The Big Myth of Somali Pirates

By Stephen M. Carmel

Today the United States is the dominant global player. It has the largest economy in the world and, contrary to what many believe, remains the world’s largest manufacturer. It is the world’s third-largest exporter behind China and Germany, but that’s only because its internal market is so large that only about 1 percent of U.S. businesses even view the export market as a target. Further, comparatively little of the flow of U.S. international commerce actually moves through the Somali Basin/Gulf of Aden. Unlike the era of the Barbary pirates, when the majority of U.S. trade was through the pirates’ primary area of operations, very little of our foreign commerce today transits high-risk waters where pirates ply their trade.

Only about 13 percent of U.S. oil imports come out of the Persian Gulf region, for example, but the oil that does come from there goes around the Cape of Good Hope rather than through the Suez Canal—because that is the best way to do it, not because of pirates. Asia is by far America’s largest sea-trade partner for everything else, and the overwhelming majority of that shipping—somewhere around 80 percent—goes through West Coast ports or to the East Coast via the Panama Canal. In fact, less than 1 percent of container traffic originating in Asia bound for the East Coast moves via the Suez Canal. Asia-U.S. commerce goes nowhere near Somali pirate territory.

Apples and Oranges

The Barbary pirates had a vast and active business, capturing hundreds if not thousands of merchant vessels of all flags. In 1794 alone the pirates took 11 U.S. vessels, crewed by 115 U.S. citizens. That prompted the Naval Act of 1794, authorizing construction of the post-Revolutionary War Navy. The Barbary pirates, being astute businessmen, had a more-or-less established rate for ransom of roughly $4,000 per person. Today that would be roughly $1.5 million per person, which would translate to a total ship ransom in the range of $29 million—not the $2.1 million the Somali pirates averaged per ship in 2009.

So effective were the Barbary pirates that the U.S. Navy even lost a frigate—the Philadelphia —along with her captain and crew. By 1800, ransom and tribute payments were in the $1 million range annually, which amounted to between 10 and 20 percent of the total federal budget. A similar amount of the federal budget today would be between half a trillion and three-quarters of a trillion dollars. Clearly, the Barbary pirates were having a large and direct effect on both U.S. citizens and the federal pocketbook. Were anyone to be inflicting three-quarters of a trillion dollars of damage on the current U.S. economy, the reaction would be vigorous and uncompromising.

But that is not the case. Pirates off Somalia have hijacked not a single U.S.-flagged ship. In the case of the Maersk Alabama , the crew was able to resolve the situation on its own. Across the entire span of Somali pirate activity, just one U.S. citizen has been held captive—and for only a few days. No ransom of any sort has ever been paid for any American citizen to any Somali pirate. From an activity-level perspective, when applied to U.S. interests the Barbary pirates’ consumption of 20 percent of the federal budget was a cause for serious alarm. The Somali pirates don’t even qualify as an irritant. It is difficult to understand how anyone can assert that the Somali pirates are winning.

In the 18th and 19th centuries a seafaring nation’s merchant fleet was its direct link to overall foreign commerce. While Jefferson is wrongly credited with the memorable quotation about tribute, he did say this: “The marketing of our productions will be at the mercy of any nation which has possessed itself exclusively of the means of carrying them; and our policy may be influenced by those who command our commerce.” At the time it was viewed as an economic security imperative to have a strong merchant fleet, and the United States actually had one of the largest in the world. U.S.-flagged ships carried roughly 90 percent of the country’s foreign commerce and thus had a significant role in its economic security.

Today our foreign commerce is carried largely on foreign-flagged ships—just about 2 percent (or less) moving on U.S. vessels. We are completely dependent on foreign-flagged tankers for oil imports, as there are no U.S.-flagged tankers—for either crude or product—in the true foreign commerce of the United States. The same goes for bulkers used in the export of our agricultural products. The total foreign-going, U.S.-flagged fleet is down to about 100 ships, and most of those are not really in the foreign commerce of the United States. (There is a difference between foreign-going ships and ships in foreign commerce. Most foreign-going, U.S.-flagged ships today carry food aid or military cargo; they are engaged in foreign-policy missions or military operations, not commercial trade.) If the U.S. merchant fleet today were to be comparable to that which existed during the days of the Barbary pirates it would number in the thousands of ships.

