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Project: Sovereignty and the Suppression of Piracy in Maritime Southeast Asia, c.1850-1910

The suppression of piracy and other forms of maritime violence was a keystone in the colonisation of Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. Focusing on what was seen at the time as the three most pirate-infested areas in the region – the Strait of Malacca, Indochina and the Sulu Sea – the project explored how piracy was defined, contested and used to resist or justify colonial expansion, particularly during the most intense phase of imperial expansion in Southeast Asia from c.1850 to c.1920.

Project information

Project manager
Stefan Eklöf Amirell
Participating organizations
Lund University
Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

More about the project

The project concluded that piratical activity continued to occur in many parts of Southeast Asia well beyond the mid-nineteenth century, when most earlier studies of piracy in the region end their period of investigation. The results points to the changes over time in how piracy was conceptualised and dealt with by each of the major colonial powers in the region, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States. It also highlighted the occluded ways in which colonial and commercial interests, often unintentionally, encouraged piratical activity, as well as several now largely forgotten contemporary discussions and critical opinions pertaining to piracy and its suppression in Southeast Asia.

By focusing on the interaction between colonial representations of piracy and indigenous Asian concepts and practices of maritime violence, the essentially Orientalist assumption of a sharp distinction between a 'European' and an 'Asian' or 'Malay' understanding of piracy and maritime violence was also rejected in favour of a more nuanced and entangled interpretation.

The project's results challenged the predominant view, according to which the label 'piracy' was used inappropriately by Europeans to condemn allegedly legitimate forms of maritime raiding and violence in Southeast Asia. Instead, the heterogeneous and fluid character of piracy, both as a discourse and as a wide a range of violent maritime practices, was highlighted, together with the reasons for and consequences of the eventual demise of piracy in the region around the turn of the twentieth century.

The main results of the projects were published in the monograph Pirates of Empire: Colonisation and Maritime Violence in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press 2019). The book is available in fulltext at