In 1808, a grand and powerful fleet mustered in the south of England. The ships appeared like mighty men-of-war, but these were merchantmen readying sail for India to transport home a priceless cargo of saltpeter. In the war against Napoleon, Britain’s very survival depended upon those supplies.
The British captains didn’t know it, but they were sailing into an ambush. Even as these ships prepared to leave port, British shipping in the Indian Ocean was already being ravaged—by fierce pirates. Many of these merchants would meet similar fates.
Two hundred years later, America is ignorantly sailing into the same trap. On November 29, another supertanker en route to America was hijacked by pirates—carrying the equivalent of 20 percent of Saudi Arabia’s daily oil production.
As the Somalis brazenly sailed their $150 million-plus prize home, the most powerful navy in the world sat impotent. Sadly, America’s impotence is not due to a lack of firepower, but willpower. Why is America so weak when it could be so strong?
The plight facing the world in the Indian Ocean today is not new. In 1808, it was French frigates and privateers (aka pirates) who were preying on English shipping with spectacular success. In one two-month spell, over 19 fully loaded merchantmen were captured as they attempted to run the gauntlet to get their valuable war stores—the ingredients of the most potent gunpowder known—around the south of Africa to the battlefields of Europe. Over the ensuing months, three more massive fleets would leave England for India. The few battered hulks that limped back told a tale that shocked the country. Combined with ships lost to storms and others that disappeared, never to be heard of again, it almost bankrupted the East India Company. The results threatened the war in Europe and Britain’s status as a great power.
Today, America faces a remarkably similar situation.
Back then, it was Britain’s link to India and its strategically crucial gunpowder supplies that were in danger. All these years later, in that same tract of ocean, it is America’s link to the Middle East and the single most important source of global oil supplies that is increasingly at risk.
Patrolling 1 million square miles of ocean is no easy task—a lesson Britain learned the hard way. French privateers could materialize like ghosts, blast English ships to pieces with cannon fire, then disappear into the vastness of the ocean—anywhere, any time. British Rear Adm. Sir Edward Pellew, probably Britain’s most brilliant and successful commander after Nelson, famously lamented: “For the most part, the first intelligence of their appearance … is announced by their success.”
And if British warships approached, the pirates would turn around and sail away. Standing orders for French ships were to focus only on Britain’s commercial lifeline. In 1807, the famous French pirate Robert Surcouf in his 18-gun sloop captured more than 30 prizes. Britain was being choked.
Back then it was the British Navy that the politicians and big merchant companies lambasted as impotent. The enemy brazenly sailed the captured vessels to the “Isle of France distant nearly 3,000 miles,” and “not a single instance of recapture has occurred,” they charged.
Pellew, a fighting man, was bitter—and rightly so. Two years earlier, he had been denied the opportunity of dealing with the piracy at its source. The problem lay with the so-called Gibraltar of the East, the twin islands of Île de France and Bourbon, or as they are now known, Mauritius and Reunion. From these pirate havens, located due east of the vast island of Madagascar, the pirates could sally forth to terrorize the seas and then return to safe harbor, sell their plunder, and refurbish their ships.
For various reasons, Pellew’s plan for a joint army and navy invasion to annex the pirate stronghold was shelved to gather dust. It would cost too much. It would be too difficult. The defenders were too well-equipped. Too many soldiers’ lives would be lost. The old familiar weakness. With familiar results.
It wasn’t until Britain’s very link to India was in danger because so many ships had been captured or sent to Davy Jones’s locker that politicians finally resolved to take meaningful action.
But when Britain did strike, it was swift and decisive. British ships blockaded the ports. Marines and soldiers stormed coastal batteries and boarded pirate ships in port. Pirates were executed. And after a few surprisingly small skirmishes, the local government sued for peace. Slaves were released, and the slave trade was abolished on the islands.
In fact, the resistance was so feeble that it was anticlimactic. Only 28 British soldiers died before the defenders asked for peace terms. Two to three times as many soldiers died just on the voyage to the islands.
As it turned out, the cost to Britain wasn’t in lives or money. The monetary cost of the invasion was more than offset by capturing the pirate lair and freeing the seas for trade. The cost in lives too was offset by the future lives saved due to the vast reduction in piracy.
The real cost was will. Britain had the power to stop the piracy; politicians just needed the will to use it.
But once Britain exercised the national will to defend its interests, the results were dramatic. Pirates and pirate-harboring nations knew that if they preyed on British shipping, one day a British man-of-war, or a fleet of ships, was going to show up and make them pay the price.
