Pirates-Scourge of the High Seas

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TO MOST PEOPLE, ‘PIRACY’ CONJURES ROMANTIC imagery of the Caribbean, dashing swashbucklers, parrotshouldered peg-leggers, buried treasures, the Jolly Roger, and so on. The romanticism, however, never extends to the victims of piracy; in many cases, those made to ‘walk the plank’ into Davy Jones’ Locker were the lucky ones. 

The history of piracy dates back over 3000 years, first mentioned on Egyptian clay tablets (circa 1350BC) that describe “notorious freelance Mediterranean shipping attacks in North Africa.” A thousand years later in Greece, history records the misdeeds of Polycrates, a pirate in command of a hundred vessels. Romans were also not immune – pirates even captured a young Julius Caesar.

Piracy, as most people imagine it, dates from the ‘Golden Age’ of piracy in the Caribbean, a period from about 1680 – 1730AD when names like Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, Captain Morgan, and others were criminals, privateers, or in their country’s servitude (depending on the state of affairs between European colonial powers).

In Asia, the waters have historically been no safer for merchants, with piracy long predating the arrival of a colonial presence. At the end of the 13th century, a decline of central authority in China saw an increase in piracy all along the Chinese coast. By the 1550s, corsair fleets would raid the Shanghai-Ning-po regions almost annually. ‘Wako’ pirates were feared in Japanese waters. By the 14th century, piracy was rife around Korea.

Clearly a worldwide, age-old epidemic, Malaysia hasn’t escaped the cutthroats’ keelhauling. Rather, piracy has intricately shaped the pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial entities that fall within today’s Malaysian territorial waters.


Piracy off Borneo’s coast spans back into prehistory; both Malay and Chinese had arrived at Borneo by the 8th century AD, and as there was a thriving trade with Indian, Arab, and Chinese traders, it’s likely pirates plied these trade routes.

With the arrival of the Iban in Borneo in the 16th century, piracy takes on an oral history. Also known as the Sea Dayak, the Iban are thought to originate from Cambodia, but migrated north into Sarawak from what is now Kalimantan. Some of those who made it to the open sea became feared as pirates, especially by the Sultan of Brunei, who maintained an often loose control of the coastline. However, the Sea Dayak were also responsible for the defence of Borneo; in one instance, the Iban were in direct naval conflict with the Bajau and Illaun peoples, who arrived in galleys from the Philippines to plunder the island.


Piracy, internal battles over royal succession, and the arrival of colonial powers did much to cause the decline of the Brunei Sultanate. Once spanning the entire island of Borneo and much of the Philippines, traditional trading patterns were becoming disrupted, eroding Brunei’s economic base (as well as that of other sultanates). To assist, English adventurer James Brooke engaged a rebellion (and some pirate raiders), and was granted the area around Kuching for his efforts. Brooke, the first “White Rajah,” continued to expand his holdings in Sarawak to its present size and shape.

Straits of Malacca

The Straits of Malacca has also had a long engagement with piracy. The first historical record of a maritime power in the area is that described by early Chinese, Indian, Arab, and Greek scholars from the 3rd century AD – the fabled lands of Srivijaya, Trambalinga, and Kataha (Kedah). As monsoons dictated the winds, it was impossible to make the voyage from China to India in one season, thus safe harbours were immensely important along the trade route. The Srivijaya are thought to have thrived on the control of trade through the Straits, establishing several naval bases such as that in the Bujang Valley in Kedah. Srivijaya became extremely powerful, only to be overthrown in the 13th century AD, when its fleets became quarrelling packs of pirates.

Piracy was also key to another determining point of the Straits’ history – the formation of the Straits Settlements. Created in 1832, the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Malacca, and Penang were highly profitable, and thus vulnerable to raiders. In the late 1830s, some followers of the temenggong’s son Ibrahim were still engaged in ‘patrolling’ activities. However, the most feared raiders were the Illanun (also the scourge of the Borneo coast, whose adapted name “Lanun” now means ‘pirate’ in Bahasa) would send out large annual fleets to raid settlements, attack ships, and force prisoners to become their oarsmen. The Illanun not only attacked small craft, but also took on Chinese and European sailing ships in the Straits. By the 1850s, Chinese pirates, using Singapore as a port to buy arms and sell booty, brought the trade between the Straits Settlements and Cochinchina (the southern tip of Vietnam) to a complete standstill.

In the 1860s, the ‘classic era’ of piracy in the Straits of Malacca began to decline. With the recognisance by the Straits Settlements governor of Ibrahim as temenggong of Johore, the ‘patrols’ were ended. By 1850, the steampowered ships of the Royal Navy could outmanoeuvre the pirate sailing ships. Increased patrols by colonial powers and their colonies created fewer opportunities for piracy, and by 1860 China had agreed to cooperate in suppressing piracy.

