The Brethren of the Coast
My Lord, it is a very hard Sentence. For my Part, I am the innocentest Person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured Persons.
—Captain William Kidd, May 1701
Three hundred years ago one of the most famous outlaws of his era stood before an Admiralty Sessions convened at London’s Old Bailey Courthouse to utter these meek words of defense.1 Captain Kidd had been found guilty of "Pyracy and Robbery on the High Seas,"as well as murder, capping a brief three- year career as a buccaneer that had come to fascinate the general public. He’d been neither the most successful pirate of the time nor the most feared; indeed, he was actually somewhat amateurish in his attempts at plundering ships off the Malabar coast of India and his crew had actually mutinied against what they saw as an incompetent leader. Captured in Boston and sent back to En gland to face justice, Kidd was in his mid- fifties when his roving days came to a close.
Yet Kidd was undeniably legendary back then, and part of the reason for his notoriety was that he had turned his back on a life of genteel opportunity to become a roving pirate. The Scots- born son of a Presbyterian minister, William Kidd set off for the New World, where he made a name for himself as a member of the colonial elite in New York City, with a house on Wall Street and a wealthy bride. But for reasons that have never been made clear, he soon grew bored with his refined life in America and decided to embark on a series of privateering expeditions, possibly yearning for adventure—and the chance to make some easy money.
Privateers are not pirates, at least not legally. The difference between the two is important, as a privateer operates within the laws of a nation, while a pirate does not. Traditionally, privateers received a document from their government known as a "etter of marque"that allowed them to legally attack the merchant shipping of an enemy state. Armed with such a letter and suitable weaponry, privateers were expected to return a portion of any profits plundered to the authorities. Kidd got his own letter of marque from the British and sallied forth to attack French shipping but then got greedy and turned from privateering to outright piracy against any vessels he encountered, English or foreign. To the authorities in London this was unacceptable for a variety of reasons, not the least because it sullied the reputations of recognized privateers. Perhaps more important, though, Kidd’s feats set a dangerous precedent, showing that piracy could appeal not only to the poor and dispossessed but also to the gentry. When someone of his upbringing decided to go "on the account"and take to pirating, the Admiralty had to deal with it quickly. He could not be allowed to become a hero or role model for anyone thinking about piracy.
So it was that Captain William Kidd was tried for his crimes during a brief two- day session in the Old Bailey, found guilty of all charges, and sentenced to death. Barely two weeks later, on May 23, 1701, he was bundled aboard a horse- drawn cart and traveled from Newgate Prison in the City of London toward the then suburb of Wapping and a place known as Execution Dock. Located at a bend on the north side of the Thames River not far from the Tower of London, this was where convicted pirates were traditionally hanged. With a crowd watching onshore and from sightseeing boats on the river, the most infamous pirate of the day was led to the gallows at Execution Dock, continuing to protest his innocence. By most accounts he was blind drunk as the hangmen put the noose around his neck. This was probably just as well, for it took two tries to kill him: the rope broke on the first fall and he lay wallowing in the river mud before he was led back to the gallows and the sentence was finally carried out. Admiralty law then proscribed that his body be tarred, bound in irons, and hung from a gibbet farther downriver at Tilbury Point for all to see, rotting there for years afterward as warning to other would- be pirates.
Modern Wapping is today, like much of the Docklands area, awash with redevelopments turning a historic part of London into upscale condos and offices. Execution Dock is long gone— its last use as a killing ground was in 1830— and it’s difficult to find the site today. Walking along the narrow confines of Wapping High Road, I find no historical markers or other indications of this macabre part of London’s history. The street is separated from the Thames by buildings old and new, with a couple of parkettes offering riverside views of Tower Bridge, but little else.
Stopping at a pub to ask the bartender if he knows where Execution Dock is, I’m told it’s right next door, and I head down a small laneway to the river’s edge, the closest one can get to the actual location. There is really nothing much to see beyond tour boats plying the Thames on this late- summer morning and bits of rubbish floating toward the sea, not that I’d expected relics to be lingering after several hundred years. But the effort to see where Captain Kidd and so many others like him met their demise makes me realize that the reality of pirate life has often been kept hidden from us.
