survival and therefore b) legitimate.

Amos said...

The Times is reporting that communities in northern Somalia (Puntland) are trying to push out pirates. Here's a choice quote from one of the affected pirate leaders:

"Man, these Islamic guys want to cut my hands off," he grumbled over a plate of camel meat and spaghetti. The sheiks seemed to have rattled him more than the armada of foreign warships patrolling offshore. "Maybe it’s time for a change."

Noah K said...

Super interesting. I wonder if their support will just evaporate overnight. Thanks a lot. I too was suspicious of the claims of the BBC interviewee.