Challenge #2: Who is responsible for stopping the pirates anyway?

Theoretically, responsibility for suppressing piracy lies with the associated land-based authority or the recognised authority most affected by it. Historical examples show the reality is far more complicated.

1) Being responsible for it did not make solving the piracy problem any easier. 

Chinese piracy

In the late 18th century, impoverished Chinese fishermen turned to piracy to exploit the lucrative trade that traversed the numerous waterways and islands of the South China Sea coast. Soon large, organised pirate fleets from Vietnam’s 1793 Tay-son Rebellion joined them. Unwilling to engage militarily with Vietnam, the Chinese government ignored the problem until 1796 when Chinese officials requested the Vietnam leadership undertake a suppression effort. The token response caused the Chinese government to launch a sea-war against the pirates, with little effect.


In desperation, the Chinese sought naval assistance from the British (then occupying Macau) but even this had little effect. 

Eventually, the large pirate confederation succumbed not to superior naval power but to internal divisions that destroyed its cohesiveness as an effective operation.


The Chinese Government continued to experience problems with pirates until well into the 1930s.


A mid-19th century pirate 'galley' off Canton, from a drawing by a Chinese artist. From Captain A G Course, Pirates of the Eastern Seas. (Frederick Muller: 1966).

2) Unclear territorial ownership and jurisdiction over individuals at sea complicated suppression.

Caribbean piracy

During peacetime, pirates roamed the Caribbean for at least a century before colonial authorities bothered with suppression. The main problem was the constant fluctuation of ownership of the different islands. This made establishing land-based authority over individuals who lived there, especially buccaneers, very difficult.

For example, during the 17th century political ownership of the notorious pirate haven of Tortuga existed in a near-constant state of flux, changing hands between Spain, England, and France over the course of decades. These fluctuations caused the buccaneers to largely ignore land-based authority entirely. In 1664, the French Government attempted to gain some control in Tortuga by implementing taxation, but to no avail. The island remained integral to the success of the buccaneers until the French managed to consolidate their authority in the 1720s.

More on Caribbean pirates

Indonesian piracy

Even in the late 20th century establishing authority over individuals at sea could be difficult. In the early 1990s, a sharp rise in hijacks and robberies of ships occurred in the Phillip Channel near Singapore and the waters near the Riau Islands in Indonesia. The archipelagic nature of the region created major jurisdictional issues between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore because the primarily Indonesian sea-robbers could easily slip from one jurisdiction to another to avoid detection.


For Indonesia, despite the robbers' citizenship, the cost of patrolling the waters to catch and stop them remained a huge barrier, one all three states considered only surmountable with international assistance. While Japan and the United States provided some assistance at the time, this was not a permanent arrangement. Maritime crime remains a problem in the region today.

3) When the responsible authority is unable or incapable of suppressing piracy, who is responsible then? See Somali Piracy section for more.

Challenge #1  Challenge #2  Challenge #3  Challenge #4