For instance, one of the forgotten aspects of London’s history is the wealth that it received from pirates and privateers and the degree to which piracy was considered a legitimate, or quasi- legitimate, form of maritime life. For hundreds of years, the bounty plundered by Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan, and countless regular sailors helped make London’s waterfront teem with brothels, bars, and gaming parlors where one’s newfound, illicit wealth could be spent. The same held true for New York City, Boston, Nassau, Havana, and numerous ports around the world. Even with the threat of Execution Dock’s gallows looming nearby, the allure of a supposedly easy life of maritime crime would have been strong for the impoverished men sitting in Wapping’s pubs centuries ago.
I’ve come to London not just to see the historical site where pirates like Captain Kidd were executed but also to begin understanding how piracy could remain such a problem in today’s day and age while being virtually unknown to most people. One of the best places to start is at the IMB. It is not a governmental organization but a division of the Paris- based International Chamber of Commerce, an organization founded in 1919 to promote business interests and global trade. The IMB itself was established in 1981 to help combat commercial crime in the maritime world and is funded by a variety of shipping firms, insurance companies, and others concerned about the issue. It is one of the groups at the forefront of dealing with global piracy today and, ironically, is headquartered within sight of the old Execution Dock here in Wapping.
The IMB’s director is Pottengal Mukundan, a professional mariner who rose to become a captain before coming ashore to take a desk job with the IMB when it was set up. A trim, bespectacled man, he speaks in the calm, deliberate manner of a master mariner. Mukundan works tirelessly to publicize the threats posed by pirates and maritime criminals, crisscrossing the globe to speak at conferences, meet with government officials and military officers, and persuade the shipping industry to address the problem.
"Why does someone become a pirate? Well, purely for financial gain,"Mukundan tells me when we meet. "Everything that we see is economic piracy and most of the incidents take place in countries with economic problems. As long as there has been maritime commerce, there has been piracy. Pirates in the old days were . . . criminals of the lowest kind who preyed on the weak and showed no mercy at all. Pirates today are exactly the same, though violence has increased and the types of attacks have become more dangerous. The problem now is that pirates are using guns, knives, and even grenade launchers, and the types of attacks have become more dangerous— today very often you have four or five boats, converging on the target vessel from different directions, making it very difficult for the people on the bridge of the merchant ship to avoid the pirate boats, and in that confusion [pirates] will fire on the bridge and then get on board, from the stern typically, and take control of the ship."
Mukundan explains that the IMB began to look more closely at piracy, as opposed to general maritime crime, back in 1991. The following year, they opened the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which collects information about incidents from the shipping industry, government organizations, the media, and even individual mariners. Before that time, no one had bothered to assess the global threat of piracy in such a comprehensive manner, and they continually update their information on a regular basis. The IMB’s records are considered the most complete source of information on piracy in the world, used by the United Nations and various governments and businesses. The results of the IMB’s analyses make it clear that piracy is not just alive and well but getting worse.
"Since we began looking at piracy, we have seen the attacks steadily go up. For instance, in 1994 there were only 90 actual or attempted attacks reported to us, but by 2000 that figure had risen to 469. The attacks went down a bit in 2005–2006, but then began to increase again: we had 198 reported attacks in the first nine months of 2007, up 14% from the same period a year earlier. But, and this is something I must emphasize, there are a very large number of attacks which go unreported, particularly in West Africa, South Africa, and South America. The real figures are much higher. We know that in some cases, there have been forty to fifty attacks in a country that are not reported."
As laid out in detailed reports the IMB has been publishing on a regular basis, there have been pirate incidents in the waters off 82 countries around the world in the last decade and a half, involving vessels from 112 different nationalities.2 If you consider that the United Nations lists 192 Member States as belonging to that global body, the IMB’s statistics reveal that pirates have attacked vessels flying the flags of over half the nations on Earth.
