A pirate attack on an American-flagged ship off the coast of Somalia stirred up a hornet's nest in the United States, at long last--but a popular American call to arm merchant ships fails the test of history. From the days of ancient Rome to the era of Blackbeard and "the dread pirate Roberts" in the 1700's, the best way to stop piracy has been to send in the Navy and shut down the pirates' shore facilities.
History also shows that since the U.S. and French navies have both taken on pirates at sea, that need is suddenly far more urgent. Regardless of cries of outrage from U.S. talk show hosts and others, the Somali pirates' threats to target American and French vessels and kill the crews is a perfectly sensible course of business for the high seas robbers. So the response must be an early and aggressive naval effort to suppress and eliminate the pirates--or expect bloody and brutal sorrow on the waves.
Further, the history of piracy--which in modern times has been rather widespread for decades in South Asia, and only recently a more visible worry on the East African coasts--shows that ultimately the very best solution for most piracy is economic improvement of impoverished peoples. Of course, better jobs ashore and the chance of stable earnings from sailing or fishing will alleviate the forces that cause expansion of piracy, but even so there will remain those persons for whom robbery rather than work is a preferred path, and in those cases only strong naval enforcement will answer.
Any other course, and in particular, arming merchant ships, is an invitation to tragedy. Americans really know nothing of the history of pirates--their idea of the topic is a drunken party in the burning ruins depicted in Disneyland's "Pirates of the Caribbean" amusement ride. The popular image of pirates has very little basis in fact, observed English author Patrick Pringle in his outstanding history, "Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy."
Armed merchant ships have been one of history's most persistent tonics against pirates, and one of history's most expensive failures. Arming merchant ships both for self-protection and at times as auxiliary warships empowered to attack pirates or the shipping of an enemy nation as "privateers" often just created more pirate ships. In the case of armed merchant ships, Pringle's book shows armaments hardly helped--as do other histories of armed civilian vessels, whether sailing in a Mediterranean Sea infested with Barbary corsairs, the Atlantic Ocean or the waters of the Far East. That is why the major seafaring nations of the world agreed, in the 1856 Declaration of Paris, to put an end to armed merchant ships and privateering.
During both World Wars I and II, merchant ships were of course armed, but under very strict control of all governments involved. Further, those armaments were justified by the certainty that the ships would be attacked and sunk by an enemy's military forces--which is not really the usual result of pirate attacks, either in historical times or in the case of the majority of Somalian pirate attacks.
Pirates need to take their victims whole. That's where the value lies, not in destroying or sinking a ship. There is a strong dis-incentive to fight, and this is one of the key weaknesses of all pirates. Thus, confronted with a powerful military threat, pirates usually melt away.
Julius Caesar set one of the most famous examples of how to respond to piracy. Held captive on a pirate island until his ransom arrived, Caesar joked, laughed and teased his captors. He promised that some day he would crucify them all on their beach. The pirates thought the young Roman was one of the funniest wits they had ever met, Caesar captivated them all. Not long afterward, he came back with the Navy and Rome's version of Marines, and kept his promise. That part of a pirate-infested Mediterranean Sea remained free of pirates for a long time to come.
In both the Americas and the East African regions, when navies went to intercept pirates and close down their ports during the 1700's, the pirates almost always ran away or accepted amnesties. Pringle tells of the effect a few determined British Royal Navy ships had on pirates in the Caribbean Sea and Indian Ocean. "By 1744," he wrote, "the Age of Piracy was over; and it was the men-of-war, after all, that finally brought it to an end."
Although scattered attacks of pirates and privateers continued up to the early 20th century, the great numbers of ships and men "on the account" had come to an end. According to Pringle the last hanging of a pirate was in the U.S., in 1862--Captain Nathaniel Gordon was executed in New York, for trading in slaves, a crime that under American law was piracy.
Pirates throughout history preferred to take their prey by intimidation rather than by fighting. Pringle shows that piracy in the 1500's to 1700's was as much a practical business as anything else. Rarely did pirates engage in brutality or long sea battles. Pirates wanted booty and compliant victims, so consistently bad behavior did not help reach their goals.
But, as the Somali pirates recently showed in response to the American and French rescue missions, when a merchantman fought back, or the authorities made a rare show of defiance, the pirates were merciless. Thus in contrast, the submissive merchant victim was more likely to escape unharmed--poorer and sometimes in a state of misery, but alive and relatively healthy.
Buying off pirates with ransom, over all of history, has usually been the preferred solution until someone at last sends in the Navy and closes down the pirates' ports. The same is true now.
Somalia's pirates largely hold ships, cargoes and crews hostage for ransom. They find it generally more practical than plundering the vessels completely since they have precious little hope of selling tankers full of oil or cargo ships loaded with grain either at their home ports or anywhere else in the world. Shipping companies find it equally preferable to negotiate a payoff than to risk bloody battles--and that included the Maersk Line, until the crew of their U.S. flagged Maersk Alabama took their ship back and its captain gave himself up as a hostage to protect his crew and vessel.
Even then, until a U.S. Navy team of SEAL snipers freed the captain, the probability had loomed large that the standoff would end as so many other pirate confrontations throughout history had finished: The pirates would make off with some ransom and a guarantee of safe escape, the hostage would be released, and all would go about their business as before.