Latest Research 19th Century Masterfile

The Scourge of Modern Piracy


As terrifying as the memorable pirates of history were in their day, they've become the subject of romanticized stories, theme park rides and big budget blockbusters since. For many years, much of modern society felt the reality of these notorious seaside robbers and murderers was a thing of the past. In more recent years though, a new wave of piracy has risen to give current sailors something to fear all over again.

In the early 19th century, concerted efforts by many of the world's navies managed to successfully knock out piracy throughout the Western world. Some remained in the Far East into the 20th century, but the practice was largely believed to be extinct towards the end of the century. That changed as a new type of piracy emerged in recent decades, one that employs new technology and is fueled by the particular political and economic situations of certain global areas.

The resurgence of piracy has primarily taken place in four areas, each with a confluence of local factors to make it a prime target for opportunistic pirates.


The most high profile of today's pirates comes from Somalia, a country plagued by chaos, poverty and war.

With no central government, enough internal violence to inspire a wide proliferation of arms, and a coast conveniently located near important trade routes, some Somali’s saw an opportunity. The Somali pirates typically don’t steal the goods on the ships they’ve raided but hold ships hostage for ransom. This means oil rigs; commercial carriers and cruise ships share the same level of risk.

Somali pirates are able to take advantage of the legal gray areas that come with crime on the seas. Large, valuable vessels are often owned by a business from one country, have a captain and crew from other countries, and sail waters under the jurisdiction of yet another.

South China and Indonesia

The seas around South China and Indonesia have seen a resurgence of piracy driven by a combination of poor economic conditions and a lack of oversight and effective enforcement. Here, the problem is made worse by unclear boundaries as to what country should police and punish piracy in which areas.

In the 1990s, Asi's international trade increased tremendously. A large amount of goods shipped by sea out of Asian ports had to make way through seas that were dangerously close to areas experiencing poverty. The pirates of these waters have been more inclined to steal ships and their goods outright to sell for profit than make ransom demands. Many famously stolen ships pop up again in other countries with new names and owners.


Nigeria is a country with a wealth of fossil fuels, but a population still beleaguered by poverty. This makes the conditions ripe for piracy. Nigeria does experience the relative benefit of most piracy cases occurring in their territorial waters, so many of the complications in punishing the perpetrators are alleviated.

Nigerian piracy sometimes resembles a mugging at sea, with the pirates satisfied to leave the boat and crew once they've obtained enough money and items of value. Often though, it serves as a form of political protest, or an offshoot of the tensions between the many ethnic groups present in the country.

Pirates have long been a subject of fascination, but our relationship to piracy as a modern-day news item differs considerably from our ideas of it as a distant legend. Many more stories and details on modern piracy are included in Modern Piracy: A Reference Handbook, one of the 117 new Gale Virtual Reference titles recently added to Reference Universe.

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