The reports are meticulous, providing accounts of each individual pirate attack reported to the IMB, a list of the regions where piracy is occurring, the types of vessels involved, the weapons used, and a breakdown of the types of violence crews faced. It is the latter set of statistics, known as Table 8 in the IMB reports, that is most chilling to read, for they outline just what mariners endure on the seas. The headings read: "Taken Hostage,""Kidnap/Ransom,""Threatened,""Assaulted,""Injured,""Killed,""Missing."Beside each is a row of figures that adds up to over five thousand incidents of violence committed by pirates in the last decade. These include
over 2,800 hostage takings, 303 murders, and 167 unsolved disappearances of mariners, an annual average of 321 pirate incidents, 280 people taken prisoner and 30 individuals killed. Since the real figures are assumed to be much higher— Mukundan tells me that doubling them would be entirely plausible—this begins to reveal the scope of the threat that looms out there.
I pick up the IMB report for the first half of 2007 and flip through its catalogue of pirate attacks:
Nigeria, 8 January: Danish product tanker was attacked by armed pirates while anchored at position Latitude 06:19 North and Longitude 003:23 East. Five pirates armed with guns and knives boarded at approximately 2335 Local Time. They attacked the duty crew Bosun who sustained injuries to his left hand. They then tied him up and stole his personal effects. The pirates then threatened to cut off his ears if he did not reveal the code for the locks to the Cargo Control Room and how much money was aboard.
Bangladesh, 29 March: Dutch container vessel was anchored in Chittagong Roads when two robbers using grappling hooks with ropes boarded from a small boat near the stern. The alarm was raised by the deck watchmen who were attacked by the robbers armed with knives. The crew sustained serious cuts to their hands. The robbers jumped into the water and the small boat moved away.
India, 13 April: Singapore tug was towing a barge off Trivandrum at position 08:20 N 076:32 E when about 100 pirates including fishermen armed with long knives boarded the barge. They stole cargo and escaped.
Spratly Islands, South China Sea, 26 April: Armed pirates boarded Chinese fishing vessel at time unknown and robbed it of its catch while it was taking shelter due to engine trouble. The Master informed his family about the robbery and that another vessel was approaching it. All contact with the fishing vessel was lost since the Master’s last call. The fate of the vessel and crew members is unknown.
Somalia, 14 May: United Arab Emirates–owned general cargo ship attacked while 180 nautical miles off coast at 1530 Local [Time]. Pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers approached and ordered the ship to stop and started firing towards the bridge. Master took evasive action when he saw pirates preparing to fire rocket- propelled grenades. The ship was hit and accommodation caught fire and was extensively damaged. Attack lasted for one hour before pirates aborted.
These incidents— involving a containership, a tanker, a tugboat, a cargo ship, and a fishing boat— are just 5 out of 126 that had been reported to the IMB between January and July of 2007, but they are a good cross section of the types of pirate attacks that occur on the seas today. Mukundan assures me that these are by no means the worst reports they’ve received. Descriptions of gangs large and small, violence to crews, abductions, petty thefts, disappeared ships, rocket- propelled grenades— these are the sorts of things he finds waiting in his morning e-mails each day he comes to work. Though he’s not inured to the continual barrage of incident reports that filter in from all corners of the world, Mukundan takes pains to maintain a professional demeanor when looking at piracy: "Of course I get angry when I hear about these attacks. Who wouldn’t? The lives of people are at stake here, but just getting angry will not solve this problem."
The IMB director stresses the importance of collecting information, sifting through it for developing trends, and sharing what they have learned with others so that mariners and governments can be aware of the situation. After establishing the Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia, the organization set out to pinpoint the root causes of regional maritime crime, and by looking at the data compiled since then they were able to establish three key factors that lead to piracy: a desire to make money, a lack of strong law enforcement, and unarmed vessels plying nearby waters. Or, to put it another way, greed, lawlessness, and opportunity.
"If you look at any of the hot spots of piracy today, you will find these conditions present. For example, in Somalia there is no national government or law enforcement infrastructure, no one for the victims to turn to for assistance, there is poverty from the fighting and chaos in the country, and there is [shipping] traffic along the coastline. So it’s a combination of social conditions, economic conditions, and the way law enforcement is done that allows piracy to flourish."
The hot spots that Mukundan is referring to are those places around the globe that are the most dangerous for mariners, as shown by reports of pirate attacks received by the IMB. He highlights the waters off Somalia and Nigeria as being the worst places seafarers can find themselves today, though his list also includes Indonesia, Tanzania, West Africa, the Red Sea, the port of Santos in Brazil, and Bangladesh. In all of these locations, vessels have been attacked while anchored and also while steaming.
