|Armed guards on a merchant ship. Photo by Hanuma Bhakta|
History of Armed Merchant Vessels. Arming privately owned vessels is not a new idea. Many merchant ships back to ancient times armed themselves against the threat of pirates or naval vessels of a hostile power. In Elizabethan England, ship captains were sent out with the express purpose of raiding enemy vessels; the Queen's privateers were the King of Spain's pirates.
This process became more formalized later with the concept of letters of marque and reprisal. These documents were charters authorizing merchant captains to arm themselves and attack enemy shipping or other targets on behalf of the issuing country. Even with such letters, the line between pirate and privateer was sometime still blurry: Capt. William Kidd was executed for piracy in 1701, despite insisting that he was acting under British authority.
The US Constitution specifically authorizes Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal; it was considered a necessary expedient for a new nation with little or no naval power of its own.
The use of letters of marque and reprisal fell off following the Napoleonic Wars (the War of 1812 in the United States), as the world's great powers built larger navies and needed less help from merchant vessels. Increasing labor unrest and the reputation of merchant sailors as rowdy, drunken criminals also made governments wary of putting weapons into civilian hands. By the time of World War I, a special act of Congress was required to authorize merchant ships to sail armed. In both world wars, arming merchant vessels sailing into war zones was common practice.
The Modern Debate. Whether the modern piracy epidemic rises to the level of danger of the two world wars is behind the debate about arming merchant vessels today. Although some US mariners -- specifically those employed by the civilian Military Sealift Command -- have received small arms training for years, others balk at being armed, especially in light of ever-increasing regulatory, liability, and training requirements. Increasingly, the trend is to use private security forces, but the cost of these can run to tens of thousands of dollars a day.
Another issue is conflicting laws regarding armed persons on ships. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the world organization charged with standardization of maritime regulations, is against arming merchant vessels. Some large organizations of shipping companies were against armed vessels at first, but have softened their stance. Following the 2009 Maersk Alabama incident, the US Coast Guard began issuing guidance to US vessels for when and where to carry armed guards but other countries, notably South Africa, have detained both ships and crew caught carrying weapons for use against pirates. The International Chamber of Commerce notes that armed guards are not a complete defense against piracy, but should only be part of a larger plan: "If armed Private Maritime Security Contractors are to be used they must be as an additional layer of protection and not as an alternative to [best management practices]."
An "Alternative" Look At Somali Pirates
Mariners in Review: The Pirate Queen
captainkidd.org: Ultimate Captain William Kidd: History
International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Service Piracy Reporting Centre: Advice To Masters
Mid Day (Mumbai): Merchant Ships Get Guns