20 March 2006

US Navy vs Pirates round 3

Hopefully if you have been following this thread about piracy you notice that I have been talking about the various engagements between the US Navy and pirates. I brought this up since some of the people I know and have talked to believe that pirates are something from the movies and distant past, on top of that they don't believe it affects them. Well yes and no. There are pirates in movies and from distant past, but piracy does affect them (and you dear reader). The battle against piracy as I have delved more and more into looking at the history of the US Navy, actually is the first set of battles against terrorism. There are a large number of parallels between the various actions against piracy and the current administration's war on terrorism. Along with congress and the public being filled with "war hawks" and people willing to sell out for peace and no military. Finally there were various heroes and heroic actions in battling piracy by the USN through out its history.
Rolling along in a Delorean at 88mph and the flux capacitor fully charged, we arrive around 1831 in Sumatra. It is now 17yrs since the end of the War of 1812. The war could rightly be called the "Revolutionary war part deux". A war which saw the resolution of who was going to control the NW territories, trade embargoes by the French and UK against each other that lead to neutral American shipping being seized on the high seas, and finally RN ships seizing American ships and taking crews to serve on theirs. It all ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1813 and the last battle actually fought was the Battle of New Orleans . The hero of that Andrew Jackson rose to become 7th President of the United States.
Following the end of the war the US Navy establishes what is called the "Mosquito Squadron" a squadron based in the Caribbean run around the West Indies chasing pirates out of the Mississippi delta region, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and Yucatan along with the rest of the West Indies. Some of these are left overs from the French Privateers that were operating in a lawless area, some were former Spanish ships captures after the Spanish Government fell apart following Napoleon's invasion of Spain, the rest were restless natives. It is reported that in a time period between 1810 and 1825 when the squadron was stood down about 3000 pirate attacks on American flagged vessels occurred. It was called the "Mosquito squadron" since their was a large number of mosquitoes in the West Indies at the time and the crews couldn't avoid the masses of them on bad days.

Now American merchant shipping is really flourshing and American goods are starting to spread through out the lands, along with various world goods are coming back to ports like San Francisco, Norfolk, Baltimore, Charleston, Savannah, Boston, etc.
In February of 1831 while the merchant ship SS Friendship was in the anchorage in at Kuala Batu. She was taking on a load of peppers on when members of a Malay pirates boarded the ship rank-sacked the ship, killed every member of the crew that was on board at the time. They were able to board since they were disguised just like Malays on-loading the cargo. The total value lost was about 8000 dollars. Well the skipper and 3 other members of the crew were ashore gather supplies; when they came back on board they beat feet out of there and sought out other American flagged ships. They all returned and requested payment or return of the cargo and punishment of the guilty parties. The chief of the Kuala Batu village denied all knowledge of the attacks. This chief then turned and put a bounty out on the heads of the surviving members of the SS Friendship's crew and master. So ships all returned home to Salem, MA (yes that Salem, MA) to report the incident to the authorities. Jackson decided on some direct action. He ordered a USN frigate into the area to bring "...immediate satisfaction for the injury and indemnity to the sufferers".
So the USS Potomac a frigate built in 1822 at the Washington Navy Yard (in DC) and armed with forty-four guns that can hurl a 32pound ball. On the 5th of Feb 1832 the USS Potomac arrived off Kuala Batu. After receiving advise from an American friendly native of a village a few miles down the coast, Commodore John Downes put ashore a landing party composed of the full detachment of US Marines (which in today's measures would be a reinforced platoon) along with 3 detachments of sailors ashore under arms to request repayment for the cargo lost and the Mayla's that committed the crimes. However, the chief of the village told them to stick it. So the landing party returned to the ship. On the 7th the same force arrived again and instead of talking to an obviously uninterested leader. The force composed of a total 282 men stormed 4 forts arranged around the harbor and village. They broke into three smaller parties while attacking these forts. The first fort was stormed after the stockade was blown up by gunpowder and that force engaged the Malay warriors in some fierce hand to hand combat. This fort fell only after every last warrior was killed. They fought with spears, knifes, and ancient flintlocks from about a century previous. The Malay pirates couldn't stand up to modern troops and modern firearms. At the end of the day all four forts fell with complete loss of their defenders; it was estimated by the leader of the Marines, one Lt. Alvin Edson, that over 150 enemy troops were killed. Total loss for the Americans was 2 KIA's and 11 WIA's.
The Americans left the next morning, however on as they sailed away word filtered to the commodore of the ship that the chieftain had put a bounty on every members of his ship's head. So on the 9th of February he returned to Kuala Batu and took it under cannon fire and torch and burned the place to the ground killing not only the chieftain but also 300 other members of that village.
Members of the press and various members of the public wanted the Commodore taken to task for doing what he did. However, President Jackson stood by the man and stated during a state of the union address that; "to inflict such chastisement deter them and others from like aggressions. This was done and the effect has been increased respect for our flag and additional security for our commerce."
Such a threat did stay in the minds for the Malays for about 6yrs. However in August of 1838 another American merchant was boarded again by Malay pirates on the island of Sumatra, this time near the village of Trabongan. They boarded the SS Eclipse murdered her captain after being received by him and tried to stab the second mate to death. He escaped only by jumping over the side of the ship, the rest of the crew had to climb the rigging or jump overboard to escape a similar fate. They plundered the ship carrying away 4 large chest filled with opium and and about 18000 Spanish dollars.
After the Malays left the crew rescue the second mate from the water and made for home. A USN frigate named Columbine with Commodore Read as skipper made for Sumatra and sailed not only back to Kuala Batu and bombard that but also the town of Muka was was just around the harbor from Trabongan. He took that town under fire and landed with 330 men (about 300 men and 30 officers) and rank sacked that town. Most of the civilians fled to the jungle.
Though these two events didn't check the Malay pirates attacks in the region, they did earn the fear and respect of not only US Marines but also US Naval ships.
There is also reason to believe that the Sultan of Achech (which controlled Sumatra at the time) was under pressure from either British or Dutch (or even both) to keep out American traders. There is little to go on whether these two major pirate attacks and other minor ones were part of Colonial Power games or were actually independent piracy under taken by Malay Pirates. It really wasn't until the Royal Navy showed up with one of the first steam powered ships the HMS Diana in 1836 did were the attacks by the Malay pirates started to be put in to check. Since a steam powered ship was able to under take and maneuver at will against the Malay's prahus (similar to a dhow or skiff).
The Malay pirates themselves were viewed all over the Straits of Sumatra region as a tough group and considered by members of the Royal Navy that have reported on them as the 'Vikings of the East". The region they operated in was really conducive to piracy , since there were a number of bays and coves with which to hide in and come striking out of. These guys operated in packs of no less then 10 and with their prahus which were fast and nimble (like the boghammers that the Iranians used during the Tanker Wars of the 80's) they could easily over take slower merchant men and take as much as their craft could hold. Depending on the moods of the leaders would depend on whether the crews of these captured ships would be all killed off or would be sold into slavery in any of the local slave markets in the region.

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