Today's Pirates Hearken to 'Golden Age'
This map shows all the piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre during 2009. Red shows attacks, yellow represents attempted attacks, and purple indicates suspicious vessels.
Credit: Google/TerraMetrics/NASA/Data SIO/NOAA/U.S. Navy/NGA/GEBCO/Europa Technologies

Eds. note: Capt. Phillips was rescued by the U.S. Navy on Sunday, April 12.

While Americans watch closely to see if Capt. Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama can be rescued from pirates off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean, maritime officials have tracked at least eight additional acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea in just the past 10 days. 

The International Maritime Bureau has tracked these incidents off Somalia, in the Gulf of Aden, in the Arabian Sea and off Malaysia since April 1. Five of those incidents involved successful hijackings or robberies. In the other cases, ship masters were able to make evasive maneuvers or helicopters intimidated the pirates into aborting their attempts. 

In fact, a total of 4,757 acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships have been reported to the International Maritime Organization in London since it started collecting statistics in 1984.

The proportion of successful attacks has gone done in this period, according to an email sent to LiveScience from the IMO public information service.  

"A crisis point has now been reached, with 40-plus hijackings taking place in the Gulf of Aden in 2008, with 133 kidnapped seafarers still being held hostage and with pirate attacks on shipping happening not even weekly or daily, but sometimes up to three times within hours," the IMO spokesperson wrote.

The International Maritime Bureau, the lead recording body for piracy, estimates that more than 1,200 Somalis and at least six major groups are involved.   

Centuries of piracy

As long as traders have been sailing the open seas in ships laden with goods, there have been pirates sneaking alongside, trawling for booty.

Today, sophisticated pirates who hijack trade ships are responsible for billions of dollars in losses every year. The problem is particularly rife off the northeast coast of Africa, where four Somali pirates attempted earlier this week to take command of the Maersk Alabama, a 17,000-ton container ship en route to Mombasa, Kenya. The hijacking failed after the crew retook command of the ship, but the pirates escaped with the captain on a lifeboat. The U.S. Navy and the FBI are now on the scene, negotiating for Capt. Phillips' release. 

Pirates are popularly associated with the eye-patched, peg-legged buccaneers who ransacked the ships of colonizing powers in the 17th and 18th century Caribbean, a period historians call the "Golden Age" of piracy (One historian traces modern capitalism and the current financial crisis to the privateering of this pirate heyday).

But robbers-by-sea were in action around the world for centuries before that, and have continued unabated in the centuries since — though their look, modus operandi and treasures have changed over the years.

Gold, booze and weapons

Enterprising bands of sailors have preyed on the riches carried by trade ships at least since Classical Antiquity, when ancient Greek and Roman pirates threatened the waters of the Mediterranean, using small islands as their clandestine headquarters.

The Vikings were pirates too, by definition, raiding the coasts of Europe by ship very successfully over a period of several hundred years, beginning in the eighth century. Pirates have been at work in Asia just as long.

Despite their worldwide proliferation, though, it is the pirates of the Caribbean that have long captured the popular imagination.

Conditions in the Americas from the 16th to the 18th centuries were ripe for piracy, which has traditionally thrived in places with unstable governments or power vacuums. With the colonial powers of Spain, England, France and the Netherlands jostling over control of the islands, the Caribbean Sea became a relatively lawless territory during this time.

Often comprised of European sailors put out of work at the end of wars, pirate gangs settled in safe harbors such as Tortuga (Haiti) and Port Royal (Jamaica), from where raids were launched on ships traveling between the new colonies and Europe. Spanish ships laden with gold and silver coins were popular targets, but pirates also plundered gems, caskets of wine, equipment and weapons.

Some of the most famous pirate raids of this era include:

  • Francis Drake's 1573 sacking of Spain's "Silver Train" fortune in Panama.
  • The week-long blockade and plundering of the port of Charleston by Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard) in 1718.
  • Henry Morgan's attack on the immense coin stores of Panama City in 1671, which earned him a knighthood in England.

Pirates caused the credit crunch?

Piracy became so lucrative in the Caribbean that many colonial officials sought a cut in the action, offering funding, safe harbor and immunity to pirates (the governments would call them "privateers") who attacked the ships of enemy nations.

The entrepreneurial greed of those privateers in many ways mirrors that of the investment corporations that have gotten into trouble recently, said Peter Hayes, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sunderland in the UK.

"The way that privateering was operating back in the golden age of buccaneering, is that a group of individuals come together, and agree to kit out a ship to sail the seven seas to see if they can pull in some gold," Hayes said. "It was a global gamble for enormous rewards. These predatory voyages are the roots of modern venture capitalism, with these modern multi-national corporations out to get all they can get. That's the sort of privateering that led to the credit crunch."

Beginning in the later 18th century, once civil rule in the Americas had settled and shaped, serious crackdowns led to the capture and execution of many famous buccaneers.

More pirates than ever

Piracy continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in Asia. The big resurgence has come in just the last few years, however, according to statistics gathered by the International Maritime Bureau, which even displays a live piracy map on its Web site to highlight recent attacks.

The waters off Somalia and Indonesia are considered the most active for modern pirates, who are heavily armed and often more interested in the large stores of cash held aboard cargo ships rather than the cargo itself.

Like the pirates of old, these modern-day buccaneers have taken advantage of areas where law enforcement is sparse. In Somalia, the situation has become so dangerous that in July 2008, the UN Security Council passed a resolution allowing international navies to interfere in the region with "all necessary means" to repress piracy.

Pirates holding ships in recent months have demanded ransom in the millions in exchange for the release of  hostage crews.