hen a giant container ship, the Ever Given, ran aground in the Suez Canal earlier this year, blocking this important artery of global trade for six long days, it highlighted both the global importance of maritime transport as well as its vulnerabilities. As Jatin Dua notes in the introduction to “Captured at Sea,” somewhere between 22.000 and 25.000 ships transit this waterway every year. This makes the potential for profit — but also the risk of loss in case of interruptions — enormous. “We suffer from a form of sea-blindness,” Dua argues, “that keeps us oblivious to the deep maritime connections essential to everyday life” (p. 6). We don’t recognize how important the maritime activities, connections, and the labor of those who work at sea are for our global economy and society. That is, until something goes wrong. 

Connections through interruptions

“Captured at Sea” is about another dramatic interruption to global maritime trade that took place over several years in the same region. From 2007 to 2012, there was an upsurge in maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia, with hundreds of ships captured and thousands of crew held hostage for ransom. Dua’s book is a remarkable ethnography of Somali piracy, and the social worlds, actors, activities, histories and relationships that are entangled with it. He shows how, rather than just a disruption to global trade, Somali piracy is a claim to it. It is an alternative form of connectivity and possibility forged in interruptions. 

As Dua shows, in order for piracy to work and ransoms to be paid, it has to connect to a wide array of actors and sites across the world, such as maritime insurance firms and ransom negotiators. This requires established structures of exchange, technologies for communication and infrastructure of mobility. Furthermore, organizing an attack requires money as well as information about what ships to target, their speed, direction, and cargo. After capture, pirate crews and their hostages need provisions, which have to be covered on credit until a ransom has been secured. In this way, piracy makes connections across land and sea, fueling local economies and making new global ones, all while being deeply anchored in local kinship obligations and relations ashore. 

Far from being an anachronism or aberration, Dua shows that 21st century piracy is deeply entangled with global capitalism and trade, technologies, financial systems of credits and debts, and — as is emphasized throughout the book — different systems and practices of protection. The concept of “protection” functions as both a theoretical and methodological device that Dua skillfully uses to link seemingly incommensurable places, practices, spaces, actors, and logics. Armed with “protection,” Dua takes his readers on a riveting journey from ports and khat markets in coastal Somalia, to maritime insurance offices and Lloyd’s of London, and from the holds of dhows in East Indian ports to the bridge of a containership transiting the Western Indian Ocean. “Protection,” Dua argues, “is the logic through which these otherwise quite distinct locations with different participants, histories, demands, and infrastructures become legible to one another” (p. 22). It is also the logic through which Dua makes these distinct sites, people and practices legible to his readers. 

“Pirates are people who are known to us”

“Who is the pirate?” Dua asks. Somali piracy is often understood as a criminal activity emerging in the governance vacuum of Somalia as a failed state, or, alternatively, as a response of poor fishermen to foreign illegal fishing and toxic dumping in Somalia’s coastal waters. Dua departs from these explanations and paints a picture of Somali piracy as a complex and shifting claim-making to trade, resources and oceanic mobilities that is deeply anchored in local and regional histories. He convincingly traces the value-making logics of capture at sea to longer histories of pastoral property relations in Somalia and practices of redistribution in local fishing economies. However, he also points to the influence of specific events, such as the unlikely but successful capture of the chemical tanker, the Golden Nori, in 2007, where pirates managed to secure a one-million-dollar ransom, right under the noses of international naval forces.  

In Somalia, pirates are at times understood as fishermen who have turned to “catching bigger fish,” at other times as businessmen and representative of Somalis’ entrepreneurial spirit, and at yet other times, crooked criminals and irresponsible spenders. The Somali pirate, then, in Dua’s evocative writing, emerges as an elusive shape shifter, sometimes a hero figure that makes Somalia “known in the world,” sometimes a criminal that brings shame on the country. In Dua’s book, the pirates are always potentially present, yet rarely directly encountered. Instead, the book is peopled by a diverse and colorful array of actors who in various ways are connected to and move in and out of piracy. 

Perhaps this is because nobody is “just” a pirate, and those who are, really only are so within the violent encounter at sea that constitutes capture or attempts to capture. Back ashore, “pirates are people who are known to us,” as one of Dua’s interlocutors put it. Dua describes how he “quickly discovered that piracy was not a shadow economy but part of everyday worlds and norms of sociality” (p. 25). Many benefit from piracy, and the local economies that emerge as a result of it include speculative economies of credit, conspicuous consumption with Land Rovers and the occasional pink limousine, as well as the “spectacular economy” of the drug khat, which, like piracy, entails great potential for profit and prestige, but also risk, ruination and debt.

Who is a pirate after all? 

