About the Author
DANIEL SEKULICH is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist. He has written about international piracy for The Globe and Mail newspaper and is the author of Ocean Titans: Journeys in Search of the Soul of a Ship. When not traveling, he lives in Toronto.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Brethren of the Coast
My Lord, it is a very hard Sentence. For my Part, I am the innocentest Person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured Persons.
—Captain William Kidd, May 1701
Three hundred years ago one of the most famous outlaws of his era stood before an Admiralty Sessions convened at London’s Old Bailey Courthouse to utter these meek words of defense.1 Captain Kidd had been found guilty of "Pyracy and Robbery on the High Seas,"as well as murder, capping a brief three- year career as a buccaneer that had come to fascinate the general public. He’d been neither the most successful pirate of the time nor the most feared; indeed, he was actually somewhat amateurish in his attempts at plundering ships off the Malabar coast of India and his crew had actually mutinied against what they saw as an incompetent leader. Captured in Boston and sent back to En gland to face justice, Kidd was in his mid- fifties when his roving days came to a close.
Yet Kidd was undeniably legendary back then, and part of the reason for his notoriety was that he had turned his back on a life of genteel opportunity to become a roving pirate. The Scots- born son of a Presbyterian minister, William Kidd set off for the New World, where he made a name for himself as a member of the colonial elite in New York City, with a house on Wall Street and a wealthy bride. But for reasons that have never been made clear, he soon grew bored with his refined life in America and decided to embark on a series of privateering expeditions, possibly yearning for adventure—and the chance to make some easy money.
Privateers are not pirates, at least not legally. The difference between the two is important, as a privateer operates within the laws of a nation, while a pirate does not. Traditionally, privateers received a document from their government known as a "etter of marque"that allowed them to legally attack the merchant shipping of an enemy state. Armed with such a letter and suitable weaponry, privateers were expected to return a portion of any profits plundered to the authorities. Kidd got his own letter of marque from the British and sallied forth to attack French shipping but then got greedy and turned from privateering to outright piracy against any vessels he encountered, English or foreign. To the authorities in London this was unacceptable for a variety of reasons, not the least because it sullied the reputations of recognized privateers. Perhaps more important, though, Kidd’s feats set a dangerous precedent, showing that piracy could appeal not only to the poor and dispossessed but also to the gentry. When someone of his upbringing decided to go "on the account"and take to pirating, the Admiralty had to deal with it quickly. He could not be allowed to become a hero or role model for anyone thinking about piracy.
So it was that Captain William Kidd was tried for his crimes during a brief two- day session in the Old Bailey, found guilty of all charges, and sentenced to death. Barely two weeks later, on May 23, 1701, he was bundled aboard a horse- drawn cart and traveled from Newgate Prison in the City of London toward the then suburb of Wapping and a place known as Execution Dock. Located at a bend on the north side of the Thames River not far from the Tower of London, this was where convicted pirates were traditionally hanged. With a crowd watching onshore and from sightseeing boats on the river, the most infamous pirate of the day was led to the gallows at Execution Dock, continuing to protest his innocence. By most accounts he was blind drunk as the hangmen put the noose around his neck. This was probably just as well, for it took two tries to kill him: the rope broke on the first fall and he lay wallowing in the river mud before he was led back to the gallows and the sentence was finally carried out. Admiralty law then proscribed that his body be tarred, bound in irons, and hung from a gibbet farther downriver at Tilbury Point for all to see, rotting there for years afterward as warning to other would- be pirates.
Modern Wapping is today, like much of the Docklands area, awash with redevelopments turning a historic part of London into upscale condos and offices. Execution Dock is long gone— its last use as a killing ground was in 1830— and it’s difficult to find the site today. Walking along the narrow confines of Wapping High Road, I find no historical markers or other indications of this macabre part of London’s history. The street is separated from the Thames by buildings old and new, with a couple of parkettes offering riverside views of Tower Bridge, but little else.
