Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the epidemic of piracy in the Gulf of Aden may call for an extremely desperate measure – the resurrection of privateers.

Privateers are private ships that carry out state-sanctioned attacks on foreign commercial and military vessels, traditionally in return for “prize” money from the sale of captured ships and their cargos. The practice was widely used by Europe’s overstretched naval powers from the 1500s through the mid-1800s in their intermittent global conflicts.

Privateers can also serve as a poor country’s navy. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress supplemented the new nation’s tiny navy of 31 ships by authorizing almost 1,700 private vessels to harass and capture British shipping. John Adams called it “a short, easy, and infallible method of humbling the British,” whose supremacy of the seas was then unchallenged.

In fact, the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War, fought off the coast off Machias on June 12, 1775, pitted two private American boats against an armed British schooner and ended in victory for the rebels. Privateering was a bonanza for Salem, Mass., whose 158 vessels captured 458 British boats and more tonnage than any American seaport.

The U.S. Constitution later legalized privateering by authorizing Congress to issue letters of “marque and reprisal,” government warrants permitting private parties to seize foreign vessels beyond our borders. Although it has not been generally used since the War of 1812, this provision still exists.

Perhaps the time has come to dust it off and use it again, by offering legal protections and financial incentives to owners of small, fast, armed vessels willing to chase pirates or escort commercial ships through dangerous waters.

The U.S. Navy, though the world’s most powerful, is organized and equipped to squash elephants, not to swat gnats. Its vessels and tactics are geared towards large air and sea battles rather than oceanic guerilla warfare.

Bristling with sophisticated electronics, gunnery and guided missiles, warships like the Aegis missile cruiser can obliterate almost anything on, under, alongside or over the water, but can’t intercept hundreds of tiny Somali speedboats operating in a swath of ocean more than one million square miles in size. Besides, there are too few warships and aircraft available for such a mission, even with the international Combined Task Force deployed in the Gulf of Aden.

Before the Navy can respond, the pirates usually have hauled their booty to safe havens along a lawless coastline as long as America’s Eastern Seaboard.

In a nation with no effective central government to combat lawlessness, Somali warlords are free to finance and direct a plentiful supply of pirates, typically young, unemployed fishermen.

They are clever, determined and ruthless, as their reaction to the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips of the hijacked Maersk Alabama showed. Already holding 14 vessels and about 200 captives, pirate leaders directed the capture of another four ships and 60 crew, fired on an American-flagged vessel and boasted how they would revenge the killing of Phillips’ captors.

The popularity of piracy in Somalia is unsurprising. It’s the only growth industry in a desperately poor land, bringing an estimated $150 million last year. Nor has it helped that commercial shipping companies are often willing to pay ransom for vessels and crews, treating it as a cost of doing business.

The Gulf of Aden, which links the Suez Canal and Red Sea, is the shortest water route between Europe and Asia and one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, crossed by more than 20,000 vessels each year.

But it isn’t the only sea lane ripe for piracy. Narco-traffickers in the Caribbean and terrorists along Indonesia’s Strait of Malacca, for instance, must be watching Somalia with keen interest as they draw up their own business plans.

Using privateers does have risks. Some privateers gone rogue, indiscriminately attacking ships of friend and foe alike. For example, one of England’s most celebrated privateers, William “Captain” Kidd, was eventually branded a pirate and hanged in London in 1701.

Unscrupulous privateers could also seek to enrich themselves by grabbing innocent fishing, trading or pleasure boats on the pretext they are pirate craft. Others might blunder into traps and get killed, or become hostages themselves.

The best solution to stemming piracy would be the formation of a Somali government able to control the country and willing to take on the pirates. That day may be years away, however. The second-best solution would be an international naval force large enough to patrol the pirates’ hunting grounds, but that would require more warships and a stronger international commitment.

In the meantime, the world’s seafaring commerce needs protection. Privatization may be the only short-term answer.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]


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