Somalia: Lessons from the Past

Victor Enthoven
Netherlands Defense Academy,
Free University of Amsterdam

1. Introduction

In the early 1990s, organisations such as the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) began to register reports of (attempted) piracy. As will become clear in this essay, the timing was not accidental. Piracy, as we know, is a contemporary phenomenon with a long history. That means that there are lessons to be drawn from the past.[1] It appears that the phenomenon of piracy has three aspects that have kept recurring throughout the centuries, and can also be discerned in the current events in the waters around Somalia , namely:

piracy is primarily experienced and condemned by its victims;

piracy is a phenomenon occurring at the periphery;

people resort to piracy for an underlying reason.

These three aspects of piracy will be examined in this short article. They will be illustrated by historical examples, after which we will focus on the situation in Somalia .

2. The Victims

Piracy has been occurring since antiquity. Classical scholar Philip de Souza aptly articulated the notion that the term “piracy” stems mainly from the vocabulary of the victims.

Piracy is a term normally applied in a pejorative manner. Pirates can be defined as armed robbers whose activities normally involve the use of ships. They are men who have been designated as such by other people, regardless of whether or not they consider themselves to be pirates.[2]

Thus the term ‘piracy’ has a negative connotation, usually conveying a sense of moral judgement. Pirates are people who have been labelled as such by others, irrespective of whether they see themselves as pirates. The term “piracy” is therefore mainly used and qualified by its victims.

A consequence of this is that those aggrieved by piracy are often ill-informed about its background. I will illustrate this with a number of examples from the recent past. From 1994, a dramatic increase was seen in the incidence of attempted piracy in Southeast Asia, particularly in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea . The number of reports rose from approximately 50 per year to almost 500 in the year 2000. It was not until 2005, however, before serious studies into illegal activities of this kind were published, including, D. Johnson and M. Valencia (eds.), Piracy in Southeast Asia: Status, Issues, and Responses (Leiden/Singapore: IIAS, 2005), and A.J. Young, Contemporary Maritime Piracy in Southeast Asia : History, Causes and Remedies (Leiden/Singapore: IIAS, 2007).

Since then, the number of reports of piracy in the region has fallen to the approximate level of the mid-1990s and the focus of attention has, to some extent, shifted away from the region.[3]

In March 2009, the RAND Corporation convened a small group of experts from the U.S. government, allied partner nations, the maritime industry, and academic organisations to reconsider the underlying factors that drive maritime piracy in the 21st century. Perhaps the most important conclusion that can be drawn from the workshop is that mitigating the complex nature of maritime crime requires the input of all relevant stakeholders – state, national, private, and non-governmental – and must necessarily embrace measures that go well beyond the simple and expedient reactive deployment of naval assets. However, no representatives from the region (Horn of Africa) had been invited.[4]

This was also the case at the seminar of 8 July 2009 organised by the Netherlands Institute for International Relations Clingendael under the title “Pioneering for Solutions Against Piracy: Focusing on a Geopolitical Analysis, Counter-Piracy Initiatives and Policy Solutions”. The seminar was concerned mainly with the Indian Ocean and Somalia :

Participants in this seminar are academics, policy makers, and top-level military staff, from EU member states and institutions, NATO, and American universities, who all have a professional interest in the subject.[5]

Apparently, it was thought that solutions for the problem of piracy could be found without the advice of representatives from the region.

Just recently, UN special representative for Somalia Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah said: “Piracy on the high seas cannot be fought by international naval fleets alone, but requires a regional approach that also deals with its root causes.” In my opinion not only an open door, but a little bit late as well.[6]

3. Piracy as a phenomenon at the periphery

A study into the history of piracy reveals that piracy is a phenomenon which chiefly occurs at the periphery. In Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader, Anne Pérotin-Dumon put it as follows:

There is a description of piracy that spans the ages: illegal and armed aggression at points of maritime traffic that are important but under weak political control. The aggression is committed by the marginal who seek to appropriate the wealth of the more affluent, or by newcomers desiring to force their way into pre-existing trade routes.[7]

The essence of this quotation lies, of course, in: “at points of maritime traffic that are important but under weak political control.” Piracy thus occurs in areas where (relatively) little political power is being exercised or can be exercised. Such areas are often located at the periphery, far removed from the centre of power. This demands some explanation.

