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International seaborne piracy and the state: Lessons to be learned from history?


  • Smith, Stefan Halikowski


Since 1994 worldwide maritime piracy has witnessed an explosion. While data collection has improved, the incidence of piracy has undoubtedly risen as well, particularly in areas of the world marked by failed or weak states' (Somalia, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone), though some areas (South-East Asia) have experienced piracy as a perennial hazard. It is not clear whether modern nation states are sufficiently equipped to deal with such a problem, and it is from within international bodies that we might best expect the lead to be taken against the current piracy epidemic (NATO/UN/EU).However, while the EuNavfor Atalanta taskforce can already boast of some early successes, there are also substantial legal hurdles to be overcome in resurrecting piracy laws unused in 400 years, as some test cases like that of MS Taipan, which got underway in the Hamburg Amtsgericht in October 2010, demonstrate. As a historian, one should ask how the problem of seaborne piracy was addressed and suppressed by European powers in the past, for example in the period 1480-1725 in which I am specifically interested. Means of enforcing stricter penalties, increasing naval patrols of sea lanes, and shifting official attitudes regarding the threat posed by piracy to the well-being of nation states, are all lessons policy-makers today would do well to take heed of. Not all attempts at resolving piracy were successful, and in what follows tree different case studies shall be presented: the piratic attacks by the so-called Victualian Brothers against the Wendish cities of the Hanseatic League over the last fifteen years of the fourteenth century, a relatively small-scale challenge which had a wider international backdrop, but which was successfully extirpated; then, the case of Portugal in the sixteenth century, where piracy threatened simultaneously on too many fronts, and was not successfully swept aside; and the case of Britain in the eighteenth, where piracy again presented itself as a global problem, but efforts to counter it were more far-ranging, handled by a specially commissioned sub-state agency, sanctioned with new purposeful legislation, and where the fight was met with greater success.

Suggested Citation

  • Smith, Stefan Halikowski, 2013. "International seaborne piracy and the state: Lessons to be learned from history?," TranState Working Papers 172, University of Bremen, Collaborative Research Center 597: Transformations of the State.
  • Handle: RePEc:zbw:sfb597:172

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