For most of the past decade, the most notorious area infested by pirates has been the Strait of Malacca, between Indonesia and Malaysia. Because it is a crucial sea- lane connecting East Asia with the West and transited by thousands of vessels each year, the numerous pirate attacks on shipping in this region have attracted a lot of attention. When I ask him about the situation there today, Mukundan relaxes a bit after having provided me with such a bleak assessment of the worldwide piracy situation. He explains that though the Strait is still prone to pirate attacks, the situation there is much better than it was a few years ago. Years of prodding by the IMB and other groups finally forced the three nations that control the waters, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, to become more forceful in dealing with the threat.
"We have the odd attack in Southeast Asia, either in the Malacca Straits or east of Singapore, which indicates that the gangs doing the serious attacks— the hijacking of ships— are still present. There was an attack, for example, against a product tanker in March. The ship was actually hijacked and the hijackers took control of the ship and tried to sail it towards an Indonesian island. The engines failed and they became so frustrated that they left the vessel after seven hours. The crew then freed themselves, restarted the engines, and went back to Singapore. Overall things are much safer there, though we still recommend vigilance by crews."
Having looked at the root causes of modern- day piracy, the IMB next began to analyze what sorts of groups were engaging in attacks. In truth, there are many incidents that essentially involve a couple of guys climbing aboard a ship while she’s anchored in port and trying to steal what ever they can get their hands on: paint, ropes, tools, and anything else that the crew might have left out in the open. These are like smash- and- grab thefts in cities, albeit without so much smashing. Because of this, a number of observers have derided pirates as nothing more than mere thugs, not worthy of a great degree of notice.
But ask any criminologist about petty crime and you’ll see that there’s a slippery slope involved here. If it’s that easy to make some money stealing paint cans off a vessel, there’s a definite risk that the individuals involved will decide to try something more brazen, like robbing a mariner of his wallet, stealing the contents of a ship’s safe, or holding the crew for ransom. Pottengal Mukundan says that what the IMB has discovered is that there are distinct types of pirate attacks that can be separated by their intent.
"At the bottom end of the scale you have mugging at sea, where low- level criminals try to get on board a ship and try to steal what ever they can within a period of about forty minutes to an hour and then take off. At the other end of the scale you have the organized- crime attack, which is really aimed at hijacking the multimillion- dollar ship and its multimillion- dollar cargo. That’s a very well- resourced attack. They use automatic weapons like rocket- propelled grenade launchers, they will change the name of the ship, kill the crew or set them adrift, and then they take the vessel to a new port, under a false name, and discharge the cargo. And then, once the cargo is discharged, they have control of the empty vessel, which they use as a criminal vessel, a pirate vessel, what we call a phantom ship."
In between these extremes is the most serious type of piracy, where ships are attacked not to steal the cargo but to abduct the crew and hold them until a ransom is paid. In some places, pirates only target the senior officers, such as the captains and chief engineers, while in other spots they keep the entire crew hostage, as happened to Hassan Abdalla off Somalia. According to Mukundan, these attacks are carried out by well- organized gangs who have a knowledge of how the shipping industry works. Their ability to pinpoint a vessel at sea, board her and abduct crew members, and then carry out negotiations with shipowners for ransom requires much more sophistication than these gangs are often given credit for.
"The taking of hostages is not opportunistic; it is a very well-planned attack: they are well resourced, well armed. They take over the ship and hold the crew for ransom. Organized- crime syndicates are actively involved and they’ve always been, because it’s a hugely profitable exercise for them. You might get $50,000 (U.S.) for a crew; you might get a half- million dollars for the entire ship. So, there is a lot of money involved."
The IMB director goes on to say that the networks used to or-ga nize hijackings involve more than a few guys with a small boat and some weapons. Pirates today monitor radio frequencies and the Internet, receive information from spies in ports and confederates within the shipping industry, and get assistance from mariners willing to betray their shipmates. An incident in late May of 2007 is an example of how sophisticated the IMB has seen pirate gangs become.