The few U.S.-flagged ships that carry foreign commerce through the realm of Somali pirates are large, fast containerships that are not vulnerable to acts of piracy. The U.S.-flagged ships working in that area that are vulnerable to pirate attack are smaller, low-freeboard, slow-speed vessels that are all engaged in the food-aid business, carrying material reserved for U.S. ships under cargo-preference laws. Therefore, not only is U.S. foreign commerce not under threat from piracy, the actual threat to U.S.-flagged ships—and thus U.S. citizens—is also quite minimal simply because there are so few such ships left in international trade.

Motivational Differences

From the perspective of direct consequence to U.S. interests, and particularly trade, the Barbary pirates represented an existential threat to a struggling young America. Somali pirates, on the other hand, do not in any way affect the foreign commerce of the globally dominant United States, do not directly cost the U.S. economy a cent, and directly threaten very few U.S.-citizen seamen. To the extent that any U.S. seaman is at risk from pirates is because of U.S. foreign policy and cargo-preference laws, not any considerations of foreign commerce critical to the nation’s economic well-being.

Many who like to make the comparison between Barbary and Somali pirates say that the two groups have a shared motivation—the taking of hostages. That is not exactly true. Somali pirates are a pure hostage-for-ransom crowd, meaning hostages always get released and generally are not horribly mistreated, at least as compared with the treatment endured by the captives of the Barbary pirates. The primary practice of Barbary pirates was not so much taking hostages for ransom—it was slavery. Most Barbary captives suffered terribly, and relatively few ever made it home. The scale is also different in sheer numbers: Barbary pirates took somewhere between 1 million and 1.5 million hostages over the course of several centuries. Moreover, they not only took hostages from pirated ships, but conducted raids ashore in the Mediterranean, sometimes in Europe and even as far north as Iceland.

Somali pirates would need to be taking 5,000 hostages a year to meet that relative level of activity on the basis of pure absolute numbers, and many times more than that to match the system-level effect the Barbary pirates had. The reality is that Somali pirates actually pirated just 48 ships out of the roughly 33,000 that passed through that area in 2009, taking a total of 846 hostages—freeing all of them, without fail, as ransom negotiations were concluded. Somali pirates restrict their activities to ships; they have never conducted a coastal raid. Barbary pirates were successful most of the time; Somali pirates fail most of the time. The latter have a success rate of around 25 percent, largely due to best practices by the merchant ships themselves. Barbary pirates put general commerce in their region of operation in peril. They successfully pirated a significant amount of merchant tonnage; every single merchantman was vulnerable to attack. Somali pirates have attacked less than one third of 1 percent of traffic in their area of operation, and most ships of the type that carry international commerce are not vulnerable to Somali pirates at all.

Commerce Has Not Been Hindered

Therefore from a system-effect perspective, Barbary pirates represented a true international threat to general economic well being and commerce as well as to the lives of millions, ashore and at sea. That case simply cannot be made for Somali pirates, who as yet have not had a system-wide impact. That is an important point to emphasize. It is not that there have not been significant effects on individual businesses or ships, for certainly, if one is on a ship that is hijacked it is personally a very significant event. And smaller or thinly capitalized companies clearly have been hurt because of costs associated with piracy.

But the overall system of international commerce has not been impaired. It is the overall stability and efficiency of the system that matters—not individual companies—and the system is what should be protected. The international military community cannot be in the business of protecting the financial health of individual businesses. That is the responsibility of the businesses. Nor does the international community need to be concerned with overall system stability; Somali pirates have not been able to upset that.

It’s worth noting two tangential points here. First, there is a difference between the tribute paid to the Barbary pirates and the ransoms that are paid now. They are not remotely related. Tribute is what a sovereign state pays to another as a form of submission, usually in return for some guarantee of security against attack from the dominant party. In some instances it actually had a positive economic impact: The British and French paid tribute to the Barbary pirates in part as a means to restrict trade in the Mediterranean for those nations that could not afford to pay. Ransom, on the other hand, is simply a post-event economic exchange. It does not include any sort of acceptance of a condition of submission. Paying ransom is the proper course of action when that is the most expedient method of securing the release of a ship’s crew. Paying tribute is never an appropriate course of action.

