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Top reads: Piracy and the Royal Navy

19 March 2019

A drawing of pirate ship Marryat, 1851

A drawing of pirate ship Marryat, 1851

Piracy prospered between 1650 and 1720 in a period known as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’. As colonial overseas trade grew so did the quantities of valuable cargoes being shipped and with that temptations into piracy increased.

Before the development of large streamline navies, Governments made use of Privateers; merchant ships licenced to act as ‘naval’ powers who could operate unopposed. Often, little distinction could be made between them and the various pirate groups.

As piracy increased so it became necessary for Governments to act. Two naval campaigns were launched between 1699 and 1725 and new laws were introduced for convicting pirates. Hundreds were found guilty and many were sentenced to death.

In 1816, the bombardment of Algiers ended the Barbary pirates’ power in the Mediterranean. Dutch warships patrolled Southeast Asia while the Royal Navy attacked pirates in the South China seas. The balance of power shifted but piracy was never completely eliminated.

Merdoo Battle

Attack on pirates in the river Merdoo, Sumatra by the boats of HMS Harlequin and HMS Wanderer in 1844.

Piracy remains widespread in the modern world. In 2018 there were 201 incidents of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Most of the attacks occurred in South East Asia, where piracy has been prevalent historically, and off the coast of West Africa.

The Royal Navy plays an active role in supressing piracy. From 2009-2016 they took part in Operation Ocean Shield, focussed in Somalia. The operation has virtually eliminated piracy in that region. They are part of CTF150, a combined multi-national navy task force, which was established at the same time and continues to undertake anti-piracy patrols.

HMS Montrose

HMS Montrose intercept suspected pirates off Gulf of Aden. (Image credit: Ministry of Defence)

The Royal Navy is also involved in the European Union Naval Force‘s Operation Atalanta. Operation Atalanta covers the Southern Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and a large part of the Indian Ocean.

Today pirates target bulk carriers and oil and chemical tankers, taking crew members hostage for ransom, rather than the theft of their vessel or cargo.

The direct economic cost of piracy to maritime trade has been estimated in the region of $2 billion a year.

How does the United Nations Convention define piracy?

Piracy is defined in Article 101 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and Armed Robbery defined by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) in its 26 th Assembly session as Resolution A.1025 (26).

Article 101 of UNCLOS defines Piracy as:

Definition of Piracy consists of any of the following acts:

  1. a) any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, committed for private ends by the crew or the passengers of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed-

(i) on the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;

(ii) against a ship, aircraft, persons or property in a place outside the jurisdiction of any State;

(b) any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;

(c) any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act described in subparagraph (a) or (b).

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