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The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean

When I first started thinking about retelling a story of piracy, two images almost immediately sprang to mind. The first is the famous story of Alexander the Great who supposedly once asked a pirate whom he had taken prisoner why he claimed possession of the sea by hostile means. The reply was pithy: “What do you mean by seizing the whole earth? Because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.” The second image, a recurring trope in the Asterix comics illustrated by Albert Uderzo, is more comic. Think of the motley crew of lowborn men who man a small pirate ship and try to seize whatever they encounter – but usually come off worse in their battles. Both of these images are typically European, with the Mediterranean and the Atlantic emerging as the normal theatre for piratical actions.

But where did the Indian Ocean figure in the story of piracy narratives? Piracy, we know, is as old as maritime trade itself and yet the history of piracy in the Indian Ocean is complicated and distinctly different from the history of piracy elsewhere. Why? The difference is partly to do with the fact that the Indian Ocean was technically speaking mare librum, a “free sea” where merchants could trade and navigate without formal permission, and partly because war-time action on sea was rare. Not surprisingly, the Europeans, who brought with them grandiose claims to maritime supremacy also gave themselves responsibility for maritime peace. They introduced – in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – an altogether new dimension to ideas about sovereignty and transgression against it.

Fictional pirate ship, by Robert Pittman. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.
Fictional pirate ship, re-created, by Robert Pittman. CC-BY-ND-2.0 via Flickr.

This contest between sovereignty and piracy did not remain confined to the level of ideas. In the wake of new dispensation assembled by the European entrants, there occurred a massive destabilisation of littoral society whose peoples resorted to new strategies of survival and resistance. They are the ones who became the dreaded pirates— the unreasonable outlaws who had to be contained, disciplined, and subjugated by European navies.

The littoral peoples—and those among them who were outlaws—had, for their part, a different story to tell. For many of them, not only were the Europeans singularly responsible for the misery of their coastal society, they were pirates themselves. They saw the Europeans as pirates who attacked at will and coerced seafarers and merchants to pay for their passes and permits in order to venture on the seas.

Accordingly, the ballads of eastern Bengal describe the fearsome harmads (derived from the Portuguese armada), who attacked the rich and the poor, the aged and the children, only to sell them as slaves. They also speak of the bombets (“bombardiers”)—the varied crowd of raiders on the sea which included littoral peoples. Members of this latter group, when charged with breaking the law, retorted quite simply that they were caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Accepting European protection for every venture was costly and drove them to poverty; not accepting it made them pirates to be hunted down and pursued.

Strangely enough, in this contest between sovereignty and piracy, law played a minor role. European sovereigns periodically made ritual invocations of the natural law that held pirates as enemies of all mankind, but in reality, the seas remained an unbounded realm. Thus, in the context of India’s western seaboard, piracy happened more in the littoral than on the high seas, and it involved close networks that extended all along the coast and further outwards into Oman and the Arabian Gulf. Piracy was part of a mobile and changing geography that kept close to the coast, drawing support from local bosses, shrines, and villages, and thus making the process of colonial subordination a prolonged and tedious affair. The gradual and extended nature of imperial expansion highlighted moments of rupture and confrontation which, in turn, generated an archive of pirate depositions and testimonies.

It is through these testimonies that we can access the slippery world of the salty subaltern. They make for fascinating reading and once we get past the formulaic nature of the depositions, all sorts of tantalising details about lives, livelihoods, choices, and tragedies emerge.

Featured image credit: Pirate flag, by LeslieAnneliese. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Dominic Parry

    Fascinating. I read your piece because I am designing a game which features an Indian pirate and I was hoping to find out about some real examples and also where those pirates called home, wher were their havens in the Indian subcontinent?

    I’d love to get your expert advice on this.

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