Second, when it comes to paying ransom, removing the option to pay is a mistake. One reason is the different motives, noted earlier. At the moment Somali pirates are in the hostage-for-ransom business, and hostages make it home. Should the “ransom” part of that model be removed, there is nothing to keep Somali pirates from actually doing what they stand accused of—adopting pages from the Barbary playbook. That could mean a move into the hostage-for-slavery business, among other unpleasant alternatives to their current practice. That prospect should be considered when thinking about blowing up the hostage-for-ransom model without having an alternate model in place—other than some naïve hope that pirates will stop being pirates.

The Barbary pirates had ships that were more than a match for their merchant prey, and even a threat to the naval vessels of the era, which is why they virtually always won when attacking a merchant target. Modern merchant ships’ speed and freeboard give them such overwhelming advantage over Somali pirates that most are not vulnerable to attack.

Barbary pirates were operating at the behest of the wealthy and powerful rulers of the North African coast who were linked to, or allied with, the larger and more powerful Ottoman Empire. So they weren’t really pirates at all. They were privateers—well-organized, well-financed agents of the local authority, acting to advance a larger political agenda. Being from wealthy, advanced cultures, they also had something to lose, something to hold at risk ashore, unlike the desperately poor Somalis.

Somali pirates are, as has been said many times, the product of anarchy. They certainly are not organized into some sort of quasi-state operation, instead being driven by clan leadership on a small scale with minimal funding, at least in comparison with the Barbary pirates. In some ways that might make the situation today more difficult as, unlike the Barbary pirates, there is nothing physically to hold at risk, and no ultimate leader with whom one can negotiate, conclude a peace agreement, or intimidate into surrendering.

What Is in Our National Interest?

The final comparison, then, between past and present, between Barbary pirates and Somalis, is also a question central to correct policy choices today: What is the U.S. national interest that justifies the large expense of keeping U.S. naval ships active in the antipiracy mission? In the early 1800s the national interest was clear and compelling: Barbary pirates represented a significant, if not existential, threat to the country, imperiling the lives of thousands of Americans and costing huge sums of national treasure. Today the answer to that question is much more difficult to ascertain. None of what characterized the Barbary pirates applies to Somalia.

One argument that comes to mind is that while the foreign commerce of the nation is not at risk, there are in fact some American citizens on U.S.-flagged ships who are. They are there as a result of U.S. foreign policy and law, not because of the motivations of foreign commerce and trade. If it is an element of foreign policy that we insert U.S.-flagged ships and American citizens where they otherwise would not naturally be, then it should be incumbent on that same policy to find a way to protect them.

Perhaps the best answer to the national-interest question goes back to the comparison of the U.S. position in the world order. Unlike the time of the Barbary pirates, the United States now properly has a major role in maintaining the global order, and the real issue is stability in Somalia, and by extension East Africa. There can be no doubt that piracy off the Horn of Africa represents a large threat to regional trade in Africa and therefore overall stability in that area. Stability in Africa is of course not a piracy mission—piracy being but a symptom. Back in the era of the Barbary pirates, American interests were direct, and the United States took action to address those interests, and no others. That action protected only U.S. ships. The French, British, and Dutch had to do the full cleanup. Today the United States has no direct interests at stake and instead is acting for the overall common good, protecting everyone else’s interests.

On its own, the antipiracy mission makes no sense, because unlike the situation Jefferson faced, Somali piracy itself does not rise to the level of a true national interest. The national interest is not piracy; it is stability in East Africa and our role as a guarantor of the international order. Therefore, looking to Jefferson for answers to today’s problem is to take the wrong lesson from history.


Mr. Carmel, senior vice president with Maersk Line, Limited, is an experienced merchant ship master and a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. His research interests include trade, conflict, and Arctic regional issues.

Mr. Carmel, senior vice president with Maersk Line, Limited, is an experienced merchant ship master and a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia’s Old Dominion University. His research interests include trade, conflict, and Arctic regional issues.

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