Piracy in the 20th century

The expansion of legitimate occupations for seafarers, the suppression of indigenous sea-raiding, increasingly fast and globalised trade, and the protections seafarers received through their state’s social contract with their citizens largely eradicated high seas piracy by the early 20th century. However, three further developments in the history of piracy occurred from this time:

1) the establishment of an international norm against private arms on ships;


2)  international agreement on a definition of piracy enshrined in piracy law; and

3)  the impact of illegal fishing on local communities.

Private arms on ships

For many centuries, most merchant ships carried arms for self-protection and fighting trade rivals. After the long period of peace in the early 19th century began, the strengthening and centralisation of a state-based naval force combined with the abolition of authorised sea-raiding to make it increasingly unnecessary for merchant ships to be armed. By the outbreak of World War I, merchant ships did not carry arms, instead relying on naval convoys for protection. The prevalence of the submarine in naval warfare exposed the futility of armed merchant ships anyway and caused widespread losses.

By the 1950s, an international norm against private armed merchant ships began to entrench itself. The development of diesel engines meant ships had grown larger, faster and more efficient, causing crew size to shrink. Concerns over private arms now centred on the impact firearm possession could have on small crews in confined spaces, rather than external threats like pirates.


For the most part, the ship's flag state's laws concerning privately owned weapons applied to the crews onboard the ship. For example, a ship sailing under the British flag is a piece of British territory, so British laws about private firearm ownership apply to it. The ship's owner also set regulations on firearms onboard the ship. In addition, many ports forbade the possession of private firearms onboard ships using their anchorages. Ports and anchorages fell under the state's jurisdiction, so local state laws applied to the possession of firearms. 


So, while never officially illegal, most governments overseeing strong merchant shipping industries frowned on the possession of firearms on ships, including the use of armed guards. This began to change in the 1990s. 


International piracy law


Despite centuries of piracy prosecutions and precedents, it took long years of dispute and argument for the international community to agree on a definition of piracy.  Eventually, a definition and an obligation to suppress it were included in Part 7 of the UN's Convention of the Law of the Sea in 1982. This meant that a maritime crime to be considered piracy under international law it had to be committed on the high seas, or outside the jurisdiction of any state. Until 2008, all of this remained largely theoretical.

So in the late 20th century, since most maritime crimes occurred within the jurisdiction of a state (often boarding and robbing a ship at anchor or port), these crimes fell under the relevant state's law and jurisdiction. The unwillingness or inability of state authorities to police these crimes in a number of maritime states, including Indonesia, Bangladesh, Brazil, and Nigeria (see map below) perplexed shipping companies and seafarers for many years.  

In response to lobbying from the industry, in 1992, the International Maritime Bureau formed the Regional Piracy Centre (now known as the Piracy Reporting Centre or IMB-PRC) to address the shipping industry's concerns over rising rates of maritime crime occurring in Southeast Asia and the Malacca Strait. At this time, the IMB-PRC deemed ‘classic piracy’ a ‘relic of the past’ because ‘the greater part of these crimes are committed within the territorial waters of a sovereign state.’ In 2004, the IMB-PRC aligned its definition of piracy with the UNCLOS definition.

IMB-PRC reports of maritime crime: 1993-2004

IMB-PRC map.jpg

Illegal fishing

The map above shows the 'hot-spots' for maritime crime in the late 1990s. At the heart of this late 20th century problem lay the historic legacy of the cause of all piracy: the inability of the prevailing authority (this time the state) to exert sufficient authority to control the actions of its inhabitants at sea.

However, the maritime crime that emerged in the 1990s introduced a new twist to the motivation for piracy. The idea of piracy as an act of protest first appeared in the Caribbean in the 1720s. This time, many of the pirates claimed they acted in retaliation against illegal fishing.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a global problem, manageable only with significant investment and resources from states. For example, Australian and Canadian diplomatic efforts, government-sponsored surveillance, monitoring, and patrols significantly reduced IUU fishing in their coastal waters. But in West African and Southeast Asian states, governments lack this level of resourcing and coordination.

Also at play in these regions is how the dominant political and social centre of most states focuses inward on land and agriculture, rather than outward towards the sea. This causes maritime people to occupy a low position in local social hierarchies and to occupy the physical, social and economic margins of society. These states often have little formal fishing industry to protect, so they allow the exploitation of traditional fishing grounds at the expense of their citizens' traditional way of life. So modern fishers in waters from West Africa to Southeast Asia have turned to sea-raiding to protest foreign incursion on traditional fishing grounds and their state’s inability or unwillingness to protect their interests.

By the early 21st century, retaliation against illegal fishing formed the justification of Somalis who began hijacking and ransoming merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden.