Not far from Fort Jesus, the sixteenth-century fort erected by the Portuguese to mark their violent entry into the world of Indian Ocean commerce, is a small office near the old port of Mombasa. Scattered inside are copies of Seatrade and other maritime trade magazines. An old desktop computer displays the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks international shipping prices for dry bulk cargo, as well as the shipping movements list from Lloyd’s of London highlighting the movement of commodities on ships registered with the insurance company.
Until the resurgence of naval predation in the late 2000s, pirates were confined to the realm of the fantastic — novels, films and stage productions. Since Western states last worried about pirates in the eighteenth century, the intrinsic, man-bites-dog interest of contemporary pirates for the popular press is easy to understand. The reemergence of piracy as a political problem, however, has in no way banished the fantastic from current understandings of the phenomenon, nor of Somalia, whence the most famous of today’s maritime bandits come. The fantasy is evident in media coverage, but in policy discourse as well. Once upon a time, begins the tale, there was a state called Somalia and now there is not. Pirates flourish where the writ of government has entirely lost its sway.