The Wall Street Journal just ran an article recently about combating pirates off Somalia. The novel approach is to set up ships outside the danger zone as floating armories. Provided they are willing to pay for the service, merchant vessels passing through the area can take on a private security team with weapons for their voyage past Somalia, and the drop them off at another “floating armory” later. This is a new twist on an old strategy. When confronted with pirates, one has three choices: try to eradicate them, try to buy them off, or arm vessels passing through the seas they frequent. The floating armories are a variation on the third strategy.
Back in the Golden Age of Piracy (the century before 1730), the European ships armed their vessels by other methods. The two most important methods were arming the ships themselves, and sailing in convoys. If you read much of Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 book A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, you’ll find that many of the merchant ships mentioned were armed. Johnson’s account of Captain “Black Bart” Roberts mentions merchant ships carrying 12, 40, 10, 26, 22, 10, 16, and 30 cannons. Yet all of these ships fell victim to Roberts and his pirates. The problem was a matter of crew size and motivation. Pirate ships in those days carried large crews, sometimes well over 100, so that they would be irresistible when they boarded a merchant ship. On the other side of the coin, merchants were forever trying to find ways to reduce the size of their crews to keep expenses down. Perhaps there might be a score of them on a ship (more or less, varying by size of the ship). Such a small crew would have trouble manning all the cannons properly, let alone try to defend the ship against being boarded. And why should they? They were being paid little, and they had no interest in the ship or cargo. Far from resisting the pirates, often enough sailors on a merchant ship would join them when their ships were taken. As Black Bart put it, “In an honest service, there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour; in this [piracy], plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power . . .”
The other method during the Golden Age of Piracy for defending ships was for the government to institute a convoy system, in which armed naval vessels sailed with the merchant ships, and engaged any hostile craft that appear. Although it’s out of this time period, the Allies did a great job during World War II in using convoys to protect merchant ships from German U-boats. Unfortunately, circumstances were not so favorable during the Golden Age. Generally, piracy had to reach crisis proportions before governments would agree to this. And not all merchant captains liked the system. Naval vessels were often slow sailors, retarding the progress of the convoy. It was tempting for a merchant ship’s captain to sail on ahead, to be the first ship to reach a destination, and make a bigger profit on their cargo before the other ships in the convoy arrive. Of course, that fast-sailing vessel was then unprotected, and could fall victim to pirates.
The Ganj-i-sawai that Henry Every captured in 1695 had been part of the naval convoy guarding the Muslim pilgrimage on its return from Mecca. The pilgrimage fleet was a rich target, and often sailed with an armed escort of naval vessels. Sometimes this worked. In 1697, Captain Kidd was driven away from the pilgrimage fleet by an armed escort provided by the British East India Company. Other times, as with Every, it did not.
Why aren’t any of these alternatives being used in the Indian Ocean off Somalia today? Well, most countries don’t like foreign ships with weapons of any kind operating in their territorial waters or coming into port. So the floating armories stay in international waters. The merchant ships who use them take on their security teams in international waters, they sail through international waters, and they give up their security teams at another floating armory in, you guessed it, international waters. That model works well off Somalia. It doesn’t work in the seas between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, even though there are a lot of pirates there, because the main shipping channels go through waters controlled by one or more nations. Those nations may not be able to suppress pirates themselves, but they aren’t about to welcome more armed vessels into their waters.
One last historical reflection on the floating armories. Some nations are worried about the armories being attacked and seized by pirates. The armory owners think they’ve taken adequate precautions. Let’s hope for their sake that today’s pirates aren’t as ingenious as the Golden Age’s Howel Davis, who once took a fortress by subterfuge, as detailed on this page.