There are other economies that are made through piracy as well, which extend beyond the shores of Somalia. One of the achievements of Dua’s ethnography is to bridge the divide between the piracy of coastal Somalia and the counter-piracy efforts located in London or Washington D.C. offices. Maritime insurance firms charge fat premiums for ships traveling through piracy waters and also license private security teams to shipowners at high cost. Here the question “who is the pirate?” takes on another meaning, for, as Dua asks, “who is a pirate after all? (p. 123). The counter-piracy efforts of navies from multiple nations patrolling the Gulf of Aden and of maritime insurance companies work according to two different logics (force and contract), forming what Dua refers to as “an economy of protection,” which, much like piracy, creates obligations, risks and enormous possibilities for profit (p.119). 

Similarly, the economy of ransom brings to the foreground processes of detachment and attachment. Dua shows how ransom negotiators in London work hard to create a business-like transaction, detached from emotions and kinship relations in order to reach a “fair price” in their ransom agreement. On the other hand, negotiators working on the pirates’ side do the opposite, emphasizing the “obligations and kinship ties that linked crew members to life on land” (p. 135), using affect to effect a quicker resolution and maximize profit. However, as Dua demonstrates, these business transactions, both in their detached and attached forms, are not neutral. They are shaped by racialized inequalities already entrenched in the value systems of global fi. For example, not only the type, age and nationality of the ship, but also the nationality of the crew will determine the possible price of ransom. 

This highlights the racialized and unequal system of “differentiated value of life and labor at sea” (p. 137) on which global shipping depends, and Dua shows how these logics become part of Somali piracy and counter-piracy. Interestingly, the same racialized order of value of life and labor at sea is reproduced in the economies of protection. For example, European and American security teams hired to guard ships from pirate attacks are the most expensive, followed by white South Africans, and Sri Lankans and Filipinos at the bottom of the ladder.

The possibilities of connection through intimacies of capture 

The possibilities for connection forged through the interruption of piracy is, I think, most beautifully explored in the last chapter, “Captivity at sea.” This chapter details the hijacking of dhows for use as motherships from which to launch pirate attacks further out at sea. The capture of dhows highlights the blurry line between hostage and hosting, hostility and hospitality, that runs through Dua’s book. The pirate here, as slippery a character as ever, at times becomes a “guest” on the dhow. He is offered protection from the dangers of the ocean, thereby turning hostages (the dhow’s crew) into hosts. Dua shows how pirates and hostages can achieve a form of manageable relationship across the disruptive violation that constitutes capture, and how the everyday intimacies of cohabitation make possible new forms of sociality, albeit temporary ones, within the space of captivity. 

And yet, it is also in these stories of capture, intimacy and emergent socialities that I find the book wanting in one particular aspect. In the end, I am left wondering what the intimacies of capture so evocatively described in the case of hijacked dhows would look like from the perspective of the crew on a captured container ship or tanker. The book is titled “Captured at sea,” and although it opens with a merchant seafarer narrating his story of capture, and ends with another getting a panicked look on his face when he mistakes a school of dolphins for a pirate skiff, these experiences of fear, violence and trauma are mostly bracketed through the rest of the book. What connections are forged for these seafarers through the interruption that is a piracy attack? Would a more explicit discussion of the violence of their moments of capture and captivity have undermined the overarching intellectual project of understanding piracy as an alternative form of connectivity? Would it make it harder for us, as readers, to make connections across the disruption of violence and see pirates as “people who are known to us” if we in this book were to encounter them, not within the hold of the dhow, but inside the hold of a captured container ship or a tanker? I wish Dua had given us that opportunity.

And still, Dua’s insistence on the possibilities for sociality to emerge in these ambiguous waterborne encounters is a hopeful reminder of the political potential of human connection also within structures of exploitation and violence. In my own research onboard cargo-ships, I recognize many more connectivities. Despite the racialized hierarchies and inequalities that are so integral to the social organization of life and labor in global shipping, through cohabitation and shared everyday activities, crewmembers are nevertheless able to develop relationships and form solidarities across such structural differences. While these socialities also contribute to the maintenance of these systems of exploitation by making the ship — and by extension shipping — work more smoothly, perhaps they might also hold political possibilities for challenging these systems from within? 

To conclude, in showing how piracy creates connection across seemingly disparate and incommensurable places, persons and practices, “Captured at Sea” does exactly that. Slipping easily between land and sea, from suited offices, to khat markets, naval ships, dhows, and courts with pirate trials, Dua is himself a remarkably talented shapeshifter, which is also what makes him such an exceptional ethnographer. The access he has managed to gain across such a diverse set of sites is no small feat, and his use of protection as a concept with which to weave all of this ethnographic richness together is brilliant. Dua shows the possibilities for connection that can be achieved through ethnography and thereby also the theoretical potential and value of an anthropology that moves across time, space and scale.