High-seas piracy has not changed much in the last 3,000 years and you can bet a keg of rum, a colorful parrot and some buried treasure that pirates will continue to be successful in the 21st century and beyond, says a Texas A&M University at Galveston professor who has taught a course about pirates covering all time periods and locations in the world.
Tom Oertling, who teaches in the Maritime Studies Program in the General Academics Department at the Galveston campus, says pirates have been around about as long as there have been ships. Modern-day pirates are regarded as folk heroes in many countries and in today’s worldwide economic hard times, they almost represent a growth industry.
The number of pirate attacks has dramatically increased in recent years. Figures from the International Chamber of Commerce show there have been more than 1,500 pirate attacks since 2008, with almost 450 occurring in 2010. There have been about 160 so far this year, the study shows.
“Records show that pirate attacks have occurred for thousands of years, and their methods have not changed much at all,” he notes.
Studying pirates is not as far-fetched as it may sound: many Texas A&M-Galveston graduates obtain maritime licenses to operate cruise ships, oil tankers and cargo ships, all potential targets of worldwide pirates today.
Oertling says that a notable pirate attack involved Julius Caesar. At age 25 and years before he became emperor of Rome, Caesar was captured by pirates and held for ransom. The pirates wanted 20 talents of silver (more than $500,000 in today’s dollars) to be paid for his safe release.
“Caesar was deeply insulted and told them so – he said he was worth far more than that, at least 50 talents,” Oertling explains. “He managed to escape and later had the pirates captured and eventually crucified.”
Oertling says the “golden age” of pirates was from about 1680 to 1740 and included the usual suspects: Blackbeard, Capt. Kidd, Black Bart (who is believed to be the most successful, having captured at least 470 ships), and Anne Bonny, one of a handful of female pirates.
Pirates have been romanticized for ages and have become a part of American culture. Certainly the athletic world is no stranger to them (think Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Pirates) and the hit movie series Pirates of the Caribbean has grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
Oertling requires his students to read Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson and Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini, both made into popular movies. “They capture the essence of what being a pirate was like,” he notes. The movie version of Captain Blood in 1935 featured a young leading actor named Errol Flynn who went on to swashbuckle his way into Hollywood history.
As for today’s pirates, Oertling says their methods and ways of grabbing ships, crew and cargo have not changed much since the Julius Caesar incident.
“Several hundred years ago, they used fast ships to overtake a prey and battled their way onboard,” he says. “Today, they use a different kind of fast ship, such as a high-powered speed boat, to get near a ship. Rocket-propelled grenade launchers and machine guns have replaced muskets and cannons, but the goal is still the same: to board the ship quickly.
“Once pirates have made it onto a ship, it’s pretty much over – they have won. Then they sit back and figure out a ransom amount and contact the owners to pay it or else.”
Most of the time, pirates get their wish, he adds.
“Huge shipping companies with a multi-billion dollar budget regard paying a $2 or $3 million ransom to have their people released safely and their cargo left intact as part of the price of doing business,” he points out. “It’s a tiny fraction of their bottom line, so it’s easier to pay the ransom and get it over with.
“Pirates in turn go back to their home base and tend to spread the money around generously, and in doing so, they have become legends and folk heroes in many countries like Somalia, which hasn’t had a real government in years to pose a threat to them. Other countries in the Far East, around the Philippines and Malaysia where many pirates operate, use corruption at high levels and tend to get what they want with little or no punishment.”
In a daring move that would no doubt shiver the timbers of any pirate, a group of Navy Seals made headlines in 2009 when they were asked to rescue the 19-man crew from the cargo ship Maersk Alabama that pirates had commandeered. The Seals helicoptered to a nearby ship, and using their superior nighttime military technology and high-tech sniper rifles, killed three pirates holding the crew, while the fourth pirate quickly surrendered and threat was over.
“Some shipping companies now have more security personnel onboard, but many do not,” Oertling adds.
“Piracy will continue until the cost of carrying out this trade is greater than they are willing to pay – in people, boats and equipment and time, such as time spent in prison.”