Stopping at a pub to ask the bartender if he knows where Execution Dock is, I’m told it’s right next door, and I head down a small laneway to the river’s edge, the closest one can get to the actual location. There is really nothing much to see beyond tour boats plying the Thames on this late- summer morning and bits of rubbish floating toward the sea, not that I’d expected relics to be lingering after several hundred years. But the effort to see where Captain Kidd and so many others like him met their demise makes me realize that the reality of pirate life has often been kept hidden from us.
For instance, one of the forgotten aspects of London’s history is the wealth that it received from pirates and privateers and the degree to which piracy was considered a legitimate, or quasi- legitimate, form of maritime life. For hundreds of years, the bounty plundered by Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan, and countless regular sailors helped make London’s waterfront teem with brothels, bars, and gaming parlors where one’s newfound, illicit wealth could be spent. The same held true for New York City, Boston, Nassau, Havana, and numerous ports around the world. Even with the threat of Execution Dock’s gallows looming nearby, the allure of a supposedly easy life of maritime crime would have been strong for the impoverished men sitting in Wapping’s pubs centuries ago.
I’ve come to London not just to see the historical site where pirates like Captain Kidd were executed but also to begin understanding how piracy could remain such a problem in today’s day and age while being virtually unknown to most people. One of the best places to start is at the IMB. It is not a governmental organization but a division of the Paris- based International Chamber of Commerce, an organization founded in 1919 to promote business interests and global trade. The IMB itself was established in 1981 to help combat commercial crime in the maritime world and is funded by a variety of shipping firms, insurance companies, and others concerned about the issue. It is one of the groups at the forefront of dealing with global piracy today and, ironically, is headquartered within sight of the old Execution Dock here in Wapping.
The IMB’s director is Pottengal Mukundan, a professional mariner who rose to become a captain before coming ashore to take a desk job with the IMB when it was set up. A trim, bespectacled man, he speaks in the calm, deliberate manner of a master mariner. Mukundan works tirelessly to publicize the threats posed by pirates and maritime criminals, crisscrossing the globe to speak at conferences, meet with government officials and military officers, and persuade the shipping industry to address the problem.
"Why does someone become a pirate? Well, purely for financial gain,"Mukundan tells me when we meet. "Everything that we see is economic piracy and most of the incidents take place in countries with economic problems. As long as there has been maritime commerce, there has been piracy. Pirates in the old days were . . . criminals of the lowest kind who preyed on the weak and showed no mercy at all. Pirates today are exactly the same, though violence has increased and the types of attacks have become more dangerous. The problem now is that pirates are using guns, knives, and even grenade launchers, and the types of attacks have become more dangerous— today very often you have four or five boats, converging on the target vessel from different directions, making it very difficult for the people on the bridge of the merchant ship to avoid the pirate boats, and in that confusion [pirates] will fire on the bridge and then get on board, from the stern typically, and take control of the ship."
Mukundan explains that the IMB began to look more closely at piracy, as opposed to general maritime crime, back in 1991. The following year, they opened the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which collects information about incidents from the shipping industry, government organizations, the media, and even individual mariners. Before that time, no one had bothered to assess the global threat of piracy in such a comprehensive manner, and they continually update their information on a regular basis. The IMB’s records are considered the most complete source of information on piracy in the world, used by the United Nations and various governments and businesses. The results of the IMB’s analyses make it clear that piracy is not just alive and well but getting worse.
"Since we began looking at piracy, we have seen the attacks steadily go up. For instance, in 1994 there were only 90 actual or attempted attacks reported to us, but by 2000 that figure had risen to 469. The attacks went down a bit in 2005–2006, but then began to increase again: we had 198 reported attacks in the first nine months of 2007, up 14% from the same period a year earlier. But, and this is something I must emphasize, there are a very large number of attacks which go unreported, particularly in West Africa, South Africa, and South America. The real figures are much higher. We know that in some cases, there have been forty to fifty attacks in a country that are not reported."
As laid out in detailed reports the IMB has been publishing on a regular basis, there have been pirate incidents in the waters off 82 countries around the world in the last decade and a half, involving vessels from 112 different nationalities.2 If you consider that the United Nations lists 192 Member States as belonging to that global body, the IMB’s statistics reveal that pirates have attacked vessels flying the flags of over half the nations on Earth.
