Piracy and Protection

by Rina Faletti

In 1924, Harvard Law Review editors wondered: “Is the crime of piracy obsolete?” Today, in a new century and a new millennium, when 90% of global commerce travels by sea, practices of piracy and counter-piracy are pertinent. Research on maritime piracy by Dr. Jatin Dua, socio-cultural anthropologist from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, traces ways in which piracy practices developed in the 19thcentury in the Western Indian Ocean region. He focuses on the Somali coast, one of the busiest merchant port regions in the world. Dua presented “Encounters at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Western Indian Ocean,” in a bi-weekly seminar series on water hosted by the Center for the Humanities.

Dua explores maritime piracy within frameworks of protection, risk and regulation as he moves among the apparently disparate worlds of coastal communities in northern Somalia, the global shipping industry, and maritime insurance adjustors in London. He locates ideas of protection on a broad continuum between what seem to be polar opposites: of danger and safety, piracy and protection, hospitality and hostility, trade and raid, intimacy and estrangement, patrimony and ownership. He proposes that these “opposites” are “stuck together” as the pirate, the counter-pirate, and the victim of piracy each lay a variable claim to the right to protect the slice of water through which each travels. Here, the “free and open sea” is “far from an empty space of circulation,” but rather a landscape of “forms of territoriality” that variably govern relationships of interchange and conflict at sea.

Dua focuses historical analysis on regional effects of imperialism and colonialism in the 19th century, when interests of imperial ideologies clashed with, and ultimately overran, local sovereignties in maritime transport and governance. His analysis of 19th century Protectorate ideology delineates native protection (whose claim is on an immediate and individualized prospect) from colonial political protection (which claims a global prospect). Dua points out that while colonial-style rhetoric expressed an aspiration toward peaceful and productive co-existence, this was accomplished through “civilizing” practices that disbanded native sovereignties, bringing them under institutionalized control and creating the dichotomy that defined the “Other.”

These points resonate in Dua’s discussion of his current ethnographic work on piracy in the Indian Ocean in recent years. In a discussion of abaan, a cultural institution of protection for itinerant traders in caravans on land, Dua finds that the on-land caravan concept extended culturally into sea trade. Traditionally, protectors of caravans were exalted in ancient poetry; similarly, the rise of piracy into the current century results in an industry of protection from piracy. Today in Somalia, piracy has developed into a highly capitalized practice, where a great deal of money goes into capture, kidnap, and ransom aboard large ships, and where everyone operates in modified modes of protection.

At base in this work, practices of protection hinge on limits of recognition in power relationships. Who is recognized as needing protection, and who as being able to provide it? Where do paradigms of protection fit into assumptions about “civilization”? And, how are the interests of both protector and protected insured in these relationships? Who has the right to be protected? Jatin Dua’s work demonstrates that questions of piracy and protection are far from obsolete.

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