The process of state formation

The period roughly between 1500 and 1800 is known as the Early Modern Period. This period is characterised by the rise of the “military fiscal state.” By the end of the Middle Ages, the emerging monetary economy had created the conditions enabling rulers to hire professional soldiers. Not only did this professionalization of warfare result in more conflicts, it also made them much more costly. Stronger governments were needed to generate higher revenue through taxation in order to finance increasingly expensive wars. In turn, the more powerful a state became, the more inclined it would be to wage wars. What emerged was a self-reinforcing spiral of wars, taxation and state formation.[8]

During the Modern Period, roughly the period from 1800 to 1990, this development in the Western World led to the formation of nation-states, combining a powerful state with a population who considered themselves to be part of that state. Nationalism provided a sense of shared identity. Money was no longer required for building up an army and a fleet. Enormous conscript armies, raised on the basis of nationalism and a national identity, were now fighting each other.

Since then, we have entered into the Post-modern Period, characterised by the diminishing influence of the state. This has brought about two developments in many armed forces. First of all, there was the transformation from conscript to all-professional armed forces in the mid-1990s. In that regard, we have returned to the situation of the Early Modern Period.[9] As for other parts of the world: not only have states become weaker, a few, such as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia , have even disappeared. Somalia has also effectively ceased to exist as a nation-state. In other words: the Somalian government, assuming there is such a thing, exercises very little political power.

The fight against piracy

Here is not the place to give a detailed description of piracy and what was and is being done to combat it. I will therefore limit myself to the four most significant periods that can be distinguished in the history of countering piracy since Early Modern times.

The first period runs from the end of the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century. The increasingly powerful maritime states of Western Europe succeeded in suppressing piracy in the North and Baltic Seas . By 1650, merchant ships in Western European waters hardly needed protection any longer.[10] During the second period, the fight against piracy shifted to the Mediterranean . The activities of the Barbary corsairs, who operated from the Ottoman regencies of Tripoli , Algiers and Tunis and from independent Morocco , were viewed by Western powers as ordinary acts of piracy. It was not until the early nineteenth century, when particularly Spain and France brought their influence to bear in North Africa, that the Barbary corsairs disappeared from the scene for good.[11] The third period was the so-called war against piracy, which took place approximately from 1715 to 1730 when the Royal Navy waged a merciless campaign to suppress piracy in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean . Hundreds of pirates were hanged during this campaign.[12] The fourth and last period was during the nineteenth century when the Dutch and British colonial administrations dealt with the last pirates’ nests in Southeast Asia .[13] By around 1900, piracy had been eradicated. In 1925, the Harvard Law Review rhetorically asked: “Is the crime of Piracy Obsolete?” The answer given was affirmative. Piracy was mostly considered an interesting phenomenon from the past.[14]

From a Western European perspective, the fight against piracy has seen a steady shift away from the centre. Whenever the Western European powers wished to exercise political control in the periphery of their spheres of influence, they were faced with combating piracy. By the time the Western colonial powers controlled about eighty percent of the world, the days of piracy were finished. The absence of piracy is thus a phenomenon of the modern era.

During the 1980s, however, a major transition took place as the clear-cut bipolar world of the Cold War, with its two great power blocs whose influence extended throughout vast parts of the globe, transformed into a multi-polar world with a great deal more political instability, particularly at the periphery. It should therefore come as no surprise that in 1991 the IMB and IMO began to keep a register of reported attacks on seagoing vessels. As the Modern Period came to a close, piracy had once again reared its head (table 1).

Table 1. Reported cases of piracy, 1991-2009

1991 107

1998 200

2000 471

2003 445

2004 329

2005 276

2006 239

2007 263

2008 293

2009 (first six months) 240

Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau, Annual Reports Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships, available on ICC webpage, URL:


On a local scale, this mechanism of political stability, or rather instability, can also be observed in Somalia . Piracy in Somalian waters started occurring about ten years ago. With the advent of the so-called Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in south Somalia in 2006 came the expectation that this new government would be able to curb piracy. But following the ousting of the ICU by, among others, Ethiopian troops, the last vestige of government disappeared and the incidence of piracy increased explosively (table 2).[15]

Table 2. Piracy incidents near Somalia , 2003-2009

2003 18

2004 8

2005 10

2006 10

2007 13

2008 92

2009 (first six months) 130

Source: ICC International Maritime Bureau, Annual Reports Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships, available on ICC webpage, URL:

The lack of political control has historically been a essential precondition for piracy, but it is in itself not sufficient to explain the phenomenon. After all, there are other regions that are under very weak political control and yet have not seen the development of piracy. Examples are countries such as Liberia and Sierra Leone .[16]

4. Causes

History has shown that there is usually a reason or cause, explaining why people in regions with relatively little political control resort to piracy. I will offer two illustrative examples.