The reports are meticulous, providing accounts of each individual pirate attack reported to the IMB, a list of the regions where piracy is occurring, the types of vessels involved, the weapons used, and a breakdown of the types of violence crews faced. It is the latter set of statistics, known as Table 8 in the IMB reports, that is most chilling to read, for they outline just what mariners endure on the seas. The headings read: "Taken Hostage,""Kidnap/Ransom,""Threatened,""Assaulted,""Injured,""Killed,""Missing."Beside each is a row of figures that adds up to over five thousand incidents of violence committed by pirates in the last decade. These include
over 2,800 hostage takings, 303 murders, and 167 unsolved disappearances of mariners, an annual average of 321 pirate incidents, 280 people taken prisoner and 30 individuals killed. Since the real figures are assumed to be much higher— Mukundan tells me that doubling them would be entirely plausible—this begins to reveal the scope of the threat that looms out there.
I pick up the IMB report for the first half of 2007 and flip through its catalogue of pirate attacks:
Nigeria, 8 January: Danish product tanker was attacked by armed pirates while anchored at position Latitude 06:19 North and Longitude 003:23 East. Five pirates armed with guns and knives boarded at approximately 2335 Local Time. They attacked the duty crew Bosun who sustained injuries to his left hand. They then tied him up and stole his personal effects. The pirates then threatened to cut off his ears if he did not reveal the code for the locks to the Cargo Control Room and how much money was aboard.
Bangladesh, 29 March: Dutch container vessel was anchored in Chittagong Roads when two robbers using grappling hooks with ropes boarded from a small boat near the stern. The alarm was raised by the deck watchmen who were attacked by the robbers armed with knives. The crew sustained serious cuts to their hands. The robbers jumped into the water and the small boat moved away.
India, 13 April: Singapore tug was towing a barge off Trivandrum at position 08:20 N 076:32 E when about 100 pirates including fishermen armed with long knives boarded the barge. They stole cargo and escaped.
Spratly Islands, South China Sea, 26 April: Armed pirates boarded Chinese fishing vessel at time unknown and robbed it of its catch while it was taking shelter due to engine trouble. The Master informed his family about the robbery and that another vessel was approaching it. All contact with the fishing vessel was lost since the Master’s last call. The fate of the vessel and crew members is unknown.
Somalia, 14 May: United Arab Emirates–owned general cargo ship attacked while 180 nautical miles off coast at 1530 Local [Time]. Pirates armed with machine guns and rocket launchers approached and ordered the ship to stop and started firing towards the bridge. Master took evasive action when he saw pirates preparing to fire rocket- propelled grenades. The ship was hit and accommodation caught fire and was extensively damaged. Attack lasted for one hour before pirates aborted.
These incidents— involving a containership, a tanker, a tugboat, a cargo ship, and a fishing boat— are just 5 out of 126 that had been reported to the IMB between January and July of 2007, but they are a good cross section of the types of pirate attacks that occur on the seas today. Mukundan assures me that these are by no means the worst reports they’ve received. Descriptions of gangs large and small, violence to crews, abductions, petty thefts, disappeared ships, rocket- propelled grenades— these are the sorts of things he finds waiting in his morning e-mails each day he comes to work. Though he’s not inured to the continual barrage of incident reports that filter in from all corners of the world, Mukundan takes pains to maintain a professional demeanor when looking at piracy: "Of course I get angry when I hear about these attacks. Who wouldn’t? The lives of people are at stake here, but just getting angry will not solve this problem."
The IMB director stresses the importance of collecting information, sifting through it for developing trends, and sharing what they have learned with others so that mariners and governments can be aware of the situation. After establishing the Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia, the organization set out to pinpoint the root causes of regional maritime crime, and by looking at the data compiled since then they were able to establish three key factors that lead to piracy: a desire to make money, a lack of strong law enforcement, and unarmed vessels plying nearby waters. Or, to put it another way, greed, lawlessness, and opportunity.
"If you look at any of the hot spots of piracy today, you will find these conditions present. For example, in Somalia there is no national government or law enforcement infrastructure, no one for the victims to turn to for assistance, there is poverty from the fighting and chaos in ...
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