Last month, I blogged about the incredible story in the National Geographic Magazine written by Peter Gwin. Titled 'Dark Passage', it is about pirates who patrol the Strait of Malacca. I interviewed Peter recently about his story, his work and his experience dealing with pirates.
I.Z: Tell us more about yourself Peter. I understand that you've been working with NG for a few years? And what did you do before that?
Peter: I’ve been a staff writer at National Geographic since 2004. Previously, I was covering politics and economics in the European Union for a magazine based in Washington. I got started in journalism while I was teaching English in a small school in Botswana. After each semester, we got a month off and I would hitchhike to Zimbabwe or Malawi and write dispatches about my travels. None of them were published. But by that time, I had the bug.
I.Z: How did you get the idea for the pirates story?
Peter: I had read several accounts of modern pirate attacks, always told from the victim’s perspective, understandably. But I was very curious about the pirates themselves, their backgrounds, motivations, strategies, etc. Also, National Geographic has done so many stories about famous pirates of old, Blackbeard and such. I thought readers would be interested in their descendents.
I.Z: Why Straits of Malacca?
Peter: Its geography, history, and mix of cultures have long made it the perfect place for pirates. As I wrote in the story, even now modern sailors dread traveling through it. Yet it is crucial to global trade, and many economies, especially those in Southeast Asia, rely heavily on the free flow of goods, especially oil, that passes through it. And the pirate tradition, albeit a modernized version, continues.
I.Z: Pirates are notorious for robbing sailors, kidnapping crews, and even murder. Were you afraid to do this story since you have to travel and meet real life pirates?
Peter: Certainly there are risks associated with reporting a story like this, but I did my best to mitigate them and to be smart about the situations that I entered.
I.Z: In your story, you wrote that no one knows for sure how many pirates remain active in the Malacca Strait. In your personal opinion, how many do you think there are now?
Peter: I think it’s impossible to say, especially since piracy involves so many factors. A big question is who counts as a pirate? As I write in the article, crime syndicates fund some pirate attacks. Sometimes a middleman links a syndicate with the guys who actually raid the ship. Some attacks may involve corrupt officials, and others may include members of a guerrilla movement.
Furthermore, the health of a particular local economy as well as the greater regional economy may have an effect on the number of pirates. When the unemployment is up, pirate attacks seem to increase, and presumably during such times, new pirates are recruited among those desperate for work, especially unemployed commercial sailors. This jibes with what several of the pirates told me.
I.Z: How did you know Arifin, the pirate who was imprisoned in Malaysia?
Peter: I read about a 2005 attack on a tanker ship, the Nepline Delima, in a news article, and he was listed among those arrested.
I.Z: Were you surprised that most of the pirate attacks are insider jobs?
Peter: At first I was surprised, but once you understand the larger picture, it makes a lot of sense. Vast wealth and extreme poverty exist literally side-by-side in the Malacca Straits. I could see where the temptation for a huge, and seemingly easy, payday could be very powerful. What I found most intriguing was how surprised the other sailors on the Nepline Delima were to find out they had been betrayed. Each one I interviewed shook his head in disbelief when describing how he found out that one of his fellow shipmates had sold them all out and put them through the most frightening night of their lives.
I.Z: What were your thoughts and feelings when you decided to head to Batam to meet Jhonny Batam, the pirate?
Peter: To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect. On paper it seems like Batam has the potential to become a major economic hub in the region, especially since, to some degree, Singapore’s growth is limited by its small geographical size and Batam is so near. But there is a bit of a Wild West vibe in Batam, a little bit like Las Vegas. It feels like a town where, below the surface and with the right amount of money, anything goes.
I.Z: Why do you think pirates like Jhonny and the rest wanted to be interviewed for your story?
Peter: I think a better description of Jhonny Batam, as I write in the magazine, is “a gentleman of opportunity.” He is a seaman who has slipped back and forth between dark and light maritime businesses. He is also funny and engaging, and a born storyteller, but beneath that jovial personality is a very thoughtful guy. That said, I think he wanted to help me see that life for seamen in the region is very tough and full of shades of gray.
Otherwise, on some level, most of the pirates (and other gentlemen of opportunity) that I talked to were very proud of their escapades and wanted to tell their tales. To a degree, I think this is universal. Certainly in the US, gangsters and adventurers of all stripes love to brag about what they’ve been able to pull off.
I.Z: You were even able to see the pirates in training. That's amazing! Are they not afraid that their operations will be exposed?
Peter: Perhaps they were taking a risk to show me how they practice boarding ships. But because someone they trusted introduced me to them, I guess they thought it was safe.
I.Z: For this story, did you work alone when you were in Batam?
Peter: I worked with local interpreters during my time in both Malaysia and Indonesia.
I.Z: John Stanmeyer’s awesome photos accompany your story. Did he travel with you for this story?
Peter: Unfortunately, we didn’t travel together. Our schedules never matched up. He was really busy shooting some other NG stories, including one on volcanoes that is coming out soon. His photos are amazing.
I.Z: You came in contact with many pirates while doing your story. What’s your overall impressions of them?
Peter: That was a really tough part of this story. I really did like most of the characters I met. I especially liked Jhonny and Beach Boy. They were great storytellers and treated me like a friend. Also there is a certain romanticism attached to pirates, and in that setting it is easy to get swept up in that. On the other hand, having met sailors who had been brutalized by pirates, I felt guilty for laughing and joking and even liking guys who had been part of such attacks. Beach Boy tried to explain that when they raided a ship, it was just business, nothing personal and that he didn’t want to hurt anyone. But that is cold comfort for the sailors who got beaten up on the Nepline Delima and certainly for the families of sailors who have been held hostage or murdered by pirates.
I.Z: Can you tell us about your next assignment mate?
Peter: National Geographic has an amazing dinosaur story coming out in December that I have been working on.
I.Z: Ah, Dinosaur! I can't wait.
Previously: Malacca Strait Pirates