Hell at high seas: piracy and the militarisation of seafarers



It’s taken Hollywood – and, by extension, public opinion – some time to wake up to the menace of maritime piracy.

This Friday sees the general release of Captain Phillips, a gripping true-life film about the hijacking of the container ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates in 2009.

Perhaps the movie, starring two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks, will finally debunk the Jolly Roger perception of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and dashing corsairs liberating ill-gotten gold bullion from colonial oppressors.

The fact that the film’s protagonist Captain Richard Phillips is a US citizen no doubt sealed the producers’ interest in making the movie in the first place.

But what of the world’s 1.2 million other seafarers?

The vast majority of them are from developing nations and for them maritime piracy remains a potent threat. Poorly paid, often exploited, sometimes working on rust-bucket vessels, and with only a quarter of their number unionised, few people are rushing to tell their stories.

It’s estimated that 90 per cent of our goods are transported by sea and that merchant shipping contributes around US$380 billion to the global economy, equivalent to five per cent of total world trade.

Yet the welfare of seafarers and the importance of these key workers continue to be under-appreciated.

In the last decade alone over 4,000 seafarers have been held hostage for ransom, scores have been murdered or died in captivity and more than 40,000 have had direct, and often terrifying, experience of pirate attacks at sea.

Hitherto, the Gulf of Aden – off the coast of strife-torn Somalia, as well as Djibouti and Yemen – has been the world’s most notorious pirate zone.

In 1991, the state of Somalia effectively collapsed when the country’s long-time dictator Siad Barre was overthrown.

The country was plunged into a bloody civil war which lasted for over two decades and has left Somalia unable to protect its coastline.

As a result, illegal fishing vessels from Europe and Asia have depleted Somalia’s once bountiful fish stocks and it is also reported that the Italian mafia facilitated the dumping of medical and toxic waste off the country’s coast.

Fisherman, who had lost their source of income and had no functioning government to help them, turned instead to piracy.



Abbas Ali, a ship’s motorman from south-west India, was held hostage with 25 other crew for three-and-a-half months when his Panama-registered ship, the MV Al Khalique, carrying wheat from Russia to Kenya, was seized by Somali pirates in late 2009 – the same year as Captain Phillips.

But there the similarity ended. For Abbas and his fellow Indian and Burmese workers there was no daring Navy SEALS rescue act.

“Continuously they were firing. They must have shot a thousand bullets at the vessel. Many, many times the pirates threatened to kill us,” the 51-year-old father-of-three told Equal Times in a recent interview at his home in Kerala State.

The captain, chief officer and 2nd officer were locked on the bridge throughout the ordeal and “never came down”, said Abbas; while the chief engineer and his assistant were likewise imprisoned in the engine room.

That Abbas agreed to talk to Equal Times at all was unusual because many pirate victims are put under tremendous pressure by ship owners, agents and insurance brokers to keep silent and sign confidentiality agreements not to disclose details of their ordeal and ransom payment.

Other hijacked mariners tell of vicious beatings, gratuitous torture and mock executions at the hands of pirates, in reports verified by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

Some observers suspect that shipping bosses are more concerned about the safety of their ships, the protection of their cargoes and their profits than they are about the welfare of their workers.

Beggaring belief, there have even been some cases of captured mariners having to threaten legal action against their employers to get their back pay after being released by pirates.

Since 2005, Somali pirates have captured 149 insured ships and obtained over US$300 million in ransom.

But in the last year there’s been a sharp decrease in reported piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia, according to the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Maritime Bureau (IMB).

Currently, the IMB reports, Somali pirates hold four vessels captive and 68 hostages.

Other sources put the number of hostages higher and say that 97 seafarers are still being held because they’ve been abandoned by callous ship owners and their families are too poor to pay ransoms of US$100,000 per prisoner.



The fall in Somali marauding is being credited to the formation of an international anti-piracy task force of over 20 warships – involving, among others, the navies of the UK, China, Germany, Holland, South Korea and the United States – and a dozen aircraft patrolling the vast maritime expanse.

Hiring private armed guards and improved on-board defences, such as razor wire, water cannons and citadels, have played their part too.

But the inexorable militarisation of the merchant marine, which is said to be costing around US$7 billion a year, has sharply divided opinion among maritime trade unionists and seafarers alike.

“If I’d wanted a shooting war I would have joined the navy and not the merchant marine,” one seafarer told me; while another, Arnold Yoro, a Filipino bosun, said: “When the pirates attacked us we were lucky because we had an escort from a naval ship from (South) Korea.”

Roy Paul, of the Maritime Piracy Humanitarian Response Programme, a pan industry body that works with piracy victims and their families, which was set up with major funding from the ITF, concedes that: “armed guards may be a necessary evil.”

Nevertheless, he warns: “Seafarers are highly trained professional people, but we should resist all attempts to make them into a fighting force. They should not be asked to carry guns and shoot people. History has shown us that fighting violence with violence does not work.

“We’re already beginning to see some ship owners using cheaper armed guards. We’ve had cases of four guards with only two guns, guards with nowhere to sleep on board, guards not getting paid. All this type of thing is creeping in,” he says.

Other reports state that some shipping companies, now relying on armed guards rather than speed to deter pirates, have ordered their vessels to slow down in high risk areas to save on high fuel costs – in direct contravention of accepted safety practice that calls for maximum power in pirate-infested waters.

Security protocols designed to protect seafarers have also gone disastrously wrong.

In one recent incident an Italian gunboat opened fire on a perceived pirate vessel that turned out to be an Indian trawler. They killed two innocent fishers. After a diplomatic imbroglio, the Italian marines have now been extradited to India to face manslaughter charges.

Meanwhile, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea has now emerged as the world’s new pirate danger zone. Between 2011 and 2012 the number of attacks increased by nearly 50 per cent.

Pirates in West Africa attacked 966 seafarers in 2012, compared to 851 off the Somali coast, the IMB reported in June this year. And five of the 206 hostages seized had been killed.

“The area has not received the attention that was brought to Somalia,” said the bureau.

One wonders how long it will be until Hollywood comes calling.


Video credit: David Browne/Parachute Pictures