In 1808, at the height of the piracy in the Indian Ocean, the British East India Company had contracted to supply 6,000 tons of saltpeter to the government. In 1810, the year of the elimination of the pirate strongholds on Mauritius and Reunion, the company was able to deliver 12,000 tons. That supply was crucial to Wellington’s victories in Spain.
This is a lesson America should heed today.
It was almost one year ago that America lost its first oil tanker, the Sirius Star. This was the largest ship in history to be captured by pirates. But now America has lost a second one. At 300,000 metric tons, the Maran Centaurus is only slightly smaller and ranks as the second-largest ship ever taken. And still America will do nothing.
Pirates based out of Somalia and backed by local warlords now hold 587 hostages taken from captured ships. The list of stolen ships overtly anchored in Somali ports and awaiting ransoms include an oil tanker, a chemical tanker, bulk carriers, cargo ships, container ships, luxury yachts and fishing trawlers.
And unless someone acts, the frequency of pirate attacks may be about to go full-sail ahead.
Somali pirates are going corporate. A recent Reuters report indicates that Somali pirates are organizing as business enterprises, complete with ceos, accountants and recruiting staff. Impoverished Somalis faced with embracing strict Islam or joining the pirate life are swelling the ranks of wannabe pirates.
Pirate cartels based out of Somalia have even opened a “stock exchange” for attracting investors and raising capital to purchase more sophisticated weaponry and equipment. Each share purchased by an investor entitles the stockholder to a cut of whatever booty the company captures. One woman interviewed by Reuters says she received a $75,000 dividend just 38 days after investing in one pirate company.
Four months ago, there were 15 pirate companies operating on the Haradheere “stock exchange.” Today there are 72. According to the report, the stock exchange is drawing wealthy backers from around the world.
In 2008, there were 194 pirate attacks worldwide. As of October this year, there have been at least 174 just from Somali pirates. Globally, the total number of attacks has grown to 324—that’s a 67 percent rise, and the year isn’t over.
Commenting on the lack of success in deterring the pirates, U.S. naval officials describe the difficulty of protecting such a vast area. “It’s 2.5 million square miles we’re dealing with,” said Lt. Matt Allen, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain and charged with protecting the Gulf of Aden and the waters adjacent to Somalia. “It’s a very large area. It’s a daunting task.”
Yet, America knows exactly where the pirate lairs are. It knows where the ships are anchored. It even knows where many of the pirate bosses live.
Why is America not taking any meaningful action? Its oil supplies have been threatened twice now!
Even when America is successful in catching pirates in the act, many times, believe it or not, the pirates are just released. In fact, the U.S. Navy is very reluctant to even apprehend pirates, fearing that they will violate some aspect of human rights law. Because of this fear, and the fact that it is very costly to transport and prosecute captured pirates, most pirates are only stopped and released, reports the Cornel Daily Sun. Thus the pirates are set free to hunt the seas again.
Get that? America is more concerned about the rights of pirates than those of its own citizens.
Last month, the U.S.-flagged Mersk Alabama was attacked by pirates for a second time. This is the same ship that pirates captured in April, holding the captain hostage for five days until Navy sharpshooters freed him.
Pirates attacked the same American ship twice! What a slap in the face to the world’s “most powerful” nation. Obviously people don’t fear American power like they used to.
Unfortunately for American merchants, America’s general policy of weakness is set to continue, because America lacks the will to face the pirate problem head-on. What a far-reaching change from how America used to be.
America’s pride in its power is broken.
But it wasn’t always this way. As Stephen Flurry wrote when the Sirius Star was captured, there was a time when leaders were more inclined to act courageously against the forces of terror. When North African pirates, for example, demanded tribute from the U.S. government to ensure safe passage for American ships through the Mediterranean, Thomas Jefferson’s reply left nothing to the imagination: “The style of the demand admitted but one answer,” Jefferson said. “I sent a … squadron of frigates into the Mediterranean.” Those frigates waged war on the Barbary pirates until the North Africans sea lanes were freed for American ships.
And that was when the United States had a tiny fraction of the power that it has today. Back then, America had much less power, but a lot more pride.
There may still be plenty of power in America today, but the will to use it—as God has prophesied in Leviticus 26:19—has been completely crushed.
Don’t expect American ships to dock in Somalia anytime soon—unless they are brought in under the pirate flag. •