The Promise of Protection: a conversation with Jatin Dua, winner of the 2020 Jack Goody Award, about Pirates, Comparison, and Romance

We are delighted to announce that Jatin Dua has won the 2020 Jack Goody Award for his essay, “Hijacked: Piracy and Economies of Protection in the Western Indian Ocean” (CSSH 61-3). Our panel of judges – Carole McGranahan, Andreas Glaeser, and Michael Herzfeld – selected Dua’s piece from a shortlist of six CSSH articles. What the panel liked best about “Hijacked” is how Dua brings licit and illicit economies together in a single framework, creating a morally complex account of Somali piracy and the local and international actors who contend with it. 

“In an adventurous, innovative, and usefully provocative approach,” the judges note:

Dua offers a comparison of two very different regimes intended to protect both lives and investments. These regimes, which became fatefully entangled with each other in the surge of piracy off the coast of Somalia between 2007 and 2012, are, respectively, the diya, an extended kinship network, and the formal maritime insurance agencies (such as Lloyd’s of London). The article is ethnographically rich on both fronts, and Dua’s theoretical contribution is especially to explode the standard categories of formal or controlled comparison and thereby to show us how historical conjunctures can be fruitfully exploited as an occasion for comparative analysis. This is comparativism at its transgressively most fruitful. In particular, the conjunction of legal and illegal worlds in a shared analytic frame is a productive way of focusing analysis on wide-ranging but reciprocally linked concepts and practices of protection. Indeed, Dua has offered us, in this single article, the groundwork for what might usefully be described as an anthropology of protection regimes.

We doubt we will have to push hard to convince our readers to sample an article that, along with transgressive comparativism, promises a close encounter with modern-day pirates. Dua is skilled at managing these expectations. He knows you will expect pirates of a certain kind, and this is why he relentlessly undermines hegemonic notions of piracy, from crude stereotypes of banditry to subtle theoretical claims about sovereignty and legal exceptionalism at sea. What makes Dua’s approach so fascinating is his revaluation of piracy as a form of protection, a move that allows us to see the predation of piracy as a quality mirrored, and modified, in metropolitan institutions dedicated to combating piracy, and offsetting its costs.

We wanted to know more about Dua’s framework. So we asked him.

2020 Goody Award winner Jatin Dua

CSSH: First, congratulations on winning the Goody!

Dua: Thank you. It’s a true honor. I really appreciate the recognition, and the generous assessment of the jurors. Thanks also for making the manuscript submission and review process at CSSH such a generative one, especially in selecting readers whose insights and critiques pushed me to develop the argument. 

CSSH: There are so many ways to enjoy your article. It’s got drama. Abduction. Ransom. Gunmen. Naval vessels. The whole romance of piracy on the high seas. People are easily drawn to this aspect of your work. But what makes the biggest impression, analytically, is how you juxtapose the logistics of Somali “capture and release” piracy to the actuarial and legal work of maritime insurance companies in London. By the end of the essay, you’ve convinced us that this is not only a viable comparison, it’s necessary to understanding the role of protection (and trust) in the international economy, in capitalism on land and sea. You show how the mundane, everyday side of Somali piracy – its reliance on kinship, customary law, and shared responsibility for debt and risk – corresponds to institutional forms that have developed over centuries in the shipping industries of the global north. The two systems intersect, generating likeness and difference at every touchpoint. It’s really an amazing display of what comparison can do.

How did you know where, and when, to start analyzing this system? Did you follow the money out of London? Did you look at the human connections in real cases of capture and ransom along the Somali coast? How much of the frame pre-existed the analysis, and how much grew out of it? 

Dua: Protection is very much what stitched this world together for me, making possible the kinds of paths I could follow both spatially and temporally. In many ways, protection is literally what enabled me to do fieldwork in Somalia. I began the project doing research in courtrooms in Kenya and colonial archives in London and Zanzibar. When the international naval force was established to combat piracy in 2008-2009, there was no discussion about what would happen once pirates were apprehended at sea. Somalia’s status as an active conflict zone meant that most of the international community (the EU in particular) couldn’t just drop these suspected pirates back in Somalia. They had to promise some sort of fair trial. Essentially, this led to the creation of various bilateral agreements in which pirates would be tried in courts in Kenya and Seychelles or sometimes in Europe and the US. So, my first encounter with pirates was in a small courtroom in Mombasa, Kenya. It was a long, tedious affair with witnesses from multiple countries (an Indian captain, a German warship commander, Italian commandos) speaking multiple languages. What struck me in the courtroom transcripts, and something I found echoed in the archives, was how all of these different actors claimed to be protectors. They were all in the protection business in one way or another. Navies claimed to protect free trade; pirates claimed to protect their coastal waters. Insurance companies were lurking in the background, making claims on behalf of crew and cargo. I quickly realized that protection was the ticket to participation and claims-making in this space. This is something that goes all the way back to the 14th century, when Ibn Battuta arrived in Mogadishu and all of a sudden was surrounded by numerous boats. All of them wanted to claim him, within practices of protection, as their captive/guest. Protection made mobility possible, in very real ways, and it allowed for all sorts of encounters.

