Why Piracy Remains a Threat

News Abroad

Mr. Peskin is Associate Professor of History, Morgan State University, and the author of the new book, Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785--1816 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). He is a writer for the History News Service. Attribution to the History News Service and the author is required for reprinting and redistribution.

The United States dodged a bullet when American sailors and Navy Seals foiled Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden. But pirates never give up easily. The possibility that they will capture more Americans there and elsewhere remains. And that possibility presents real dangers for the Obama administration.

Why should the world's greatest superpower worry about small groups of pirates? Because, while the military threat may be minimal, public reaction to a prolonged captivity crisis could derail the administration's foreign policy. That's exactly what happened 200 years ago, when African pirates last held Americans for ransom.

Back then the culprits were from the Barbary coast of North Africa, not Somalia. But like today's Somalis the North Africans hoped to turn substantial profits by ransoming American and European prisoners.

Then, as now, the United States was coming out of a long and costly war (with England). Then, George Washington and others hoped to shrink the military and enjoy a period of peace. Today, President Obama hopes to reduce American military commitments abroad as the Iraq war winds down. Pirate seizures were fatal to Washington's vision. They could also kill Obama's.

In 1785, Algerian pirates captured two American ships and their crews in what seemed, like recent events, to be a minor incident. But, as the crisis dragged on, bitter public complaints about America's ineptitude became a factor leading to implementation of a stronger form of government under the Constitution of 1789.

When Algerians captured 11 more ships and more than 100 American sailors in 1793, the United States remained too weak to force the Algerians to free the sailors and too poor to ransom them, despite the new Constitution. In an earlier era these events might not have had much impact beyond the family circles of the captives. But the 1790s marked the beginning of the modern public media, and, like today, that media and the public it served were fascinated by piracy.

Just as Maersk Alabama Captain Richard Phillips became a household name across the worldwide web, the captive Americans became celebrities. Their letters home were picked up by newspapers, and some captives even wrote tell-all books. Playwrights and novelists soon dramatized them in popular fictions. Such accounts further stoked public outrage.

In response to the uproar, Congress established the U.S. Navy to free the captives. The anti-militarism of the 1780s gave way to a more nationalistic spirit, but as a concession to older attitudes the navy was to be disbanded after the crisis ended. Pro-Navy congressmen ignored this law, and the Navy continued to grow, partly in response to a second Barbary crisis, which led to the War with Tripoli (1801-05). Eventually, after yet another crisis with Algerian pirates, culminating in 1816, the enlarged Navy prevailed, forcing the Barbary states to end their practice of capturing United States ships.

While much has changed over two hundred years, the media's fascination with pirates and captives remains. If Somalian pirates capture more Americans and hold them for ransom, television cameras, cell phones, and You Tube will prompt at least as powerful a reaction as during the Barbary piracy. The resulting outrage would could force the president to commit the military to new adventures and endanger his goal of reducing American military engagements abroad, just as the reaction to Barbary piracy pushed an initially reluctant new nation into overseas military adventures.

Paradoxically, despite overwhelming American military might, victory in a war against Somalian pirates would be more complicated than in the Barbary wars. Barbary pirates were really state-sanctioned privateers whose profits went into national treasuries. Because Somalian pirates are not attached to any state, there will be no enemy government to sign treaties ending a war against piracy, so it could become a long and costly struggle to identify and eradicate every small group of pirates.

Hence the need to avoid such a struggle by avoiding further captures. During the Barbary crises American diplomats valiantly attempted to inform American captains of the location of pirates and urged American vessels to sail in convoys with armed protection. Slow communications and military weakness hampered these efforts. Today, with modern communications and a powerful Navy to protect convoys, avoiding captures will be easier than it was 200 years ago and more likely to prevent the horrors of captivity and the inevitable public backlash.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Andrew D. Todd - 5/4/2009

Well, as I have said previously, it is deeply problematic to talk about American-Algerian relations in the eighteenth century as if England, France, and Spain did not exist. I am not of course deeply read in the "Algerian Captivity" literature, but I do note that in Royal Tyler's _The Algerine Captive_, the author pays at least as much attention to Thomas Paine, and his connection with Robespierre, as to the political aspects of the Algerians; and that there is much more sheer moral outrage in the description of an American slave ship than in any of the Algerian episodes. Indeed, one could make a fair case that the narrator's Algerian captivity is presented as divine retribution for having signed onto a slaver. Note the helpful and sympathetic mullah, who, failing to convert the narrator, at least manages to find him a desk job which an infidel can hold.

The threat of Somali captivity at present is very much overblown because there are not many American seamen to exercise it upon. Most of the American Merchant Marine is employed in the coastal trades, which are reserved to them by law. It is not really plausible that the Somalis should intercept ships en-route from Seattle to Alaska. Only a tiny number of American-flag ships are engaged in overseas commerce.


Statistical Abstract of the United States
Table 1067, Cargo Carrying U.S. Flag Fleet by Area of Operations (p. 16 in acrobat file, or p. 684 in printed book)
"Foreign Waterborne Trade" is defined in such a way as to include a ship which plies the great lakes between a mine in western Ontario and a mill in Ohio, or a ferry which operates between Cleveland and Toronto. The actual size of the foreign trade component of the American Merchant Marine, as defined according to reasonable standards, is less than a hundred ships, many of which are de-facto Navy supply ships.

The Maersk Alabama is in fact a Danish-owned ship, built in Taiwan, which was transferred to a subsidiary company in 2004, and "reflagged" as American, in order to collect American government subsidies, in exchange for employing American sailors. The general practice of the Danish and Norwegian owners seems to be to employ a mixture of former Soviet and Third-World sailors, who are willing to work for far less than Americans would require. The ship's "regular route is from the United States to Salalah, Djibouti and Mombasa," ie. to the East Africa / Horn of Africa / Arabian Peninsula area.


Consulting publications on trade between countries, one can get a fairly good idea of the Maersk Alabama's usual cargo. This would probably consist of general cargo to Arabia (in exchange for oil, carried by tankers), Food Aid to East Africa / Horn of Africa, and coffee, from the later two regions, as a return cargo. Presumably, with the war going on in Iraq, there are some American military cargoes as well, and I would not be surprised if this had entered into the decision to reflag the ship in the year 2004. The ship is not just going about its business in a general way. It is, shall we say, inserting itself into the region, as an extension of American military policy.

A bona fide American overseas merchant ship, in the strictest sense of the word, is something of a mythical beast. If one goes to the trouble of having goods manufactured in a Third World country to keep the labor costs down, one does not ordinarily turn around and start paying American wages for shipping until one is compelled to do so.

A staple of Victorian pornography was the image of the naked white woman in the eastern slave market, ogled by a bunch of Arabs. Of course such images said a lot more about the English and American audience than they did about actual Arabs. Something similar can be said about the modern image of the kidnapped American sailor.