On the Origin of Pirates

I write this from a position of relative ignorance on the issue of the Somali pirates, except for that information widely available in the press. However, after reading this article from the New York Times, I felt empowered to make some mildly dubious gratuitous historical comparisons to two periods of piracy along the Chinese coast.

Despite the headline, the article mostly discusses the Obama administration’s efforts to downplay the likelihood of expansive military action, especially raids against pirate bases on shore. However, with both NATO and EU anti-piracy forces in the region, it is clear that more military solutions are being sought. This should not be the only course of action. Piracy, like banditry, is largely a product of economic circumstance and the weakness of local government – these causes must be addressed in addition to military action.

More on the flip.

In the early 1520s, the Chinese coast was attacked by small bands of Japanese pirates called the wo’kou. In response, the Ming government took the radical step of imposing a maritime interdict – prohibiting overseas trade and the operation of large fishing vessels. In a fell swoop, they criminalized a large portion of the coastal population and destroyed the coastal economy. In response, large numbers of Chinese merchants and sailors became smugglers and pirates. As one official noted:

Pirates and merchants are the same people: when markets are open the pirates become merchants, and when the markets are closed the merchants become pirates (in Antony 2003).

The pirate attacks continued into the 1570s, though they began to wane in the late 1560s in response to the repeal of the maritime interdicts in 1567. Rising economic opportunity in the form of legitimate business met the rising costs of piracy in the form of improved Chinese coastal defenses and the naval power of the Portuguese, who had established a colony at Macao in the 1550s.

A similar dynamic repeated itself in the period of the haikou, from 1620 to 1684. The weakening of the Ming dynasty resulted in a loss of control at the periphery of the empire and prompted minor outbreaks of piracy along the coast. As before, the government responded with a maritime interdict, again forcing the transition of the coastal economy to smuggling and piracy. The peak of pirate activity lasted from the 1640s to the 1660s, coinciding with a series of famines and the total collapse of the Ming dynasty.

The decline of the haikou began with the establishment of the Ch’ing dynasty. They imposed a much harsher interdict – prohibiting all seafaring on pain of death. The interdict was followed in 1661 by the maritime evacuation order, which forcibly relocated all coastal settlements in Fukien and Kwangtung 20 miles inland. This increased the costs of piracy and smuggling, while liberalized relations with European merchants decreased the potential profits.

The Ch’ing government began to lift both the interdicts and the evacuation order in 1669. As the coastal economy recovered, the minor pirates returned to legitimate enterprise, leaving only the larger rebel-pirate enterprise of the Cheng family on Taiwan, which was finally defeated in 1683.

What does this teach us about the situation off the Somali coast? As this post on Treehugger recounts, the origin of Somali pirates can be traced to the weakness of the government and the collapse of the coastal economy.

Thousands of Somalis once made their living as fishermen. But Somalia has been without a central government for nearly two decades—so there’s no active body that’s able to effectively protect the country’s rights to its coastline, and the once-abundant supply of fish it held. So now, due to the willingness of foreigners to exploit fisheries off Somalia’s coast, and the lack of a governing body to stave them off, many of these fishermen are finding their nets empty.


And without the ability to bring home even a sufficient amount of fish to eat, many of these fisherman justifiably grow desperate. But even from here, it’s not a simple jump to pirating. Initially, many of the now-termed “pirates” were vigilante patrol squads, steering their boats to fishing vessels they found illegally snagging seafood or dumping toxic waste in Somali waters and demanding they pay a tax. After this proved ineffective, something closer to organized piracy developed.

As in the historical Chinese example, the solution, then, must be a blend of economic relief and military action. A large scale military effort off the Somali coast will certainly increase the costs of piracy, and the adoption of a convoy system would decrease the opportunity for profit (although this move has been resisted by shipping companies). Neither effort will be enough, however, unless genuine economic opportunity returns to Somalia. In each of the Chinese examples, piracy – perhaps better termed coastal banditry – declined only after the coastal economy recovered and there existed the possibility of profitable legitimate business enterprise. The dynamic is the same here. Fortunately, based on the Times’ article, this is recognized by the Obama administration.

“There is no purely military solution to it,” Mr. Gates said at the Marine Corps War College. “And as long as you’ve got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there’s really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids.”

This bears repeating.

Further reading on Chinese pirates:

Antony, R.J. Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China, Berkeley, 2003.

So, Kwan-wai. Japanese Piracy in Ming China During the 16th Century, Easting Lansing, 1975.

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 4:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thanks for some reasoned analysis in an environment of “ya-har, let’s get ’em” reporting. I’m concerned that the mainstream U.S. media isn’t giving fellow Americans enough information about the situation on the ground in Somalia.

    Turns out, many Somalis see “pirates” as defending their ungoverned shores against illegal international trawlers in search of fish — as well as against illegal international dumpers with toxic waste. That doesn’t justify those Somalis at sea who attack innocents or steal aid. But it does give context to the support so many Somalis apparently give to at least some of those who we call “pirates.”


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