In the wee hours of Tuesday, May 22, the tanker MT Thanadol 4 was steaming about thirty miles off the east coast of Thailand in the Gulf of Siam (also known as the Gulf of Thailand). The ship was laden with hundreds of thousands of liters of fuel oil for fishing vessels working the surrounding seas when she was approached by a small boat piloted by a former crew member from the tanker. He boarded the Thanadol 4 and said he was hijacking her. The idea seems to have been to sail the tanker to an undisclosed location and off- load the cargo of fuel oil so it could likely be sold on the black market.
Apparently, the pirate hoped to convince the crew to help him and his land- based accomplices with the plan— maybe the pirate gang thought the seafarers aboard the tanker were so poorly paid that some extra cash would be enough of an inducement to join in the plot. Unfortunately for the would- be hijacker, the crew of the Thanadol 4 balked at becoming pirates themselves and, in retaliation, their former comrade shot and killed the captain, throwing his body into the sea.
Three members of the tanker’s crew managed to escape and jump overboard. Picked up by a passing fishing boat, the escapees notified the Thai authorities that their ship had been hijacked, and naval aircraft and patrol boats were dispatched to find the phantom ship. Within a short time, they’d located the ship and, as the noose tightened, the pirate aboard the Thanadol 4 fled from the ship, only to be captured by marine police.
Someone obviously doesn’t set out to hijack an oil tanker on his own. The ability to locate a commercial vessel while it’s sailing thirty miles offshore means there was intelligence gathered about when the tanker was departing port and where she was planning to sail. Believing the crew could be co- opted to participate in the plot points to an insider’s take on their mind- set. And disposing of thousands of liters of fuel oil requires coordination with other vessels, such as barges, to off- load the cargo from the tanker, as well as the business connections to sell the booty. So, though only one person was arrested in this particular incident, there must have been many others involved in its planning and execution who are still at large.
According to Mukundan, these types of events receive little notice in the media because they so often happen in some far- off locale and involve small numbers of mariners from non-Western nations. As he puts it, when a passenger plane is hijacked it often has hundreds of passengers aboard, with a good chance there are at least a few from some major nation, while on a typical ship "you might have just twenty crew members, from places like India, the Philippines, China, or Indonesia, and they don’t get the attention they should."
For someone who began his career as a professional mariner, modern- day piracy is more than just a collection of statistics in annual reports; it is an ever- present threat to the lives of those who are fellow members of the global fraternity of seafarers. Mukundan expresses some disappointment that the issue is still downplayed by various governments and elements in the shipping industry, as though piracy were just another of the costs of doing business today.
"It is very serious for the unfortunate victims,"Mukundan says, quickly adding, "You must remember that a ship is a person’s home; it is more than a place where you go to work. When people invade at night and take over a vessel, the crew members know that no one is going to come to their assistance while the pirates are on board. At sea, on a ship, nobody is going to help them. So they know for that time they are completely at the mercy of the pirates. And many seafarers who survive these attacks, the serious attacks, probably will not go back to sea again; they’ve given up the life at sea because the experience is very traumatic. I don’t think it should be the cost of doing business."
If records like the IMB’s are to be believed, there are only a few hundred pirate attacks occurring every year, which, in the harsh reality of life today, does not seem to constitute a problem serious enough to warrant greater attention. But even Pottengal Mukundan believes the real figures are much higher, as he had told me earlier.
Wondering why so many incidents would go unreported, I head off to Southwark, on London’s south bank of the Thames, to meet with a shipping insider. Like a number of individuals I would speak to while looking into modern- day piracy, he preferred to remain anonymous. In some cases this was because of the sensitive nature of what they had to say, and I have protected their true identities to safeguard them. In other cases, like this, the individual I was talking to worked in the shipping industry, which is highly competitive and notoriously secretive about its activities, as I’d found when working on a previous book about commercial sea-faring.3 Until last year, this man—"Ian"—had been working as an officer on commercial vessels in the Far East and off Africa. Family commitments led him to return home to Britain, where he now works in the London office of an international shipping firm. Preferring I not swing by his workplace to talk, he’d suggested we meet beside the replica of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, the Golden Hinde, which is berthed near London Bridge, telling me in an e-mail: "Well, if you want to talk about pirates, let’s begin at Drake’s ship. I’m a bit of a history buff about those days."
