They no longer sail in captured English frigates nor do they fly the dreaded skull-and-crossbones, but seagoing pirates in the 21st century are just as terrifying and every bit as dangerous as the sword-wielding dandies who prowled the Spanish Main in the 17th and 18th centuries. And like their forebears of the Golden Age of Piracy (1692-1725), pirates today have the ability to negatively impact national economies, plus – in the modern world – they potentially are adding another dimension in which terrorist networks might freely move and operate. What’s worse, pirate attacks are increasing in terms of frequency and overt boldness.
Why the resurgence of piracy? It was a question I recently addressed in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates, a soon-to-be-released title written by pirate expert Gail Selinger and me. Actually, I determined, there has been no resurgence of piracy, only a spike in the recent number of pirate attacks worldwide.
Seaborne piracy has existed since man first went “down to the sea in ships.” And though pirate attacks did not end with the close of the Golden Age of Piracy, incidents of piracy were isolated and primarily confined to the coastal waters of the Far East for most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries.
When World War II ended in 1945, two new variables were added to the caustic mix of merchantmen and wealthy sea-travelers and bad guys with boats and guns: First, the world’s navies began downsizing. Second, the enormous glut of weapons and equipment – previously available only to legitimate Naval forces – began turning up in black markets.
A few decades after the war, computers and other emerging technologies began enhancing pirate capabilities as much as they did those of national navies. In the 1980s, 1990s, and going into the 21st century, successful pirate attacks on global shipping spiked dramatically as pirates began making use of hand-held GPS receivers, satellite phones, ultra-fast speedboats, high-powered telescopes, automatic weapons, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
The primary motives for the attacks were – and are – no different than they were during the era of Captains Henry Morgan, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, and Bartholomew Roberts: It is all about quick riches, a power-kick associated with terrorizing others, and – to a lesser degree – high-seas adventure.
Recently, attacks on commercial ships have occurred along the coasts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and in the Far East. Choice targets have included cargo freighters and oil tankers.