The Dutch Sea Beggars

Around 1560, there was something brewing in the Netherlands . There was widespread discontent about the centralist policies of the Habsburgs in Brussels , which violated the age-old privileges and customs of regional administrations. The long drawn-out wars waged by the rulers in Brussels against France were causing major harm to economic interests. At the same time, the new religious insights of Martin Luther and John Calvin found fertile soil in the Low Countries, a development towards which the government in Brussels was less than understanding. Tensions erupted in the autumn of 1566 with the outbreak of the Iconoclastic Fury, which drove King Philip II to dispatch his commander Don Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alva, to the Low Countries to restore order. This led a number of protestant exiles to revolt. Their supreme goal was to repel Alva and “restore” Protestantism, and they saw William of Orange as their leader. In addition to hijacking ships, they specialised in capturing dignitaries in order to collect a ransom, a practice known as “rationing” (rantsoenering). In the eyes of the Habsburg rulers, the Sea Beggars were nothing but ordinary pirates. The pirate activities of the Sea Beggars were thus ignited by the Netherlands ’ struggle for independence from Habsburg rule.[17]

Pirates of the Caribbean

The adventures of captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies by Walt Disney are inspired by the so-called golden age of piracy. Roughly between 1716 and 1726, approximately 1,500 to 2,500 pirates were operating from a total of twenty to thirty heavily armed ships in the West-Indies and the Atlantic Ocean . Marxist-oriented maritime historian Marcus Rediker believes that these sea-robbers formed a multicultural, democratic and egalitarian community and were the product of gross social injustice. In his view, they were the forerunners of the American and French revolutionaries. Here, the underlying cause of piracy was social inequality and the class struggle.[18]


Diminishing fish stocks, caused by illegal fishing and illegal dumping of waste by Western companies, are generally assumed to be the reason why Somalian fishermen have resorted to piracy. In a BBC interview, the twenty-five year old Somali Dahir Mohamed Hayeysi declared:

I used to be a fisherman with a poor family that depended only on fishing. The first day joining the pirates came into my mind was in 2006. A group of our villagers, mainly fishermen I knew, were arming themselves. One of them told me that they wanted to hijack ships, which he said were looting our sea resources. He told me it was a national service with a lot of money in the end. Then I took my gun and joined them.

Years ago we used to fish a lot, enough for us to eat and sell in the markets. Then illegal fishing and dumping of toxic wastes by foreign fishing vessels affected our livelihood, depleting the fish stocks. I had no other choice but to join my colleagues.

The first hijack I attended was in February 2007 when we seized a World Food Programme-chartered ship with 12 crew. I think it had the name of MV Rozen and we released it after two months, with a ransom. Now I have two lorries, a luxury car and have started my own business in town.

The interview ends with the following statement:

The only way the piracy can stop is if [ Somalia ] gets an effective government that can defend our fish. And then we will disarm, give our boats to that government and will be ready to work. Foreign navies can do nothing to stop piracy.[19]

5. Conclusion

The conclusion should be clear: piracy will continue to exist as long as there are politically unstable regions located along important sea routes. As piracy is chiefly a result of political instability, it must be combated first of all on land.[20] This is both good and bad news for the navies currently operating near the Horn of Africa.

The bad news is that the deployment of navy ships and the escorting of merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean will not bring about a decrease in piracy. With those efforts we are merely fighting the symptoms. As the Netherlands ministers of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Development Cooperation informed the Dutch Parliament on March 13, 2009:

Operation Allied Protector is a brief military contribution intended to combat the symptoms of piracy near the Horn of Africa while, in an international context, the transition process in Somalia and the implementation of the Djibouti agreement are being supported and a study is being conducted, through, among others, the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, into how regional capacity building can contribute to countering piracy in the long term.[21]

The good news is that the deployment of navy ships against Somalian pirates will continue for an indefinite period into the future. For now, the hope for peace in the region has faded and the Djibouti agreement has been consigned to the wastepaper basket. Strict Islamic groups appear to be gaining the upper hand. As has been shown by the Islamic Courts Union, such organisations will bring a certain degree of political stability, enabling the suppression of piracy. On the other hand, regimes of this kind are unacceptable to the West. The United States has recently sent 40 tonnes of weapons to Somalia . Direct intervention is, after all, an undesirable option, evidence of which is provided by 1993 US operation in Mogadishu (depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down).

In my opinion, in Somalia the international community finds itself caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.[22]

[1] D.J. Puchala, “Of Pirates and Terrorists: What Experience and History Teach”, Contempory Security Policy 26 (April 2005) 1:1-24.

[2] Ph. De Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) 1.

[3] “Southeast Asia Maritime Security Review, 3rd Quarter 2008” , available on the webpage of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, URL:; IIAS Newsletter 36 (March, 2005); P. Gwin, “Dark Passage: The Straits of Malakka. Pirates Haunt it. Sailors Fear it. Global Trade Depends on it”, National Geographic (October, 2007) 126-149.

