Can’t Keep a Sea Dog Down: Pirates, Then and Now


With the ongoing pirate standoff in Somalia, who better to write about the subject than our economics-of-piracy-loving friend Peter Leeson, who has guest-blogged here before.

Can’t Keep a Sea Dog Down: Pirates, Then and Now

By Peter Leeson

A Guest Post

Pirates are back — with a vengeance.

In previous work, I pooh-poohed the modern-pirate phenomenon.

Modern pirates, I argued, are uninteresting from a social, economic, and organizational perspective. There aren’t many of them; their crews are tiny; they spend almost no time together on their ships; and most are the fair-weather sort — fishermen who sometimes steal on the weekends and happen to do so by sea.

Because of this, modern pirates face few of the social challenges their 18th-century predecessors did. Old-school pirate crews formed pirate societies; modern pirate crews don’t. Democracy, “pirate codes,” and the other fascinating features that make 18th-century sea dogs so interesting are therefore absent among their contemporary counterparts.

The basics of this description remain valid. Most modern pirates are nothing more than “sea muggers.” But the rash of Somali piracy making headlines recently suggests some amendments to my original description may be in order. Some Somali sea scoundrels appear to be forging a “new” modern pirate crew; one that more closely resembles the colorful criminals of the 18th-century Caribbean.

What are the similarities? First, the modern pirate population has exploded and is now reasonably large. Recent estimates suggest 1,000 Somali pirates are currently active.

Second, an increasing number of these sea robbers are full-timers and spend more time together at sea.

Third, though still small, their crews appear to be growing — from only a handful of men to several dozen or more. (Interestingly, some Somali pirates have taken to describing themselves as “gentlemen who work in the ocean,” echoing 18th-century pirates who sometimes described themselves as “gentlemen of fortune.”)

These similarities have led to something closer to a modern pirate society, which in turn has led social institutions to emerge in modern pirate crews. For instance, Somali pirate crews have adopted a system for dividing booty similar to that of Blackbeard and his contemporaries. They’ve also adopted a system of social insurance as their predecessors did.

Finally, and perhaps most notably, some crews have created modern pirate codes, complete with written rules regulating how pirates may treat prisoners (their most valuable assets).

Important differences remain between modern pirates and the old-school variety. For example, while 18th-century pirates were at war with all governments, some Somali pirates appear to enjoy state sponsorship, which makes them quasi-privateers. Further, unlike old-school pirates who more or less lived in their own outlaw world, the Somali variety appear to be better integrated with “regular” society.

If piracy remains profitable for a growing number of Somalis, we can expect modern pirates’ burgeoning society to grow and become more polity-like, inching closer yet to that of their forefathers.

For now, however, 18th-century pirates have the stronger claim on our fascination. And rightly so.

Modern pirates don’t even fly flags with skulls and bones.

John David Galt

acadog: I believe that *any* bunch of gangsters who operate from, or find sanctuary in, country "A" while attacking country "B" (or its people at sea) constitute an act of war by "A" against "B" and justify retaliation, both morally and under law. Without that principle, ANY nation could commit a war of aggression with impunity, simply by saying that the people doing the fighting are an independent rebel group -- a tactic (and thus, a principle) that goes back to the Romans at least.

The US has a long history of upholding this principle, from our first war after independence (vs. Tripoli) to Warren Harding putting a stop to Pancho Villa's raids by sending cavalry to sack the city of Chihuahua in 1921.

I hope we continue to uphold it, both against the pirates of Somalia and the drug-gangsters now operating on both sides of the Mexican border.

Martin Albrecht

tay and Matthew: you would hardly mistake PL's enlightening field of study for romantic historism if you would care to read through some of the links provided, specifically

It should become clear to you how enlightening PL's subject matter is: what can we learn about society, from understanding the economies of social contracts, for which apparently only pirate societies have empirical proof.



Don,t haste to judgement. The "Skull and Bones" Society seem to me as earners. Or is that they marry well?


Pirates of 18th century also benefited from state sponsorship! In fact, every country had his own sponsored privateers who were allowed to attack any enemy ship.

Privateer were banned only in 1856 by the declaration of Paris (which was not underwritten by United States).

So, sponsored piracy is no new thing!

Salvatore Poier

Thank you Peter for your clear analysis.

I think that comparing and reducing pirates and piracy to thieves, as Matthew has done, is risky. What Peter is pointing out is that there are some (criminal) associations of people that are more than a simple aggregation of criminals. These alternative ways of association never spring out from no-where. There always is a social motivation for phenomena like those and in this case - differently than with mafia or other modern criminal organization - we have a famous and socially speaking really interesting historical precedent. Flattening the pirates to thieves doesn't help us to understand the reasons of those social phenomenona and so to activate a politics that could avoid that crime without criminalizing the people.

I think that the last sentence of the post have not to be overlooked. The fact that those groups has a clear societal organization (internal rules, social insurance and so forth) could be read as simply one of the way in which people manage living together. While the fact they haven't a "face for the society", something that make them recognizable and apart from the "official" and accepted society (as the Jolly Roger that Peter mentioned) could be a signal of strong difference between them and the 18th century's pirates. While those were proud of being "without nationality" and they were openly facing the instituted power, nowadays pirates are more hidden and less proud. Or maybe they are just prudent: Blackbeard was not worried about GPSs neither spy-satellites that can catch you everywhere...



The pirates can operate because the political world lets them.

