am deeply humbled by the engagement of these amazing scholars whose work has been profoundly inspirational in my thinking and writing. Nidhi Mahajan (2019) and Ahmed Kanna (2011) similarly traverse the transregional geographies of the Indian Ocean and their work has provided much-needed comradery and insight. Hege Høyer Leivestad and Johanna Markkula (2019) have been at the forefront in thinking about the material and social relations that make possible contemporary container economies portside and at sea. Thank you all for close readings and generosity. I’m also deeply appreciative of Charmaine Chua for bringing together this forum and whose work on logistics and Empire (2017) has been so illuminating. 

What does it mean to go to sea? From rusty fishing skiffs to lumbering supertankers—leviathans of metal and machine—millions of vessels and millions of seafarers currently traverse liquid paths across the globe. Many have written eloquently of the singular importance of oceanic routes and rhythms in shaping the contemporary world with its inequalities and, occasional, opportunities (Campling and Colas 2021; Khalili 2020; Linebaugh and Rediker 2000; Sharpe 2016). 

For a number of my interlocutors to go to sea was about possibility, a way of making people and places bigger. On the Somali coast, to go to sea is to leave in the anticipation of a heroic return amongst those left behind. It is a way of making claims on the gifts of the ocean. This form of claim-making is one borne from a recognition that these gifts remain elusive for many who inhabit the maritime littoral, and that violence too is possibility, a way to enter the world and make a claim on circulation and on profits and power. 

To go to sea is also to embrace peril. The pitch and roll of ships can make one seasick. Boats break, ships get swallowed whole by a devouring ocean, fellow crewmembers and captains can be trouble. These perils are, however, unevenly felt: a fishing skiff is not a container ship and certainly not the naval destroyer policing restive waters hypervisible, yet invisible on Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) and other shipboard navigation instruments. And sometimes pirates appear (though often in the guise of protectors).

Captured at Sea is a tale of capture and hijacking at sea. It is a story that asks, how is it possible for six men—from pirates to insurance agent and seafarers this is a gendered world— to hijack large oil tankers in the middle of the Indian Ocean and negotiate huge payouts for the return of its crew and millions of barrels of crude oil? Unlike other places (though also like many other places and times), ships were hijacked in the Western Indian Ocean not for their cargo, but for value that emerged through negotiations. This moment of capture marked the beginning and not the end of a social relationship. Instead of an ‘art of not being governed’ (Scott 2010), the capture at sea that inaugurated Somali piracy was a form of connectivity and an entrée into a world constituted by protection.

From amulets to insurance contracts, kinship to mercenaries, multiple, at times overlapping, at times competing, regimes of protection make possible journeys at sea. The hijacking and its aftermath made visible these parallel, at times incommensurate, forms of protection that exist not only in coastal Somalia, but also in the offices of maritime insurance companies in London and onboard NATO ships. The story of piracy then is a story of encounters between and across these multiple regimes of protection. A successful hijacking required not only the capture of a ship, but a form of agreement of protection—however tenuous and forced—across these disparate worlds. Protection is both analytic and methodology in this book. It allowed me to travel across multiple locales and undo some of the divides and domaining of legality and illegality; of land and sea; and history and anthropology that separate the world of piracy and counter-piracy. It allowed me to ask: who is a pirate after all and where is piracy? 

As Mahajan underscores in her review, protection has long histories in the Indian Ocean as part of a story of imperial arrivals and expansions. Locating contemporary Somali piracy within these long histories is, as she notes, a mode of critiquing the narrative of failed states and lawlessness that dominate discussions of the Global South while also pushing back at the monist fictions of sovereignty. 

Leivestad and Kanna read my work in conversation with a number of scholars on property, capitalism, and the commons. I’m grateful for the connections they draw and, in some cases, for expanding my reading list for current and future writing! As Leivestad notes, speculative labor is at the heart of maritime capitalism and one of my goals in the book is to parochialize and historize the speculation of contemporary insurance agents within wider geographies and longer histories. Kanna correctly notes the hesitation in endorsing a certain story of primitive accumulation and enclosure of the commons within my work. The desire to leave open and contingent the meanings of public, communal, and private in the Indian Ocean and indeed other maritime spaces is not to take away the material relations at stake or ascribe a kind of naturalism to the commons. With the commons, as with thinking with and across racial capitalism, I want to be attentive to the specific histories of the Indian Ocean while also recognizing various continuities and emergences across oceans. I take inspiration in this from my ethnographic encounters where interlocutors constantly sought to move between history and the present and land and sea. 

I appreciate Markkula’s query about what might the intimacy of capture look like when viewed from the cargo ship. Unlike the bustling waterfronts of the past, where ships of all sizes and capacities sat cheek to jowl, modern ports have made invisible the sinews that connect cargo ships from other vessels. By, at times, bracketing and backgrounding the cargo ship I want to emphasize that there are other ships at sea and that piracy is not simply an encounter between the cargo ship and the fishing skiff. The modes of co-habitation and the interplay of intimacy and estrangement that characterize the relationship between crew and pirates on dhows find echoes in cargo ships and, at times on naval vessels as well. I remember a Dutch captain reflecting that a Dutch ship sailing through the Indian Ocean in the 18th century would probably be considered a pirate ship. As we move back and forth in time, the identities of pirate and protector flip in these same waters and many at sea acknowledged and reflected on these shapeshifting qualities and transformations. At the same time, not everything is fluid at sea. Pirates and protectors may shapeshift, but the lines that divide this world, that decide who gets to legitimately profit and whose takings are “unlawful” are policed violently. This is not to erase or minimize the violence of piracy and the ways that capture at sea leaves indelible harm long after crewmembers are released. As Markkula’s (2021) own work has highlighted so poignantly, amidst the extraordinary and ordinary forms of racialized exclusion and violence that constitute the world of global shipping are spaces of solidarity and possibility.

Finally, what also becomes visible from these multiple ships at sea is how the captivity of piracy is one of the many kinds of captivity that characterizes the world at sea. As I write this, thousands of seafarers have been stuck at sea for months and months at a time. Covid-related quarantines (lest we forget the quarantine is a maritime term), port and border closures compound the uncertainty and injury of the pandemic for seafarers many of whom hail from countries with limited vaccination supplies. A week ago, I awoke to a whatsapp message from a friend who I had met when he was a cadet on a container ship in 2019. Ray had forwarded me a news story on maritime piracy levels dropping to their lowest levels in 27 years. “Maybe they [the pirates] are waiting for vaccines before they can come back to sea,” he mused before adding: “There are no pirates, but I’m still stuck at sea. We were supposed to come onshore two weeks ago, but port operations are closed because of Covid. I guess some of us are always captured by the sea.” 


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