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Piracy and Imperialism

Somalia and Yemen

Frederick Lauritzen

5th January 2024


The defeat of piracy is the first step of imperialism. When a country has trade interests it aims to defend them even in distant regions. Somalia and Yemen have flared up because they are areas where commercial interests are disrupted. What we are watching unfold is an old and well known story. It is at the heart of what imperialism is.


The Roman leader Pompey became famous mainly for his campaign against the Pirates (67 BC). In forty days, he eliminated piracy from the entire eastern Mediterranean. The result of this war against Piracy is that all coastal Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine came under direct Roman control (62 BC) and remained Roman for more than 700 years. Pompey protected commercial interests, and therefore needed the army. Once the army was involved, he stationed the troops in places where the commercial interests could be protected in the future. A policing operation became an imperial conquest. It is because of the elimination of piracy that we see endless Roman sites and monuments in the Middle East.


The classical background is crucial also in the very word pirate. It derives from Greek (πειράτης) and means he who tries to win over [a ship]. 


The situation off the coast of Yemen and Somalia reminds one of Pompey’s pirates:


The pirates no longer sailed in small groups, but in large hosts, and they had their own commanders, who increased their fame [by their exploits]. They despoiled and plundered first of all those who sailed, not leaving them alone even in winter [...]; then also those who were in the ports. And if one dared to challenge them on the open sea, he was usually defeated and destroyed. If he then managed to beat them, he was unable to capture them, because of the speed of their ships. So the pirates would go right back and loot and burn not only villages and farms, but whole towns, while others made them allies, so much so that they wintered there and set up bases for new operations, as if it were a friendly country. ( Cassius Dio, Roman History, 36.21.1-3.).


Pirates behave like countries and have allies and enemies.


The recognition of Somaliland by Ethiopia on January 1st is central in this narrative. Ethiopia is the first country of Africa to recognize it, and in exchange it will obtain a long-wished-for access to the sea. Ethiopia has good relations with NATO. Traditionally India and Ethiopia have traded over a sea (that is how silk making originally reached Europe in the 6thcentury). The route is now unsafe because of attacks on commercial ships. Few ships now use the Suez Canal, a central access point between Asia and Europe. Egypt’s finances are shaking under this massive blow.  


The United States has indicated it wishes to put an end to this situation. The model is not just Pompey and the war on Piracy. Every American is familiar with the expression ‘the shores of Tripoli’ which are the Marine’s Hymn (1867). It commemorates the first war declared by the United States (the first Barbary War 1801-1805). It was fought by the US against pirates who were disrupting American commercial routes in the Mediterranean. 


The question of piracy was later discussed at the Congress of Vienna (1815). The British Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh (1769-1822), not only discussed the question of piracy in western North Africa, but also established an agreement which recognised the future United Arab Emirates in 1820. The title of the treatise is ‘General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy by Land and Sea, Dated February 5, 1820’.


Castlereagh’s aim was to end piracy and protect commerce between the UK, Cape Town (South Africa), Arabia, and India. The defeat of piracy leads to imperialism. 

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