History of Piracy Suppression

Piracy suppression involves finding a permanent solution to the piracy problem rather than a temporary, individualised deterrent, such as stopping pirates from attacking ships. 


There are two ways to approach piracy suppression:


1) stopping people from becoming pirates in the first place; and


2) holding pirates to account for their actions.


Piracy suppression is a difficult, time-consuming and expensive task that comes with side effects.

This means only when the piracy sufficiently affects a sovereign or state’s economic trade or national security does a suppression effort usually begin.  


No matter where or when a piracy epidemic occurred, the common challenges to piracy suppression manifested repeatedly, including during the Somali piracy epidemic of 2008-12.

Challenge #1: Is the piracy bad enough to require suppression?

How bad the piracy has to be to suppress it is really a matter of perspective. There is evidence of how the contrasting priorities and opposing perspectives of pirates, their victims and authorities complicated stopping piracy throughout history.

The victims of pirates tend to be the most affected by their actions and they lead the call to sovereigns and states to stop them. Sometimes, those sovereigns or states benefit directly from the piracy, so they have little incentive or interesting in stopping them. For example, after complaints from the Spanish king in the late 16th century, the English Queen Elizabeth I publicly condemned the actions of her sea-raiders ‘going to sea without a license’ and raiding Spanish ships during peacetime. Privately, she praised them for the rewards they provided her. Three hundred years later, the Spanish encouraged their sea-raiders to act as a coastguard and pay themselves by making war on Spain’s political and fiscal enemies. But for Spain’s enemies, this peacetime act amounted to piracy.

Other times, the piracy does not affect the sovereign or state much at all, so it is a low political and security priority. In the 1990s, Indonesia avoided its persistent maritime crime problem to mask the absence of Indonesian naval resources and the multitude of jurisdictional issues maritime crime and piracy in its waters created. As the Indonesian Navy’s Chief-of-Staff said in 1995: ‘we must differentiate between usual crime and piracy which does not only take possessions but also life. The crime which we have is only snatching. The same as if you had something taken in the street.’

Suppressing piracy requires a sovereign or state to take responsibility for holding the pirates to account for their actions. This creates the next challenge.


Portrait of Francois L'olonnais. a French-born buccaneer known for his violence and depredations against the Spanish. 

Reproduced from the first edition of De Americaensche Zee-Roovers, Amsterdam 1678, by permission of the Trustees of the British Museum and printed in A O Exquemelin, 'The Buccaneers of America'. Translated by Alexis Brown (London: 1972).