The Pirate Ship

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“We were rolling from one side to another.” Adan was telling me his pirate tale. One moonless night in 2011, he was on a small fishing skiff with six other men somewhere in the Indian Ocean. On this journey, instead of tuna, the skiff was on the hunt for cargo ships. After some maneuvering to avoid getting caught in the wake and capsize, the small skiff pulled up alongside the big cargo ship. Using ladders, they climbed onboard and made their way to the bridge of the ship. Once they entered the bridge, the cargo ship was now under their command and they made the captain sail it to the Somalia coast where it would remain until a ransom was secured.

The so-called Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730), when piracy was a significant factor in shaping the expansion of European maritime empires in the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, has left behind perhaps the most definitive vision of the pirate ship. Part myth, part reality, these ships were former privateering vessels, merchant ships, or slave ships that turned pirate when the crew revolted and decided to sail under the Jolly Roger. Known for being spaces of radical experiments in egalitarianism— as well as peg legs and rum— these pirate ships live on in fantasy and lore. By the 19th century, the age of piracy was seemingly over. The shift from sail to steam and eventually containerized transport, as well as the triumph of global navies, marked a seeming enclosure of the world’s oceans in the name of capitalism and free trade.

However, in the 1990s pirate ships returned to the world’s oceans from the Gulf of Guinea to the Straits of Malacca—and from 2007-2012, in unprecedented ways off the coast of Somalia. Unlike the galleons and clippers of yesteryear, today’s pirate ship is a relatively humble vessel. It is most frequently a simple fishing skiff—a fiberglass boat with two outboard motors (the Yamaha is the most common engine of choice). Across global shipping lanes and maritime chokepoints, these small vessels target container ships, oil tankers, and other boats that are essential to contemporary capitalism. From siphoning oil off the coast of Nigeria to making containers and sometimes entire ships disappear, to finally ransoming crew and cargo, today’s pirate ship is small but has an outsized impact in its ability to interrupt the global circulation of crew and cargo.

In recent years, piracy off the coast of Somalia was perhaps the most spectacular and well-known form of maritime raiding that made visible the pirate ship and its connections to land and sea. Before they transformed into pirate ships, fiberglass skiffs first made their appearance on the coast of Somalia as part of ambitious attempts to transform coastal economies. The Somali government aimed to convince people to incorporate fish and other bounties of the sea into their diet during the Scientific Socialism era in the late 1970s.

Skiffs found themselves at times in cooperation, and at other times in conflict with international trawlers, large boats that dominated the region’s fishing industry. While some targeted trawlers, other fiberglass skiffs were organized into private security guards seeking to guarantee profits and protection for trawlers. At some point, the fishing skiff transformed into a pirate ship. As one former fisherman explained, “after a while, we started going after bigger fish, but the principle was the same: you find a ship and make them pay to be in our waters.”

The pirate ship, like many other vessels in this part of the world is a creature of the monsoon. From November to March, when the waters are calm, skiffs would depart from small port towns and fishing villages. Like its predecessors, contemporary pirate ships are organized on a clear division of labor and depended also on chance and fate in capturing vessels at sea. A navigator, usually a local fisherman armed with a GPS instrument was crucial to the expedition and often the only person onboard with maritime knowledge. The rest of the crew consisted of young men carrying an AK-47 and hopes of striking it rich.

For many, the pirate skiff was the first time they had ever been out to sea. Once a skiff leaves land, the goal is to sail towards the shipping lanes of commerce and wait. Though possessing GPS instruments and satellite phones, the modus operandi of a pirate ship is relatively rudimentary; travel offshore to shipping lanes, wait, and hope. The skiff and its crew idle in the water for a day, sometimes up to three, waiting for the ideal ship—a low and slow cargo ship, often fully laden oil tankers. Then they give pursuit, attempt to board and, if all goes according to plan, capture a cargo ship.

This encounter between the skiff and cargo ship reveals another important facet of the pirate ship, one that connects contemporary piracy to the lore and drama of the Golden Age of Piracy. Then as now, the pirate ship is a shapeshifting vessel, all kinds of boats can become pirate ships—from humble fishing skiffs to even the largest cargo vessels.

The bridge of a cargo ship is usually a quiet place. If the engine room at the bottom of the ship is hot, loud, and aggressive the bridge is calm, serene, and sedate. Crew members refer to the ship interchangeably as a monastery, a prison, an office, a factory and occasionally as home. In addition to the solemnity and attention required to navigate these massive leviathans of metal and machine, every movement and conversation is recorded up at the bridge. Such omnipresent surveillance is a response to what has become a general feature of global shipping: the risk that the cargo ship might transform into a pirate ship.

From 2007 onwards, an unprecedented upsurge in attacks on ships as they transited through the Western Indian Ocean had brought back to the world’s attention the seemingly archaic question of maritime piracy. For security reasons, ships traveling in “High Risk Areas”—a UN designated area where the dangers of being captured at sea were most extreme—move in convoys with other cargo vessels, led in solemn procession by NATO warships. Inside these ships, almost overnight, barbed wire and water hoses are installed in the aft side of the ship and crew members are put under strict instructions to keep curtains drawn at night. Walking outside is strictly forbidden.

How do small boats overpower large ships? How does a container vessel become a pirate ship? Being small is a useful attribute for a pirate skiff, it helps boats blend into the ocean and arrive at the threshold of a container vessel unnoticed. Even with radars and other surveillance technology, there will always remain blind spots. Additionally, the world’s oceans are far from empty spaces—all kinds of vessels move across these waters. For even the most seasoned spotters, it is nearly impossible to discern the difference among boats carrying fishermen, migrants, or pirates. When a boat evades the surveillance and security of the cargo ship, when pirates successfully board these large vessels and ships go “offline” as security consultants and insurance agents refer to it, we might understand the cargo ship then as a pirate ship.

From the deck of a container ship (or a navy vessel), pirate ships are threats. Unexpected dangers that can appear without notice and disrupt itineraries and lives, transforming container ships into pirate ships. This threat has to be contained through bureaucracy, security and sometimes a turn to the magical and the mystical. Many crew members carry amulets. Others pray. But danger and threat is not all there is to the story of the pirate ship.

For some, piracy is a disaster, for others hope. Many pirates migrated to the coast after hearing stories of the possibility of instant riches. Some strike it rich. But for others, all they can remember of their time at sea is, as one former pirate put it, “seasickness and the smell of diesel.” After days at sea, some pirates simply return to shore empty-handed and in debt. The fuel, the supplies (food, water and other essentials for those long days and night of waiting), the weapons and boarding ropes and ladders were all acquired on credit. To become a pirate today is to become indebted; it is about taking a chance. While some pirates acquire massive wealth, many became further tied to the pirate skiff and must return to sea over and over again. Pirate bosses and financiers stay in the relative safety of land, getting involved only when ships were hijacked.

A place of seasickness, solitude, and risk as well as hope, promise, and spectacle, the pirate ship highlights the perils and possibilities of traveling along liquid paths amidst the choppy swells of the world’s oceans. As others have noted, ships are heterotopias par excellence. The pirate ship, as a shapeshifting vessel that at times appears as fishing skiff or even a container ship, evades multiple forms of capture (both literal and figurative). It is a space that is neither only resistance, nor domination, it is neither dystopia nor utopia. It is a vessel of the past, and the present and foretells the worlds that are crafted by millions on a daily basis as they leave the solidity of land and set sail towards uncertain futures.

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The Oceans Lab, an interdisciplinary research and advocacy initiative, explores maritime issues across oceanic spaces. With a focus on themes of race, labor, inequality, climate change, migration, and geopolitics, the Lab seeks to unravel the complexities of our oceans, making them comprehensible through innovative approaches. One such approach is the creation of this map that aims to help bridge gaps between how scholars describe oceanic spaces and the voices of those that inhabit them.

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Counter-mapping, at its core, seeks to provide alternative perspectives and representations that challenge dominant power structures and dominant narratives (Peluso 1995). This ever-evolving map thus recognizes that the ocean is not just a backdrop for the global commerce represented on standard shipping maps, but a vibrant and dynamic space shaped by human experiences.

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Send us your name, a short essay, a short story, a photo, a video, or a link to a social media post related to the sea or maritime issues (TikToks at sea are welcome, as are research essays!). We aim to fill our map with “stories from the sea” of all kinds.