Once again, piracy captures the world's attention, though it seems unlikely that Hollywood will ever cast Johnny Depp in Pirates of Somalia. It's equally unlikely that a Somali immigrant got carried away on National Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19th) here in the States and sent word to his friends back home.
Greed and jihad represent the motive of this resurgence of maritime larceny off the coast of Africa, while the opportunity was provided by Somalia's civil wars and the loss of central state control. Piracy has been with us since at least the 13th century BC, with every region of the world host to some pirates or other. The modern public imagination may have been steeped in quaint stories from decades of film and theme park pleasure, but these guys off the African coast are no fun.
There are many villains to choose among in the history of piracy, but the Barbary Pirates were among the most notorious and storied. Redbeard and like-minded North Africans were highly successful, commandeering ships in the Atlantic and even plundering European Coastal villages gathering captives to sell into slavery well into the late 18th century. Estimates of the total number of Europeans enslaved run as high as a million and half. Our own Marine Hymn celebrates the eventual American victory over the Barbary pirates, defeating them on "the shores of Tripoli."
History amply demonstrates the propensity of the most scurrilous of outlaws to head for the frontiers. Those regions least populated and settled offer wide latitude to those with less than honorable intentions. The 19th century American Wild West and early Australia come to mind. But the high seas combined with a failed state provides the perfect combination of remoteness and isolation to allow sea-going miscreants to perform hit-and-run operations.
All this ocean-going uncertainty combined with an ironic twist of terrorism, creates a great deal of hand-wringing, especially by the Saudis, since it's mostly their ox being gored. So far the only nation to actually send its navy out to attack pirates is India, flexing its muscle as an aspiring naval power, and doing the civilized world a favor.
There is another solution, however. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1856 at the end of the Crimean War. Therein the concept of the letter of marque was developed. This process was designed specifically for but is not exclusive to, nautical use, and stops short of a declaration of war. These warrants allow for the state's agent to search, seize, capture and destroy the vessels of an individual or nation in the course of regaining property or personnel considered to belong to the issuing nation. In French, the term is lettre de course. Thus the ships assigned these responsibilities were called Corsairs.
The English term is Privateer. Not surprisingly the corsairs and privateers were not much better than pirates themselves. In fact many of them played both sides of the street, including Captain William Kidd, Jean Bart and Henry Morgan.
Our own U.S. Constitution specifically assigns the power to issue letters of marque to the U.S. Congress, and the power was used extensively in the Revolutionary War. The woeful shortage of American vessels ready to do battle with the vaunted British navy created the need for additional maritime support. Privateers competently albeit erratically filled the need for private vessels and stymied the British off Long Island Sound and the ports of Boston and Baltimore and many other ports along the Eastern seaboard.
The resolution of those vessels currently held for ransom will likely be a bit protracted and hopefully a bit messy as well. Actuarial tables were unavailable on pirates, but one suspects that the life-expectancy of the average pirate is rather low, with insurance premiums probably similar to those available to Soviet journalists or O.J. Simpson's dates.
Going forward however, the Saudis and other nations with tanker fleets should proceed to issue their own letters of marque. Currently the tankers have small crews that are relatively unarmed. Private security firms have been recommended to shipping companies by no less than United States Navy: Blackwater has already been offering its services to dissuade the piratical intentions of latter-day ocean-waymen, and these hired guns from Blackwater didn't gain many fans in Mookie Al-Sadr's brigades for good reason. Market-based solutions can work and save the taxpayers money in so many ways.
Letters of marque: it's back to the future.