(1) The sun had already set as a large container ship, the Australian Star, sailed slowly
across the South China Sea on its way to New Zealand. Relieved that his ship had safely
navigated the dangerous Straits of Singapore, Captain Peter Newton left the bridge to go to
his cabin, where he began to unpack his bags. As the ship passed the Indonesian island of
Bintan, the curtain at the open door moved.
(2) Nine men carrying weapons rushed in. Newton’s hands were tied with rope. In an English
accent, the gang leader told him that if he didn’t open the ship’s safe – or if he used its
alarm – he would be killed. Once the pirates had pocketed the $20,000 they found in the
safe, Newton was led out on deck. He feared he would be pushed over the side. The pirates
reached their small boat using a rope they had thrown over the side of the ship. The last
man turned to push the captain, who fled to safety.
(3) Pirates have had a certain rough glamour ever since the days when author Robert Louis
Stevenson wrote about them. Hollywood loves pirates, and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead
Man’s Chest was one of last summer’s most popular films. Meanwhile, modern pirates are
profiting on the high seas as never before. Since Captain Newton was attacked in 1992,
there have been 3,583 pirate attacks worldwide, causing 340 deaths.
(4) Robbery at sea entered a golden age during the 17th century, when European powers
fought to colonize the Caribbean. Pirates such as Edward “Blackbeard” Teach attacked
trading ships, taking advantage of the political vacuum and a quiet coastline. With the
growth of European empires and their control of the high seas, piracy lost its strength. Now
that the empires have gone, it is becoming stronger again. New conditions – like the costcutting
of the modern shipping industry – are making it easy for modern pirates. The
yearly damage from reported incidents is about $16 billion.
(5) The centre of piracy today is the South China Sea. The Malacca Straits between Malaysia
and Sumatra, one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, are also a favourite for pirates.
The Indian Ocean is home to a special type of piracy, in which ships are hijacked and
crews are kidnapped. Modern pirates are equipped with speedboats and all sorts of hightech
weapons. They have satellite phones as well as ship-tracking systems to plan attacks
on ships carrying expensive cargo, such as oil, but to get on board they still use the traditional
rope and grappling hook. “Half a dozen men with guns and knives can take over a
large ship,” Newton says. “Once they are on board, there is nothing you can do if they have
weapons and you don’t. As captain, the last thing I want is for my crew to get hurt.”
(6) The pirates we see in Hollywood movies anger the shipping industry. “Piracy isn’t fantasy,”
Andrew Linington, a spokesman for a London shipping company points out. “It is
happening regularly. It is an advertisement to terrorists that it is easy to attack something
that is so important for world trade.”