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Jatin Dua’s award-winning Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean seeks to undo what we think we know about piracy, protection, and the global commons. Exploring the rise in maritime piracy off the coasts of East Africa that received international media attention between 2007 and 2012, Captured at Sea is a timely and urgent contribution to scholarship on the political economies of maritime connectivity. The book joins a burgeoning body of scholarship that seeks to correct our collective “sea-blindness” (p. 3) by linking the maritime operations of contemporary supply chain capitalism to their historical antecedents in imperial oceanic trade as well as the Indigenous trade networks that existed well before.
Unlike others approaches to the study of oceans, however, Dua’s book distinctly ventures where few have gone before, into the world of piracy, and contestations over legitimate and illegitimate commerce in coastal East Africa. The figure of the pirate has long been sensationalized in the Western common sense. Understood in traditions from Roman jurisprudential thought to contemporary international law as the “enemy of all mankind,” or as renegades and bandits emerging in the context of Somalia’s state failure, pirates evoke tropes of the threat of violence, chaos, and disruption. Yet, far from producing an exoticized narrative of the intrepid anthropologist gaining unprecedented access to a long-misunderstood population, Dua’s book refuses voyeurism, and is a study in what a deeply ethical and responsible historical anthropology might look like. Instead of romancing these stereotypes of danger on the high seas, Dua shows that 21st century piracy emerges in the encounter between competing systems and economies of protection, from maritime insurance agencies and ransom negotiators in London to longer histories of pastoral property relations in Somalia. Based on extensive fieldwork in Somalia, Kenya, western India, the UAW, Djibouti, the UK, and on board numerous container ships, Dua’s discipline- and boundary-spanning ethnography seeks to situate piracy as an “alternative system of connectivity” (p. 5) that crosses networks of deep kinship and obligation, as well as systems of international law and economies of risk and protection.
The reviews collected in this forum, written by scholars of logistics, maritime capitalism, and the Indian Ocean world, travel with Dua in asking what we can learn from situating piracy within economies and social worlds of protection. Pushing us to rethink the relations between criminalized populations, putative state failure, and maritime capitalism, Mahajan writes that the Dua’s master concept of “protection” helps us 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.” In addition, as Leivestad argues, the book reveals how the “risk” of piracy becomes actively converted into forms of profit, uncovering “how capitalist value is generated through seaborne speculation.” Dua’s deft efforts to understand how piracy is linked to multiple networks of social and power relations thus reveal, for Markkula, how “the everyday intimacies of cohabitation” on board ships “make possible new forms of sociality… within spaces of captivity.” This rich and complex book thus not only critiques Western-centric readings and assumptions about Somali piracy, Somalia, and the Indian Ocean more generally, but also, as Kanna writes, “highlights Somali alternatives to Western liberal and colonialist concepts of the common.”
Dua works carefully through these theoretical questions of colonialism and capitalism while maintaining attention to the richly-textured, grounded histories of coastal in and for their survival and thriving. Captured at Sea is, in this way, a model for scholars seeking to combine urgent theoretical questions with rich empirical analysis and patient, humble, yet global and boundary-expanding ethnography. As the supply chain disruptions of our current moment leave ships at anchor, seafarers stuck at sea, and the arteries of global trade clogged, the often-forgotten space of the ocean has become newly revealed to many land dwellers as an essential component of global economic circulation. Far from posing piracy as a threat to this myth and fetish of capitalist connectivity, as Geoffrey Aung has recently pointed out, Jatin Dua’s Captured at Sea insists on viewing these systems of circulation from another vantage point: one in which the social networks of obligation, responsibility and surprising forms of solidarity that undergird acts of piracy challenge our understandings of captivity, protection, risk, and those to whom we think they are subject.