Every year, over 120,000 ships make journey through a narrow spit of the Indian Ocean, passing between the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Sumatra. About one third of maritime trade will slip through these waters, including about 70% to 80% of all oil imported by China and Japan. But the journey is not always safe. On May 28, 2014, ten men armed with guns and machetes stormed Orapin 4, a tanker hauling oil from Singapore to Pontianak. The Thai owners lost contact with the ship for four days before Orapin 4 pulled into the port of Sri Racha. The crew was safe, but the ship was missing 3,700 metric tons of fuel – a value of $1.9 million. It had been siphoned off by the pirates into a smaller cargo ship. This was the sixth act of piracy within three months in the Malacca Strait. And part of a legacy going back centuries.

USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG 81) locates a suspected dhow involved in an attempted hijacking of a merchant vessel off the coast of Somalia. For further information contact Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command/Commander 5th Fleet Public Affairs at 011-973-1785-4027 of pao@cusnc.navy.mil.

A suspected pirate ship prior to being boarded by U.S. naval forces in January 2006. Credit: Kenneth Anderson, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Spencer.

The Strait of Malacca has been important for trade for centuries. Arabian, African, Persian, and Indian trade networks snaked through on their way to China. From mid-7th century until the 14th, the maritime empire of Srivijaya controlled both the Malacca and Sunda Straits, and with them, the majority of trade, particularly the trade in spices. Subsequently, the Malacca Sultanate (from which the strait gets its name), Johor Sultanate, and Singapore dominated shipping in the area. And with all that commerce came people who tried to intercept it and confiscate treasure for themselves.

For example, in the early 15th century, a Cantonese pirate leader named Chen Zuyi controlled the city of Palembang and from there launched attacks on merchant fleets coming through the Strait. He even sent tribute back to the Ming dynasty emperor in an attempt to buy off law enforcement. His career came to an abrupt end when he attacked the treasure fleet commanded by Zheng He in 1406. Zheng He killed 5,000 pirates, sank ten ships, captured seven, and Chen Zuyi and two associates were sent back to emperor, who had them beheaded.

Chen Zuyi was over six hundred years ago, yet even today, piracy continues to plague the Strait of Malacca. Currently, over half of all piracy in the world takes place in the waters off of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Pirate ships blend in among the crowded waters, and, like pickpockets, stealthily creep up on ships, steal cargo, and retreats. And many of these expeditions are not singular, hit-or-miss attacks. They are often organized affairs, relying on other seafarers, family members, sometimes even port workers and corrupt military and government sources.

Piracy exacts a heavy toll on trade through the area, both through stolen cargoes and the increased fuel and security costs expended in efforts to avoid and defend against pirate attacks. But security has increased in recent years, and merchant crews are sometimes able to prepare and ward off attacks. National governments and international organizations throughout the world have banded together to end the scourge of the strait. Perhaps, someday, piracy in the Malaccan Strait will just be history.

Thanks to Mary for this history idea