In my case, the navies and the pirates themselves were the obvious protectors. They embody the spectacle of violence through which we tend to understand piracy. But most of what transforms capture into a successful hijacking is grounded in fairly mundane modes of risk-sharing, both in Somalia and in London. Here I have to say that biography played a role in my work. As a South Asian in Northern Somalia, I was constantly read as a Kenyan Indian or as someone who belonged to the commercial South Asian diaspora of the Indian Ocean. This meant I ended up spending a lot of time with wholesalers, merchants like the qaad wholesaler I call Aisha in the article, learning about the intricacies of trade. Slowly, it became clear to me that pirates were at the edges of this world (even in 2010-11, many of my interlocutors were vehemently against piracy in Somalia) but also that piracy was deeply connected to the everyday operations of wholesale trade and commerce. The connections were seldom dominated by corrupt piracy financiers. Rather, they materialized in webs of kinship and mutual obligations, in account books and clan meetings where complaints about pirates not paying their debts were made. I came to understand that behind the spectacle at sea, behind force and violence, lay networks of contract and obligation. These networks (as well as the mercantile histories of insurance) allowed me to make a comparison between insurance and diya, between London and Somalia, in ways that helped me realize that understanding piracy as a mode of protection requires working back and forth in both locations. 

CSSH: Let’s return to the problem, or the asset, of romance. Perhaps “romance” is not the right word. Perhaps it’s more like the dangerous, or sensational, or remote. What does it mean that pirates have these qualities, but insurance agents do not? Clearly, you’re trying to go beyond these motifs. You’re doing something to and for Somali “pirates” when you situate them in dense, moralized social networks (their diya groups). You’re diluting the heavy atmosphere of brigandage and life on the margins. Relocating some of that symbolic load to London is a deft maneuver. The insurance companies are tapping into wealth. They are profiteering. They have parasitical tendencies, too. You show that nicely. But they also have formalism on their side. Romance is not part of their profile; “gambling” and “risk taking” are, but these are cloaked in actuarial science. 

In short, your essay is written against the renegade, peripheral aspects of piracy. You show us how kindred sociopolitical and economic principles – protection, say, or risk sharing – are at work both in the metropole and at the outer reaches of the world economy. Yet something like romance survives this reconstruction. It makes your analysis, your subject matter, alluring and consequential. What does this mean? Is it fundamental to the way protection works as a moral economy? 

Dua: This is tricky for me as well. I feel a certain obligation to spin good pirate yarns, and mostly I fail. I’ve found myself at dinner with colleagues and friends, and their children want to hear a good pirate tale. I’ll start talking about pirates retiring or about debates over whether building a house from piracy earnings is permissible. Nothing ends the romance of piracy more quickly than the word “retirement.” Historically, pirate yarns were important in reminding us that landed hierarchies could flip, that other worlds were possible at sea. I want to keep part of that romance. I want to keep alive the possibilities of the contingent and the unknown. That’s what sailors tell me: “Every journey, even if you’ve done it a thousand times, is different.” Along with boredom, which is very real at sea, there’s always danger when one leaves land. 

You’re right to suggest that romance is fundamental to the workings of protection as a moral economy. When we make claims on the basis of protection (or safety), we’re reckoning with things that are about blood, friendship, obligation, and prestige as much as they are about the technicalities of contract and liability. What I want to query (and what my interlocutors taught me to query) is the problem of location. “Who is the pirate?” It’s a fundamental question for law and sovereignty. The difference between the pirate and the privateer, between legitimate and illegitimate, is crucial to how we understand states and authority. Pirates turn into states and vice versa. I also want to ask, “Where is piracy?” Answering that question compels us to reconsider how we bifurcate worlds and the consequences of doing so. How do we draw lines between international finance and trade diasporas, between Global North and Global South? I don’t want to argue that everything is the same, but I do want to develop better ways of seeing the power, and often the violence, that accompanies moments of difference and disavowal. I also want to understand the brief, provisional moments when radically different practices become entangled and legible to each other. For me, this is the promise – indeed, it is the romance – of protection and, more generally, of comparison as a practice and ethic. 

CSSH: That’s a lot to accomplish in one paper, but you pull it off magnificently. We’re glad you chose to publish “Hijacked” with us. It’s probably immodest to say so, but we can’t imagine your article in any other journal. You’ve refined our agenda, our “practice and ethic,” by mixing rigorous ethnography with deep, transregional history. We’re happy to acknowledge the romance in that! 

Jatin Dua is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on maritime piracy in the Indian Ocean and matters of governance, law, and economy along the East African coast. He is the author of Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean (2019, University of California Press).