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Book Review


Stefan Eklöf Amirell and Leos Müller, eds., Persistent Piracy: Maritime Violence and State-Formation in Global Historical Perspective, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. x + 215. Bibliography and Index. $100 (cloth).


     The eight essays collected by Stefan Eklöf Amirell and Leos Muller in Persistent Piracy provide case studies of how piracy was an integral part of state formation through the nineteenth century and possibly beyond. The essays range in time from antiquity to the present and in space from the North Atlantic to Southeast Asia. To varying degrees, they all elaborate on the historical connections between state formation and piracy, which, as Amirell and Muller explain in their introduction, is the overarching theme of the book. In this, they complement Charles Tilley's classic essay on "War-Making and State-Making as Organised Crime."1

     The collection begins strongly with Philip de Souza's essay on piracy in the ancient Mediterranean world. Building on VincentGabrielsen's work on the "raid mentality," de Souza describes how "raiding and plundering…were the basic form of warfare in the ancient Mediterranean world from about 750 BC onwards" (27). States of the period routinely acquired people and property by violent maritime raids. A distinction would then be drawn between legitimate and illegitimate forms of such maritime violence. In Cicero's words,"apirate…is not included in the category of lawful enemies, but is the common enemy of all mankind" (40). For all intents and purposes, however, Rome had used maritime violence to establish itself and those that it later accused of piracy were precisely the peoples that resisted its rule."Pirates" was thus the name given to the weak, even though they were engaging in essentially the same practices as the powerful.

     Neil Price's essay on Viking piracy demonstrates how the phenomenon persisted during the Middle Ages. Price engages with Markus Rediker's portrayal of eighteenth-century Atlantic piracy as representing a"new government of the ship" that was opposed to the dominant order of the time (55). Hence, Price argues that"the Viking'armies' or'fleets' are actually best understood as polities in their own right" (59). For this reader, the most interesting part of Price's essay was the description of how the Vikings marked theiridentity with tattoos and clothing, which were not as Hollywood and others may have portrayed them. They were, in short, far more colourful than we have been led to believe.

     Five of the remaining six essays focus on the long golden age of piracy, which accompanied the rapid growth of world trade in the early modern period and continued into the nineteenth century. Wolfgang Kaiser and Guillaume Calafat describe the role of corsairs in early modern North Africa in an essay that sometimes makes its subject seem drier than it should be. Looking eastward, James K. Chin recounts the Zheng family's fascinating journey from pirates to imperial governors in seventeenth-century China, clearly demonstrating the close connection between piracy and state formation. Robert J. Anthony synthesizes and builds on his previous research on piracy in Vietnam during the Tay Son Rebellion of 1771–1802, without always providing sufficient contextualisation for the events that he is analyzing.David J. Starkey and Matthew McCartney then paint a picture of "private prize-taking" in the North Atlantic from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries that is perhaps too broad at times. James Francis Warren describes piracy around the Malay Archipelago during the long nineteenth century, convincingly arguing that it occurred as a result of the region's integration into a new global capitalist order dominated by Europe.

     Finally, Stig Jarle Hansen brings the story of piracy up to date with an analysis of Somalia at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In contrast to the other essays, Hansen struggles to make any connection between Somali piracy and state formation, and in this he inadvertently highlights the main weakness of the collection: while stressing that piracy was historically an important tool of state making, it does not explain why it ceased to be so in the twentieth century. In other words, the essays collectively do not provide sufficient insight into the emergence of the Weberian legal state (Rechtsstaat) in which the state is distinct from and opposed to organized crime.

     Nonetheless, there will be much of interest in Persistent Piracy, as the collection represents scholarship applied to a highly engaging topic in order to throw light on important themes of global history. Taken together, they illustrate how similar processes were taking place in different parts of the world, which has become arguably the major theme of the historiography of globalization. It is a shame, however, that Palgrave Macmillan priced the volume at $100, which seems near extortionate for a book of 215 pages.

Joseph A. Francis is an independent scholar and farmer from Mid Wales. He holds a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be contacted via his website at



1 C. Tilly, "War Making and State Making as Organized Crime", in P.B. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer, and T. Skocpol, eds., Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) 169–191.



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