Military History Modern Piracy
Peter Lehr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 November 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0197


Until rather recently, piracy as a form of seaborne organized crime seemed to be a phenomenon of the past—something that was relegated to a great number of books, some comics, and, of course, the silver screen: many Hollywood blockbusters revolve around pirates as larger-than-life swashbuckling characters, played for example by Douglas Fairbanks (The Black Pirate, 1926), Errol Flynn (Captain Blood, 1935), Yul Brynner (The Buccaneer, 1958), or Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, 2003 onward). Even the Muppets had a (comedy) go at pirates with Muppets Treasure Island (1996). That “real” pirates still exist and pose a formidable danger to seafarers at least in some parts of the world was known only to a small group of people outside the mariner community such as legal experts and some scholars, mainly from history departments. This blissful ignorance was swept away by the advent of Somali piracy between 2005 and 2008: suddenly, “real” pirates made headlines again, sparking a renewed interest in all things pirate, modern or not. It also resulted in a wave of publications focusing on modern pirates, trying to make sense out of why this age-old menace had returned with a vengeance. Even for specialists, this burgeoning literature, ranging from books aimed at the wider public and offering general overviews to very specialized research articles appealing to equally specialized audiences, it is difficult to keep track. This bibliography aims at referencing the leading works, in order to offer the reader a quick access to the vast repository of knowledge which is nowadays available. It will commence with general overviews, to then move to the most dangerous regional hot-spots of current piracy, which are West Africa (Gulf of Guinea), East Africa (Gulf of Aden and Somali Basin), and Southeast Asia (Straits of Malacca and Singapore plus South China Sea). Also, some secondary hot spots such as the Persian/Arabian Gulf and the Sundarbans at the bottom of the Bay of Bengal are referenced as well, although not much has been written about these manifestations of piracy. This is followed by works on root causes (why do people become pirates in modern times?), and works on modern pirates’ modus operandi, in particular their weapons and tactics (what do modern pirates do?). Finally, the focus will shift from piracy to counter-piracy at sea, on land, and at court—the latter part also including publications dealing with legal definitions of piracy such as included in the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (LoSC). As regards the nature of the sources referenced, it should be noted that in order to reach out to a wide range of audiences, not only academic and scholarly publications are included, but also publications with a more journalistic approach that aim at the general public. Furthermore, great care was taken to include publications which are easily accessible—also for the benefit of a wider audience.

General Overviews

When it comes to general overviews on modern piracy, a good way to start would be Murphy 2009 or Palmer 2014 since both works offer comprehensive discussions of all relevant aspects of piracy. Murphy even includes some comments on maritime terrorism—a related seaborne organized crime, albeit one conducted for political reasons and not for private gains, as is the case with piracy. Lehr 2011 and McCabe 2018 also are quite interesting, although both only focus on the two major piracy hot spots, Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa, in order to draw lessons for counter-piracy initiatives. On the other hand, Stewart 2006, aimed at the more general readership, brings the drama of piracy to life by confronting the readers with a series of short and concise case studies. Lehr 2019 takes a more specialized approach by looking at the “life cycle” of piracy (becoming pirates, being pirates, walking away from piracy) in a comparative survey that starts in medieval times and ends with the modern pirates of Nigeria, Somalia, and Southeast Asia. Also quite specialized, and not necessarily written with a wider readership in mind, are Haywood and Spivak 2012, focusing on aspects of global governance and maritime law, Martínez-Zarzoso and Bensassi 2013 (cited under Counter-Piracy: General Overviews), analyzing the economic impact of piracy, and Twyman-Goshal and Pierce 2014, whose authors conducted a statistical analysis of piracy. Finally, Bueger 2014 offers a short overview of the state of the art as regards pirate studies, while Marley 2011 is a reference handbook of modern piracy.

  • Bueger, Christian. “Piracy Studies: Academic Responses to the Return of an Ancient Menace.” Cooperation and Conflict 49.3 (2014): 406–416.

    Reviews the state of knowledge as regards pirate studies, as well as surveying the character of these publications. Of interest for readers interested not only in pirate studies but also in knowledge generation.

  • Haywood, Robert, and Roberta Spivak. Maritime Piracy. Global Institutions Series. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2012.

    Focuses on piracy as a problem for global governance norms and structures on the one hand, and international maritime law on the other, mainly appealing to scholars and students of international (maritime) law, international organizations, maritime security, and global governance.

  • Lehr, Peter, ed. Violence at Sea: Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism. New York and London: Routledge, 2011.

    Provides an overview of piracy in the most relevant current hot spots, i.e., the Horn of Africa, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, and the South China Sea. It also sheds light on the vaunted “nexus” between piracy and maritime terrorism—the latter being a seaborne crime committed, unlike piracy, for political aims and objectives.

  • Lehr, Peter. Pirates: A New History from Vikings to Somali Raiders. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

    Discusses why people become pirates, what do they do as pirates, and how and why they walk away from piracy in an easily readable way—the third part concentrating on modern piracy, while comparing continuities and discontinuities as compared to historical manifestations of piracy.

  • Marley, David F. Modern Piracy: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA, and Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2011.

    Offers a brief historical overview of piracy and discusses controversies and problems such as the frequent under-reporting of piracy or the different goals of US and EU counter-piracy approaches, illustrated by some interesting case studies for further illustration, and some biographical sketches of mainly Somali pirates as well as some other relevant actors. It also contains interesting documents such as UNSC resolutions, and a directory of relevant organizations.

  • McCabe, Robert C. Modern Maritime Piracy: Genesis, Evolution and Response. London: Routledge, 2018.

    Analyzes modern piracy by examining the two most notorious piracy hot spots, Southeast Asia and Northeast Africa/Horn of Africa. It also gauges the effectiveness of counter-piracy measures, adopting a comparative perspective.

  • Murphy, Martin N. Small Boats, Weak States, Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World. London: Hurst, 2009.

    A readable and comprehensive introduction into modern piracy based on a wide range of secondary sources, with a useful extensive bibliography.

  • Palmer, Andrew. The New Pirates. Modern Global Piracy from Somalia to the South China Sea. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014.

    Introduces its readers into the world of modern piracy, examining all relevant aspects while also including an extensive bibliography for further study. It is based on the author’s own experience in the private maritime security sector.

  • Stewart, Douglas. The Brutal Seas: Organised Crime at Work. Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2006.

    Written in a vivid and most definitely not academic style, and aimed at the general public rather than scholars, this book approaches piracy as a seaborne crime via a series of “police report”–style short case studies. For all those interested in the personal angle and in the drama of piracy.

  • Twyman-Goshal, A. Anamika, and Glenn Pierce. “The Changing Nature of Contemporary Maritime Piracy: Results from the Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database 2001–2010.” British Journal of Criminology 54.4 (July 2014): 652–672.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azu019

    Uses the Contemporary Maritime Piracy Database (CMPD) to document the patterns of piracy, and to argue that even though the particular modus operandi of Somali pirates certainly has affected piracy overall, it has not turned into a dominant model: different forms of piracy still remain.

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