December 17, 2014, is the day that the longest sea chase in history began.
It started in the Shadowlands—a place that isn’t actually a place. The name was coined by Peter Hammarstedt, the Swedish-American captain of the Bob Barker, a boat committed to stopping modern-day pirates. It’s in the Antarctic Ocean, and it was there that Hammarstedt first laid eyes on the Thunder.
In Catching Thunder, Journalists Eskil Engdal and Kjetil Saeter tell the story of how Hammarstedt tracked these pirates for 110 days and 10,000 miles, all the way to the Gulf of Guinea, off the coast of the small African island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, where the Thunder sank.
The boat’s crimes sound minor at first: illegal toothfish poaching. The Thunder was one of the Bandit 6, a series if pirate vessels that “had been plundering the valuable Patagonian toothfish stock for years,” according to Engdal and Saeter. They were all blacklisted by international fishing authorities, and the Thunder was wanted by Interpol.
But illegal fishing was just the tip of the iceberg. Poaching was controlled by organized criminal organizations, and they “forged ships’ documents…laundered money, bribed port authorities and hired crews on slave contracts.” It turns out, modern-day pirates aren’t so different than the ones we imagine from the 1700s.
What law do pirates break?
The Bandit 6 were fishing illegally—but what does that mean, exactly? The US has laws against stealing, as do Mexico, Argentina, India, Indonesia, and every other country. But the boats weren’t actually in any country—they were fishing in international territory. So, what law did they break?
In the Thunder‘s case, the answer is regulations set by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which was formed in 1982. It’s part of the Antarctic Treaty System, signed by fifty-four countries, including the United States. More generally, the answer is that countries have created international agreements regulating life on the ocean.
“The oceans had long been subject to the freedom of-the-seas doctrine,” the UN website explains, “a principle put forth in the 17th century, essentially limiting national rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow belt of sea surrounding a nation’s coastline.” But by the middle of the nineteenth century, countries were trying to claim more and more resources—like toothfish—which created environmental issues. So in 1982, at the Law of the Sea Convention, the UN agreed to various rules and regulations governing the oceans.
In addition, there’s a long history of admiralty or maritime law, which governs ships and shipping. Encyclopedia Britannica explains that it goes back at least to Rhodes, a Greek island, around 150 AD. Today, seafaring nations create their own maritime laws, which regulate ships hailing from that country. But there is also a push to create uniform laws across the world, as with an organization called the Comité Maritime International, which includes thirty nations.
Hammarstedt was not the first to chase pirates, of course. In The Pirate Wars, Peter Earle, an economic historian who taught at the London School of Economics, tells the story of the navies around the world who set out to do the same—and much more dramatically.
“Blackbeard and the pirates boarded the naval sloop [a kind of ship] under cover of the smoke,” he writes. The legendary pirate was in battle with Lieutenant Robert Maynard, a British naval officer financed by the governor of Virginia, who wanted to save his colony from pirate raids. Maynard didn’t see the pirates until the air cleared, but then he signaled his troops, and the fight began.
Blackbeard and Maynard shot at each other with pistols. The pirate captain was wounded, but the fight continued. They moved on to swords, swinging cutlasses against each other’s until Maynard’s broke. The naval officer grabbed his pistol again, stepping back and trying desperately to cock it before Blackbeard could deliver a blow.
Maynard wasn’t in time, but thankfully—for him—his shipmate was. The crew member struck at the same time as Blackbeard, delivering the pirate a “terrible wound,” while Maynard escaped with only a small cut on the hand. The day would prove to be Blackbeard’s last.
That fight is the standard image that most of us today have of pirates: doing battle against government forces who want to stop their theft. But Earle explains that the reality was more complicated. “It would be tempting to see the story as a moral fable in which the forces of good ultimately overcome the forces of evil,” he writes, “but there were also many who had more ambiguous attitudes towards these daring seafarers.”
Some governments allowed piracy, even supported it, “seeing it as a cheap and effective way of advancing trade and empire.” Some individuals supported pirates as well, either because they received lucrative bribes or because pirates spent money in their establishments. “Such support for pirates was reduced but never eradicated” during the 250 years Earle looks at, he explains.
The complications still exist today. Hammarstedt, the captain who chased the Thunder, belongs to an organization called the Sea Shepard Conservation Society, which was founded by Paul Watson. Watson is a controversial environmentalist who became famous for trying to stop whaling vessels—in some cases by attacking them. He ended up in jail more than once. He was a kind of pirate himself.
Who are the pirates?
“In the early afternoon of July 12, 1726, William Fly ascended Boston’s gallows to be hanged for piracy,” Marcus Rediker explains in Villains of All Nations. There was a problem, though: the hangman couldn’t tie a proper noose. So Fly taught him, even though it would lead to his demise.
“He informed the hangman and the crowd that ‘he was not afraid to die,’ that ‘he had wrong’d no Man,'” Rediker writes. Fly was willing to risk everything for his piracy, because he believed his piracy was right.
As Rediker tells it, Fly was symbolic of all pirates of the time—after all, he was the pirate who first flew the Jolly Roger, the famous black flag with a skull and crossbones. Pirates weren’t kind people, and they did commit crimes. But they did so “in the name of a different social order.”
Rediker explains that most pirates were former sailors who suffered immense cruelty under their superiors. They were poor men and women who eventually revolted against the crimes they suffered by committing other crimes on other people.
They envisioned their actions as creating a different way of living—often they said they came “from the seas” rather than any particular country. “Pirates ‘distributed justice,’ elected their officers, divided their loot equally, and established a different discipline,” Rediker writes. “They limited the authority of the captain, resisted many of the practices of capitalist merchant shipping industry, and maintained a multicultural, multiracial, and multinational social order.” It was a matter of power and belonging.
These stories of piracy, from the 1700s and today, show why maritime law is so important. Piracy came into being because there wasn’t a fair system in place. When conflict arose out on the high seas—over the treatment of sailors, the competition between countries, or the environment—there wasn’t a legal process that could resolve it.