Early for our meeting, I take a few moments to wander around the wooden galleon, which lies in a special dock adjacent to the Thames. Perhaps because it’s almost noon on a Thursday, there are few people paying much attention to the ship, and she’s not nearly as famous a tourist attraction as the cruiser HMS Belfast (moored within sight of the Golden Hinde) or even the Cutty Sark (found downriver in Greenwich and currently undergoing repairs after a disastrous fire in May 2007). The Golden Hinde is not even the only replica of Drake’s original ship to be found in En gland: there’s another one, called the Golden Hind, maintained in southwestern Devon’s Brixham Harbour.
Looking at this vessel, moored beneath the shadows of an office tower, one could be forgiven for thinking she was a Disneyfied creation of some designer seeking to add maritime color to an otherwise bland urban courtyard. Her dark hull is accented with spirals of red and yellow trim, while a large blue and white depiction of a deer emblazons the rear of her aftcastle (this being a tribute to one of Drake’s sponsors, whose family crest included a deer—or "hinde"). Above the deer can be seen the royal moniker "ER,"for Elizabeth Regina, Elizabeth I.
Compared to modern seagoing vessels, which are predominantly utilitarian in design and virtually devoid of decorative finishes, the Golden Hinde seems comically cartoonish. But looks can be deceiving, for the Golden Hinde under Sir Francis Drake was the most successful pirate ship that ever sailed, in terms of both the booty acquired and the global impact of her voyages.
"Tiny- looking ship, eh?"a voice says to me as I’m staring at the Golden Hinde. It’s Ian, extending his hand in friendship while forcing me to listen carefully to his particularly thick Northern accent. Ian looks nothing like a professional mariner— he’s slight of build, wearing the nondescript office uniform of dress shirt and tie, and can only be described as a generally gregarious, outgoing guy. Many mariners I’ve encountered tend to be quite reserved and quiet when first we meet, so Ian’s demeanor is refreshing. As we stand beside the galleon, he launches into an exuberant spiel about the original Golden Hinde, an Elizabethan- era wooden ship that had taken Francis Drake and his crew on a circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580. That event was a remarkable seafaring achievement in itself, yet the voyage was not just about exploring new worlds.
"This was one of the most fearsome vessels on the waters when she sailed, or, at least, the original one was,"Ian says while staring raptly at the Golden Hinde. "That voyage of Drake’s created great concern, in Spain, Africa, South America, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. Four continents feared her, and just look at the ship—she’s puny. Less than twenty feet across, something like a hundred and twenty feet long, she’s the size of a couple of double- decker buses. Yet with her, Drake had as big an impact on late- sixteenth- century Eu ro pean politics as Osama bin Laden has had today."
Ian’s enthusiastic comparison to modern terrorists is not just hyperbole. The myth of Sir Francis Drake’s three- year global odyssey has become one in which he helped En gland to establish its seafaring credentials at a time when it was the Spanish and Portuguese who were the masters of the waters (albeit often with help from foreign mariners such as the Italian Columbus), and much has been made of Drake’s ability to circumnavigate the planet, explore the west coast of present- day America, and cross the Pacific. But there was more— much more— than just a voyage of discovery and national pride taking place here.
In reality, Drake’s expedition was a state- sanctioned part of a complex political struggle going on between En gland and Spain. In the 1500s, Spain was the most powerful political entity on the planet, ruled by Philip II and with a realm that spread from Europe to the New World and beyond. It was wealthy and confident and had the upper hand in terms of military, scientific, and economic supremacy at the time. And Spain had formed powerful alliances with other European rulers that allowed Philip to control a vast empire spread across several continents.
Meanwhile En gland, under Elizabeth, was still struggling to come to grips with its break from the Catholic Church (carried out by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII), as dramatic an event in Europe as when Lenin and the Bolsheviks would turn Russia away from imperial rule in 1917. When she ascended the throne in 1558, En gland had just endured a politico- religious conflict that had created much internal strife; it had few allies, many formidable adversaries, and a huge budgetary shortfall; Elizabeth’s military and naval capabilities were stretched to the limits and vastly inferior to those of Spain; and a myriad of intrigues made everyday life in her court a decidedly dangerous endeavor.
