he dramatic rise of incidents of maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia between 2007-2012 disrupted global shipping and garnered much attention in the news and popular media. After all, 90 per cent of all global trade relies on the smooth movement of commodities across the world’s oceans, the western Indian Ocean being especially strategic for the circulation of oil. The upsurge of Somali piracy, that relied not on the seizure of cargo but on a hijack-and-ransom economy interrupted this flow of goods and dramatically increased the costs of shipping, prompting academics and non-academics to ask: how and why was the seemingly anachronistic figure of the pirate back in action? Typical explanations saw piracy as a problem of state failure, or a response to illegal fishing and dumping of waste off the Somali coast. Dua’s brilliant book Captured at Sea reframes piracy and counter-piracy in the Indian Ocean as a much more complex and nuanced interplay of “parallel and competing systems” (4) of protection, piracy offering one entry point into global maritime trade.

Based on difficult, transregional ethnographic and archival research, Dua elegantly argues that varied scales and practices of protection ranging “from promise to contract and from a willing form of engagement to a coercive force” (19) are central to long-distance trade, war-making, and state-making. Situating Somali piracy within these longer histories and practices of protection, Due effectively shows that piracy between 2007-2012 was not just a consequence of state failure in recent decades, but is one iteration of a much longer history of contestations between different systems of protection, and property-making. Dua masterfully tacks back and forth between ostensibly incommensurable forms of protection forged by Somali social systems and practices such as kinship-based diya payment groups, land-based forms of escort such as jiwaar and abaan, khat traders, NATO warships, private security companies, diviners, negotiators, insurance companies, policing at sea, and modes of hospitality, to show how profit and value, debt and ruination are made through the articulation between these forms of capture, piracy and counter-piracy co-constituting an economy of protection in the Indian Ocean.

While I have learned a lot from this outstanding ethnography not only about piracy but more broadly about how a rigorous anthropological analysis can reshape long-standing assumptions about legal theory and political economy, I will highlight the book’s interventions in reframing the terms of debate in three broad areas: notions of the commons; studies of sovereignty; and the possibilities of anthropology.

1. Property is made on land, while the sea is part of the commons.

Dua argues that western social and legal theory is grounded in an “elemental distinction” (39) between land and sea. From Roman jurists, to legal theorists such as Hugo Grotius and Carl Schmitt, land and sea have been held as separate, property made on land that can be enclosed, while the sea (like air and flowing water) is part of the commons. This distinction has been central to justifying colonial and postcolonial appropriations. Anthropologists too, have seen the sea as a backdrop for making possible dispossessions on land. A growing body of work – in maritime anthropology for example - resituates water as an object of study, the circulation of goods at sea central to global capitalism. However, land and sea continue to be viewed as distinct, property that is made on land moving across the sea. Dua argues against this separation and traces the emergence of what he calls a “pastoral commons” (39) where logics of capture and redistribution on land extend out to sea, property being made both at sea and on land.

With careful historical and ethnographic detail, Dua examines these forms of capture that extend from the hinterland of the Somali coast to the Indian Ocean, tracing how the ambergris boom in the nineteenth century, artisanal fishing and licensing regimes, piracy and counter-piracy produced forms of capture, and hence property at sea. This muddying of the separation between land and sea also reconfigures a classic mode of thinking about the pirate as hostis humani generis or the enemy of all mankind. Rather than seeing the pirate as detached from other social relations, Dua anchors the figure of the pirate to land and kinship based diya payment groups. This entanglement is made visible by piracy’s ties to the khat economy, where men at sea are bound by debt and other obligations to female khat traders and kinship groups on land. The pirate then, is recast as one who is part of intense webs of sociality and larger systems of restitution, credit, and an ambiguous protection. Dua thus offers a different starting point for thinking through the commons and property-making, one that is neither territorially based nor solely arising from watery domains, thereby shifting the terms on which appropriation and dispossession might be understood.

