The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean..

Superb post by Prof Laksmi Subramanian who has also written a book on Piracy and sovereignity.

She says Indian ocean historically was a libertarian sea for trading. There were few cases of piracy and so on. This also seems to emerge from the different volumes written under the Penguin Series on Indian business history. Then Even Amitava Ghosh’s book shows how there was trade between Mangalore and Aden in 12th century.

So Prof Laksmi says what led to piracy? Enter Europeans:

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.

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.


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.

Hmmm..Fascinating to read and figure all this.


2 Responses to “The forgotten history of piracy in the Indian Ocean..”

  1. Ajit Says:

    Thanks for interesting bit.

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