The most apt comparison of the relationship of these two countries is to that of the USSR and the United States during the cold war, neither willing to confront the other in outright war but each actively seeking to contain its opponent’s power. One might compare Philip’s Spain to the United States in the 1950s: a strong nation feeling a sense of purpose in its actions. By comparison, Elizabethan En gland could be considered akin to the Soviet Union in the years immediately after World War Two: a nation growing in power and seeking to establish its place in the world while dealing with the lingering memories of conflict, suspicions about its citizens, and the constraints of a smaller economy.
In the midst of Elizabethan rule, En gland could but look on in envy as Spain grew ever wealthier from its far- flung imperial outposts, especially the ones in Central and South America. The amount of silver and gold being extracted by slave labor and shipped across the Atlantic was staggering: each convoy that arrived in Spain increased Philip’s coffers with the equivalent of millions, perhaps billions, of dollars’ worth of precious metals. So it was only inevitable that some individuals in En gland would seek to acquire some of that wealth, for their own good and also for that of Good Queen Bess.
Throughout the 1560s and 1570s, a number of expeditions were mounted by English privateers in the Caribbean, with the intention of harrying the Spanish Main and plundering vessels. These little proxy conflicts brought England some much- needed revenue. They also filled the hearts of the Protestant elite with glee as their hated Catholic adversaries saw that Spain now had a serious political opponent. Still, there was a growing sense that En gland needed to make a bigger statement about its intentions, something on a grander scale than these quasi- legal pinpricks against imperial Spain in the Americas.
And so it was that a syndicate of men came up with the idea of a grand voyage into waters known and unknown, through all the regions claimed by Philip, which would irrevocably show that Elizabethan En gland was ready to assume a new mantle. The time had come for British mariners to take their place on the global scene, and this syndicate convinced Elizabeth to allow Francis Drake to set out from Plymouth on December 13, 1577, aboard the one- hundred ton Pelican (which he would soon rename the Golden Hinde). In the course of the Golden Hinde’s three- year global odyssey, Drake captured Spanish vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and attacked towns and villages along the coast of South America, returning home with a rich horde of plundered wealth. For those who had invested in Drake’s voyage (like the queen), this amounted to a return of £47 for every £1 they had put up. As he had established English nautical prowess and made a lot of money, Elizabeth promptly knighted Drake when he arrived home.
As Ian puts it, the Spanish considered Drake nothing more than a pirate: "They called him ‘el Draque’— the Dragon— which was also a play on his name,"says my companion, while to the English"he was a heroic privateer."Well, actually, not quite, as Ian reluctantly concedes. Drake, in fact, did not have a privateer’s letter of marque when he embarked from Portsmouth, though he did have the tacit approval of the queen. Somehow, in the midst of Tudor- era politics this did not seem to matter, as he had succeeded in returning a profit to his backers.
I had assumed Ian chose the Golden Hinde as our rendezvous because of Drake’s reputation as one of the most successful English privateers ever but am told that’s just one of the reasons. "Drake’s voyage with the Golden Hinde was shrouded in secrecy,"the amateur historian says as we wander to a nearby coffee shop. "This was because of the political situation at the time and the relations with the Spanish. There’ve been books and whatnot written about his journey. Some think he sailed as far up the Pacific coast of America as your Vancouver Island, even up to Alaska. But we don’t really know exactly, because Good Queen Bess had all sorts of the ship’s documents made what we’d call ‘top secret,’ and they were stashed away, never to be seen again. Y’see? Seafaring, piracy, politics, business— they’re all shrouded in secrecy. Always have been."
The secrecy he speaks of continues to this day in a business that Ian describes as "cutthroat, libertarian, and profit minded to a degree unlike many others."There are close to fifty thousand merchant vessels plying the seas and carrying over 90 percent of the world’s commerce on a regular basis, with thousands of shipping- related companies all vying for a piece of the action.4 It’s an expensive business, what with the costs of building ships, maintaining them, chartering them, insuring them, hiring crews, and providing fuel and supplies. Still, there’s a lot of money to be made if you manage your operations properly.