Pirates have no chance against naval forces but naval forces are not allowed to act as naval forces. Instead the navies are expected to miraculously free hostages without harm and capture the pirates without fighting or damage to the cargo and ship.

After which the captured pirates will prove their civil rights were violated by the navy.

Piracy was not erased before by empty demands that the pirates cease and desist.


This is hardly informative. I feel as if the author is nothing more than an overzealous geek dissapointed that Johnny Depp isn't roaming the sea with a cigarette boat and an ak-47. You can't conciously believe that there's room for these redicuous "formed pirate societies" in the 21st society, everyones out to get their own.


RE: your graphic--With names like "Beledweyne", "Wanleweyn", and "Ceeldheere," at first glance I thought this was a map of Suburban Philly! (which has Welsh-named places like Bala Cynwyd and Bryn Mawr)

Carry on with the pirate discussion...


To #3 - 18th century pirates were just as much "sea muggers" as the modern variety.

We are naturally fascinated by complex pirate societies for the same reason we are fascinated by the mob. We find a group of people who live by rejecting the rules of society yet have to have rules of behavior among themselves in order to function. You have to wonder how a pirate can work with and trust a crewmate who kills and steals for a living. On top of that, their values are inverted so they are an odd mirror image of our own society. That makes it very easy to romanticize them.

That said, I think Dubner is going to be disapointed if he thinks that modern Somali pirates are ever going to provide him with the sort of intellectual stimulation that the 18th century variety did. 18th century pirates formed complex societies because a pirate vessel back then was bigger, faster and had a much larger crew than the victim. The pirate vessel also required much greater seamanship skills to operate than the small speadboats that modern pirates used. A code was required in order for the pirates to function.

Finally, piracy was much more difficult to stamp out in the 18th century because the pirates roamed the open ocean. Modern pirates stick to choak points where victim vessels are forced to sail near land. That's why modern piracy is concentrated in Somalia and Indonesia. Modern navies can curtail piracy by putting a few vessels in these choke points. Also, an 18th century pirate stood a decent chance in a fight with a naval vessel. 18th century naval captains had to worry about the safety of their own crews. Modern navies only need concern themselves with the safety of hostages and innocent bystanders.


Robert Baldwin

If the will existed, these pirates would be trivially easy to deal with.

As to the current episodes, the pirates surely have families on land who can be enlisted to inform the pirate's actions. If they have a social structure, so much the better. Drop other members their cohort on board (from a hundred feet up or so) and the pirates will adjust their thinking.

Given that they have an address on land it would not be hard to find and engage them there, ending their operations. A bit of local intelligence and a dozen SEALs could take out 25 pirates per month at least.

Once again the spineless West inspires attacks agaist itself.

Just desserts.


I would just like to say that PL has made one error. 18th century pirates frequently carried letters of Marque, making them privateers for a certain country. In fact, one "pirate" employed by England was knighted by the Queen of England(the names escapes me at this time. Most Atlantic-European powers employed these privateers, as well as the United States. Modern pirates are private citizens of their countries who have taken to armed robbery on the high seas--attacking any ship they find.


I have a real problem with this entire line of examination. First of all the pirates, then and now, are and were simply thieves. Their manner differed somewhat from the mugger who accosts a pedestrian but the essence is the same. It is true that during the golden age some pirates operated with the sanction of their home country; the Spanish, Portugese, English and Dutch were in conflict with one another and this was viewed as another avenue of attack. If Somalia has decided that it is at war with the countries from which these goods and people originate, the Western world will be more than happy to make Somalia cease to exist tomorrow.

The "pirate" problem is a simple one, independent pirates are thieves and should be dealt with as always. Modern privateers simply need to cause a hammer to come down on the supporting country and support will dry up faster than water in a desert.

Peter Leeson

BSK--I agree. We shouldn't celebrate criminality for criminality's sake. We may, however, be able to gain important insights into question about firm organization and self governance by looking at criminal organizations. And, as I argue in my forthcoming book (The Invisible Hook), there may be reasons to celebrate 18th-century pirates' particular criminality.

Ben--18th-century pirates used a share system that divided booty in the following way: The captain typically received two shares. A few other officers, such as the quartermaster, received a bit less, such as 1.5 shares. Every other free crewmember received a single share. So, between pirate 'CEO' and 'ordinary employee,' the division was something like 2-to-1. At least one Somali crew seems to have adopted a similar, though somewhat more progressive, division on the order of 2.5-to-1.


How have ninjas not rectified this problem by now?


What made 18th century pirates any less "sea muggers" than modern day pirates? We should not celebrate criminality for criminality's sake. If anything, I think that modern-day pirates are more justified in some of their actions when you factor in the greater social inequities that exist nowadays that lead many of them to do what they do.


I'm intrigued. Please elaborate on how Blackbeard divided his booty!

Paul Clapham

I would have assumed that even in the 18th century, there was a lot of free-lance piracy by individuals who weren't full-time pirates. Or was there something like Terry Pratchett's "Thieves Guild" whereby the professional pirates tried to force the small fry out of their business?


At what point do quasi-privateers begin to represent semi-official action requiring retaliation against the home state?

In Check

Thankfully the modern equivalent of pirates haven't embraced the slave trade the way some of their predecessors (e.g. Barbary pirates) did.

On another note, I suspect that if this isn't stamped out soon, we may end up with an insurgency problem similar in scale to Nigeria's. Not so good.

The Chatham House pdf referenced in the post was top drawer stuff btw. Well worth reading for anyone that missed it the first time around.