The Malacca Strait, which runs between Malaysia and Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been a favourite haunt of pirates for over a thousand years. The problem persists to the current day, with 40% of the world’s pirate attacks taking place in this region in recent years. We sailed through the Malacca Strait as part of our cruise and I idly wondered whether we would have any ‘close encounters’. But the ship’s lecturer on piracy assured us that pirates would have no interest in a shipload of British holidaymakers who kept demanding cups of tea every half hour! However we did notice that the ship had razor wire around the edges as well as water cannons. And some of our fellow passengers informed us that they had been on a cruise around East Africa when pirates had tried to mount their ship at night. Fortunately on that occasion the intruders were scared off.
In the middle ages ships would travel in big convoys for protection but even that didn’t always stop the pirates from attacking. It is easy to imagine big battles at sea, with fierce looking pirates mounting the side of a ship under cover of darkness, brandishing machetes, while the ship (if it detects them in time) fires cannons and tries to push the pirates into the water. Clearly the pirates were often successful, as they acquired a sort of mythology among Chinese seafarers, being compared with sea dragons, and were reputed to have magical qualities including invisibility and an inability to sink.
Hiding Places for Pirates
Modern pirates are more likely to be of Indonesian origin. Pirates flourish when a number of conditions are present. Firstly, they need somewhere to hide. Then there has to be something worth stealing. And finally, piracy thrives on weak local governance or political unrest. Historically all of these conditions have existed in the Malacca Strait.
The Strait is 900 km long but only 1.7 km wide at its narrowest point, making it a choke point for the merchant vessels that pass through. It is studded with thousands of little islands and the shoreline is a mass of tangled mangrove swamps, inlets and reefs. In mediaeval times pirates would hide out among the mangroves and launch raids upon nearby villages as well as on passing ships, and today the area continues to offer a wealth of hiding places.
The Malacca Strait is part of the most direct sea route from India to China and it has been a busy trade route since the earliest times. In the middle ages cargoes would include Chinese porcelain and silks as well as peppercorns and other spices. Spices were particularly valuable as they often had limited habitats and were much in demand for culinary and medicinal purposes. Passengers or crew members might also be taken as slaves.
Today around a third of the world’s trade passes through the Strait, including half of all oil shipments from the Middle East. The route continues to be used despite the threat of piracy as alternative routes are long and costly. Pirates target cargoes, onboard cash and valuables, and prisoners for ransom; or they may simply take over the ship itself.
Political and Economic Conditions
In early times piracy was a way of life, with rich pickings from passing ships. Pirates effectively controlled the Strait, often demanding tribute from ships and port authorities. Local rulers later took advantage of this, working with the pirates to take charge of the area and to fight off potential invaders.
There was an increase in piracy in the 18th century as European traders sought to dominate the spice trade. This was partly a protest against colonisation but also a response to the loss of livelihood as lucrative trade was drawn away from the region.
More recently piracy has been fuelled by political unrest in Indonesia and the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Modern pirates fall into three categories: organised crime, terrorists and small opportunists.
The geography of the region makes piracy hard to suppress. Historically, conflict between neighbouring states ruled out any collaborative approach and mediaeval traders would sail in convoy, often with naval ships, to minimise their exposure to pirates.
In the 19th century the British and Dutch colonial powers agreed a demarcation line, with the Dutch controlling the waters by Sumatra, and the British monitoring the Malaysia/Singapore side of the Strait. This, together, with increased political and economic stability in the region, led to a decrease in pirate activity.
In recent times there has been a renewed imperative to eliminate piracy in the Malacca Strait. Commercial companies have to face possible loss of life and goods, as well as increased insurance premiums. There are also concerns about terrorist activity and the potential for a major oil spillage.
Multinational controls over the Strait have now been established. Despite initial resistance from local governments, who saw it as a threat to their sovereignty, these measures do seem to be working, with only two attacks in 2010.