"The most crucial aspect of the [shipping] industry is your ability to attract customers,"says Ian as we settle on a bench on the promenade overlooking the Thames. "You’ve got to be able to deliver on their demands in an efficient manner, pure and simple. If they’re happy, they’ll stay with you. So companies want to show [that] their operations are run smoothly, with no problems. Shippers, and their customers, don’t like chaos or problems. There are enough problems with seafaring to begin with: the weather, regulations, delivery schedules, delays in port, competent crews, those sorts of things. Now what does this have to do with piracy? Well, a lot, because it’s all about the fear of losing money."
What Ian has observed in his professional career as a mariner is that some shipping firms prefer not to report pirate attacks on their vessels for fear of the impact on their financial bottom lines. "If the news gets out that a ship of yours has been pirated, customers might decide to not use your company anymore. You know, they don’t want to see their cargoes stolen or delayed getting to a port, do they? Say you’re contracted to deliver some consumer goods from Japan to Europe by such- and- such a date, but your ship is attacked in the South China Sea. If the captain heads to the nearest port to file a report afterwards, that could see the ship stuck there for days while the crew is interviewed by police and an investigation is done, meaning the TV sets or what ever you’re carrying are late reaching the market. That can be a black mark against your
business reputation. And God forbid you should have more than one of your vessels attacked— that could turn you into a pariah firm that no one wants to work with."
A second reason attacks go unreported is the increased costs of insuring vessels that can result. All commercial ships must be insured, against loss or damage, as must their crews and their cargoes. If a shipper makes a claim to an insurance company for losses incurred by a pirate attack, they may find their premiums going up. As well, insurance rates can be higher if your vessel is sailing in waters known to be prone to pirate attacks.
"A couple of years ago,"Ian recalls, "I was working out of Singapore on a contract. This was when things in the Strait of Malacca were still considered dangerous because of piracy. As a result, the insurance companies here in London, like Lloyd’s, decided that the Strait would be considered like a war zone, like Iraq, and they hiked the rates they charged shippers. Nobody was happy about that, let me tell you. That lasted about a year, until the summer of 2006, I think."
I pull out the IMB’s recent piracy reports and show Ian the statistics. Peering at the figures, he nods glumly at the tallies, then flips to the 2006 records for West Africa— the last place he sailed before coming home— and counts up the listed incidents. According to this report, there were twenty- seven actual attacks and five more attempted ones for the entire year. With a look of disdain on his face, Ian glances at me and says, "Bullshit."Based on his experience, the real figures are at least double what’s printed out here and could be three or four times higher. As for the global total of 239 reported pirate incidents for all of 2006, he just shakes his head in disgust.
"I know IMB, IMO,5 and other groups are doing their best to get the word out about piracy,"he says with a sigh, "but these figures aren’t real. No way. I can’t say as they’ve been ‘sanitized,’ but I’d be willing to bet they’re more in line with what the shipping industry wants them to look like. These [figures] look like what a colleague of mine would call ‘acceptable levels of risk.’ One pirate attack every two or three days somewhere out there—that’s okay. Three attacks every day— not good."
Ian puts it this way: You can’t hide that there are pirate attacks occurring, because everyone’s heard the stories of hijackings and assaults and murders. So there have to be incident reports; there has to be a paper trail; otherwise it would look like a huge cover- up. But at some point, as the statistics begin to pile up and the real picture emerges of how serious the situation is, people in places of influence will become nervous that the threat will tarnish their business.
To me, it seems highly improbable that organizations like the IMB or the IMO are doctoring the statistics on piracy attacks. Since they can only collect information based on what is actually reported to them, it seems more likely that groups like these are simply not being told about every incident that occurs. Ian agrees, dismissing any theories about a grand cover- up going on in the seafaring world.
"Is there a conspiracy going on within the shipping industry? I doubt it. The idea of a group of owners sitting in some boardroom and ordering the suppression of information is a little far- fetched. Most of these guys hate one another; they’re competitors who would love nothing more than to steal each other’s business. I do think they all know the unwritten rules of merchant shipping, though, and one of those is to keep a low profile. You know, right now the commercial shipping industry is in the midst of a huge boom; it has really never been better in any time in history. There is a lot of money at stake here. No one wants to jeopardize that by scaring people about pirates."
Excerpted from Terror on the Seas by Daniel Sekulich.
Copyright © 2009 by Daniel Sekulich.
Published by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.