Navy Historian Traces Rise of Piracy
By Judith Snyderman
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2009 Pirates often are in the news for their criminal activities at sea, but their antics are far from new.
Pirates have been around since man first took to the high seas, and a type of sea raider known as a privateer made a mark between the 15th and 19th centuries.
Michael Crawford, a senior Navy historian, traced the rise of privateering and touched on strategies to combat modern pirates during an Aug. 24 “DoDLive” bloggers roundtable.
“A privateer is a private man of war who has a license from his sovereign government to attack the ships belonging to citizens of a country with which he is at war,” Crawford said. “If he does capture an enemy ship, he has to go through all the legal requirements; he has to bring the ship into port and have it tried in an admiralty court.”
Crawford traced the rise of privateering to the 15th century, when members of the merchant marine appealed to their kings after losing property in attacks at sea. The monarchs issued them letters of “marque and reprisal,” giving them permission to retaliate and recoup their losses.
The use of privateers eventually expanded from peacetime to wartime, Crawford said. “The kings realized they could take advantage of these private merchant men who had armed ships to supplement their navies.”
Privateers played a key role in the War of 1812, he said. Crawford estimates that the U.S. State Department issued a few thousand privateer ship commissions during the conflict with activity centered around Boston and Salem, Mass., and in Baltimore. The Baltimore privateers used highly maneuverable schooners and deployed them in pairs, Crawford said.
“One of these Baltimore clippers would go off and try to distract the British warships that were guarding the convoy of merchant men, and while that privateer was occupying the protecting ships, the other privateer would swoop in onto the merchant men and try to pick off as many of them as it could,” he explained.
As a result, Crawford said, “the attack on Baltimore was, in large part, because the British hated the city for its role in sending out the privateers, which were actually doing a lot of damage to British commerce.”
International conventions drafted in the 19th century effectively ended the recognition of privateering as a legitimate form of warfare. However, pirates continue to attack commercial and naval ships and to threaten regional security.
On Aug. 26, Navy officials reported that Somali pirates aboard a hijacked ship fired at, but did not hit, a Navy helicopter from the USS Chancellorsville. Somali pirates hijacked the Taiwanese-flagged Win Far vessel in April and have since used it as a “mother ship” to conduct attacks, including an attack on the U.S.-flagged Maersk-Alabama in the Indian Ocean south of Garacad, Somalia.
Meanwhile, Dutch Navy Commodore Pieter Bindt, commander of the European Union counter-piracy task group, visited the Combined Task Force 151 flagship USS Anzio at sea earlier this week to discuss counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
About 30 ships from 17 nations are taking part in missions to deter, disrupt and suppress acts of piracy off the Somalia coast.
"Piracy is a threat to the security of all nations," Navy Rear Adm. Scott Sanders, task force commander, said. "We are committed to continuing operations with our naval counterparts to create a lawful maritime order and deter acts of piracy activity here."
The strategies used to fight privateers in centuries past still hold true today, Crawford said.
“One is you can’t fight pirates with large warships. You have to have ships that have shallow drafts that can go in and chase the pirates close to shore,” he explained. “And the other thing we learned is that it’s best to hit the pirates in their shore facilities. It’s easier to stop their depravations ashore than it is to do it on the high seas.”
(Judith Snyderman works in the Defense Media Activity’s emerging media directorate.)