[4] Peter Chalk, Laurence Smallman and Nicholas Burger, Countering Piracy in the Modern Era. Notes from a RAND Workshop to Discuss the Best Approaches for Dealing with Piracy in the 21st Century ( Washington : RAND Corporation, 2009).

[5] “Discussion Paper Clingendael Security and Conflict Programme “Pioneering for Solutions Against Piracy” Focusing on a Geopolitical Analysis, Counter-piracy Initiatives and Policy Solutions”, available on the webpage of Clingendael, URL:

[6] AFP, “UN calls for multi-level approach in fighting piracy” (November 18, 2009), available on the webpage of Google:

[7] A. Pérotin-Dumon, “The Pirate and the Emperor: Power and the Law on the Seas, 1450- 1850” , in C.R. Pennell (ed.), Bandits of the Sea: A Pirates Reader ( New York : New York University Press, 2001) 25.

[8] Ch. Tilly, Coercian, Capital, and European States , AD 990-1992 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); R. Bonney (ed.), Economic Systems and State Finance (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1995); P. Wilson, “European Warfare, 1450- 1815” , in J. Black (ed.), War in the Early Modern World, 1450-1815 (London: UCL Press, 1999) 177-206.

[9] Adviesraad Internationale Vraagstukken, De inhuur van private militaire bedrijven. Een kwestie van verantwoordelijkheden (The Hague, 2007); J.M.D van Leeuwe, “De inhuur van private militaire bedrijven in operatiegebieden”, Militaire Spectator 177 (2008) 4:240-245.

[10] V.W. Lunsford, Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands ( New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); J.C. Appleby, “A Nursery of Pirates: the English Pirate Community in Ireland in the Early 17th Century”, International Journal of Maritime History 2 (1990) 1:1-27; C. Senior, A Nation of Pirates: English Piracy in its Heyday (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1976).

[11] J. de Courcy Ireland, “Raïs Hamidou: The last of the Great Algerian Corsairs”, The Mariner’s Mirror 60 (1974) 2:187-196; D.J. Vitkus and N. Matar, Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England (New York: Colombia University Press, 2001); D. Panzac, Barbary Corsairs: the End of a Legend, 1800-1820 (Leiden: Brill, 2005); N. Matar, Britain and Barbary, 1589-1689 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).

[12] D. Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Harvast Book, 1995); Aaron Smith, The Atrocities of the Pirates (Guilford:The Lyons Press, 1999); J. Rogoziński, Honor among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every, and the Pirate Democracy in the Indian Ocean (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2000); P. Earl, The Pirate Wars (London: Methuen, 2003).

[13] J.N.F.M. à Campo, “Asymmetry, Disparity and Cyclicity: Charting the Piracy Conflict in Colonial Indonesia”, International Journal of Maritime History 19 (2007) 1:35-62; G. Teitler, A.M.C. van Dissel and J.N.F.M. à Campo, Zeeroof en zeeroofbestrijding in de Indische archipel, 19de eeuw (Amsterdam: Bataafsche Leeuw, 2005).

[14] E.D. Dickinson, “Is the Crime of Piracy Obsolete”, Harvard Law Review 37 (1924/5) 334-36.

[15] R. Middleton, Piracy in Somalia Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars (October, 2008), available on the webpage of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, URL:

[16] D. Nincic, “State Failure and the Re-Emergence of Maritime Piracy”, available on the webpage of All Academic Research, URL:

[17] J.C.A. de Meij, De Watergeuzen en de Nederlanden, 1568-1572 (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1972).

[18] M. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea : Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); M. Rediker, Villains of the Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age ( London : Verso, 2004).

[19] “It’s a Pirate’s Life for Me”, available on the webpage of the BBC, URL:

[20] M. Schenkel, “Los zeeroverij op aan land. Effectief gezag in Somalië is vereiste voor uitbannen van piraterij”, NRC-Handelsblad (November 22, 2008).

[21] Ministers van Buitenlandse Zaken, van Defensie en voor Ontwikkelingsamenwerking aan Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal (29 521, nr. 93) (March 13, 2009).

[22] K. Lindijer, “Hoop op vrede in Somalië is alweer vervlogen. Nieuwe gevechtsronde onafwendbaar door verdeeldheid, buitenlandse inmenging en criminele belangen”, NRC-Handelsblad (May 22, 2009); M.B. Sheridan, “U.S. has sent 40 Ton of Munition to Aid Somali Governemnt”, The Washington Post (June 27, 2009); K. Lindijer, “Al-Shabaab trekt strijders van overal aan”, NRC-Handelsbla (August 6, 2009).

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