2. Piracy is a problem of state failure and sovereignty.

Historians, anthropologists, and other social scientists have viewed piracy as an issue of state-making and sovereignty. A common trope in this literature is that pirates operate where the state is weak or absent, or that the label of pirate is used to expand and justify imperial control where there might be multiple competing authorities, often framed as multiple sovereignties, unsettled sovereignty, or even nonstate and informal sovereigns. Sovereignty is thus always emergent, tentative, and contested, there being multiple networks and nodes of power. This is especially significant in the Indian Ocean, where scholarship has focused on how the entry of Europeans into this transregional arena brought about a “sea change in the concept of sovereignty” (Bose 2009: 26) where multiple, overlapping sovereignties encountered forms of absolute sovereignty first in the form of imperial states, and then post-colonial nations, state sovereignty always contested. Dua reframes the problem of sovereignty in the Indian Ocean as also one of protection as imperial states sought to protect long distance trade – the Portuguese unsuccessfully enforcing the cartaz system while the British and Dutch internalized protection costs through monopolizing joint stock companies.

Somali piracy emerges not only as a “flash in the pan” of struggles over sovereignty in the Indian Ocean, but as one iteration of a much longer history of contestations between different systems of protection, piracy being one way to capture the “gifts of the sea.” (174) What emerges through this account then is not a proliferation of sovereigns, but rather Dua’s work guides us out of the conceptual maze and haze of sovereignty offering a different conceptual device – protection- to examine competing, parallel, and even co-existing forms of capture and value-making that shift understandings of sovereignty beyond the state and non-state divide.

3. Anthropology must adopt a new, radical humanism.

In recent debates around decolonizing anthropology, scholars have argued that anthropology must “abandon its liberal suppositions” and commit to a radical humanism (Jobson 2020: 1). In a response to this call, Dua has elsewhere argued that anthropology is also a “practice of cohabitation” (Dua 2020) where a perspective from the deck of a dhow and from the Indian Ocean might unsettle conceptual categories that have emerged largely from an Atlantic context. Drawing on a chapter from Captured at Sea that focuses on encounters between pirates and dhow sailors as dhows came to hijacked for use as motherships, Dua probes the possibilities of what an understanding of cohabitation, even if forced and temporary, might produce.

As opposed to Atlantic frameworks where captivity is the opposite of freedom, Dua focuses on ephemeral, contingent moments of cohabitation between pirates and dhow sailors to show that captivity as protection is also the opposite of isolation (151). As pirates and dhow sailors are forced to cohabit on board dhows, the threat of violent encounters between sailors and pirates are transformed into relationships of hospitality, where piracy is viewed as a “trade of no dishonor and the pirate is a fellow traveler along liquid paths,” (150) the identities of sailors and pirates blurring briefly, but never dissolving. While cohabitation as a concept is probed toward the end of the book, in many ways the reconceptualization of piracy as protection is in and of itself a practice of cohabitation. In Dua’s rendering of protection, pirates, sailors and seafarers, NATO warships, insurance agents, khat traders, a host of intermediaries, and anthropologist coexist, their encounters producing new forms of value, profit, and possibility. By bringing together these different, co-existing practices, Dua produces an ethnography that transforms the possibilities of anthropology, contingent encounters at sea shifting the terrain upon which the field locates itself, and its others.

Captured at Sea is theoretically rigorous and ethnographically sensitive, a thrilling historical ethnography of maritime piracy off the coast of Somalia that shores up the best kind of methodological and conceptual frameworks that anthropology can offer. The book opens new routes and pathways in debates in legal theory, political economy, and anthropology and should be widely read.


Bose, S., 2009. A hundred horizons: The Indian Ocean in the age of global empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Dua, J., 2019. Captured at sea: Piracy and protection in the Indian Ocean. Oakland: University of California Press.
Dua, J., 2020. A different kind of unmooring. American Anthropologist. http://www.americananthropologist.org/dua/ 
Jobson, R.C., 2020. The case for letting anthropology burn: Sociocultural anthropology in 2019. American Anthropologist122(2): 259-271.

Nidhi Mahajan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California – Santa Cruz. Her research focuses on trade and shipping networks, sovereignty, and vernacular capitalism in the Indian Ocean.