But as we’ll see, piracy had not walked the plank in Southeast Asian waters…


Swashbuckling Romance vs. Scallywag Reality

As mentioned, the romanticism that surrounds piracy is far from reality. Pirates didn’t save the governor’s daughter, and the infamous pirate ‘code of conduct’ lists lashing, keelhauling, ear and nose slitting, and similar punishments as acceptable forms of discipline – and that was within the pirates’ own ranks. Extortion, robbery, torture, murder, rape, mutilation, and other such fates awaited those unfortunate enough to cross a pirate sloop’s path.

So while Robert Louis Stevenson, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Disney rides may make the world of pirates a romantic place, the reality is much more sinister. In 1678, Alexandre Exquemelin recounted an incident from Captain Morgan’s sacking of Panama City: “They first put him upon the rack, wherewith they inhumanly disjointed his arms” and went on to describe a gruesome set of tortures. Elsewhere, Chinese pirates often held women for ransom, including Mei Ying, who fought off her captor – even after he broke two of her teeth.

Not quite a Burt Lancaster or Johnny Depp role, is it?



‘X’ Marks the Spot

So why has piracy been so hard to eradicate? What makes piracy so tempting that it continues today? Why is it more prevalent in certain areas like the Straits of Malacca?

Piracy thrives when three requirements are met:

1. A place to prowl where the rewards are great. These are usually within close proximity of trade routes and shipping lanes. The Straits of Malacca is the shortest sea route between three of the world’s most populous countries (India, China, and Indonesia), and more than 50,000 vessels per year pass through the Straits. But unlike the treasure galleons of yesteryear, today’s freighters and tankers can be manned by fewer than 20 crewmen (usually untrained in hand-to-hand or firearms combat) – no match for a few speedboats of armed gunmen.

2. An area with little risk of detection. The most notorious piracy areas today are especially isolated and geographic maritime boundaries are rarely patrolled. The South China Sea is especially at risk, as are the waters off the coasts of Africa.

3. A safe haven. In the past, Port Royal in the Caribbean and Madagascar were the lawless frontiers of piracy. Today, Indonesia’s many islands provide an ideal hiding place for pirates. These land enclaves usually have several characteristics: close proximity to trade routes, native peoples friendly to pirates, isolated locations that discourage pursuers from attempting to follow, a pleasant climate, and a trading post where pirates can obtain supplies and spend their loot.

What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor? – Piracy Today

The body responsible for protecting the integrity of international trade on the high seas today is the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), a division of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). Established in 1981 to act as a focal point in the fight against all types of marine crime and malpractice, the IMB has a Memorandum of Understanding with the World Customs Organisation (WCO) and has observer status with Interpol (ICPO).

Under the wing of the IMB is the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre. With an alarming number of piracy incidents recorded in the early 1990s, the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre was established in 1992 in Kuala Lumpur. Its job is “to raise awareness of piracy hotspots, detail specific attacks and their consequences, and investigate incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea and in port.” Another role entails working with national governments on a range of initiatives to reduce and ultimately eradicate attacks against ships.

The Centre has enjoyed considerable success over the years and has made huge strides towards meeting its objectives, but it also has a long voyage ahead towards its ultimate goal of piracy eradication. Consider:

  • In 2004, 37 incidents of piracy were reported in the Straits of Malacca, and 93 incidents in the islands of Indonesia. Worldwide, there were 325 acts of piracy (down from 445 in 2003), including 30 mariners murdered.
  • In just the week of 21 to 27 June 2005, three incidents of piracy were reported, along with an ongoing alert status for the Anambas / Natuna islands of Indonesia, where pirates armed with guns and long knives have boarded ships and robbed the crew and passengers of cash and personal belongings.
  • Two notable piracy incidents in the Straits of Malacca in 2005 included the abduction of two Japanese and a Filipino for ransom (after 10 pirates opened fire on their tugboat), and the hijacking of an Indonesian tanker by 35 pirates armed with rocket launchers

Measure the Landlubber for his Chains

Why is the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre’s job so important? The acts of piracy in this part of the world aren’t just ‘maritime muggings;’ after a short break in the Tsunami backlash, there is a trend towards pirates becoming more and more brazen in their attacks. Sometimes entire crews are killed, the tanker’s cargo is drained, the ship’s name is painted over, new credentials are given in a smaller port elsewhere in the world, and suddenly it’s a ‘ghost ship.’

What’s more, the Straits of Malacca themselves are also at risk. Only 2.4km at its narrowest, a disruption of the shipping through the Straits would require nearly half the world’s fleet to sail further, ultimately resulting in higher freight rates worldwide. With Asian oil consumption expected to rise by 4-percent annually over the next 20 years, the Straits of Malacca – and the uninterrupted flow of trade through its waters – will only grow in strategic international importance.

Elsewhere, the Spratly Islands… deserve their own feature article.



Source: The Expat August 2005, Article by Mike Street

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