||Institute of Southeast Asian Studies
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Everybody knows what a pirate is. We all have mental images of bearded men with earrings, a peg leg, an eyepatch, and a parrot on the shoulder as epitomized by Robert Louis Stevenson's Long John Silver. The activities of pirates also do not seem very mysterious: they attack vessels and steal whatever they can lay their hands on. However this popular, Western literary-historical notion of a pirate is far too simplistic. Indeed, "piracy" has been associated with a variety of economic and political activities and has carried different connotations over space and time. Hence, definitions of piracy have varied historically and culturally and are highly contested by individuals, groups, and nations. The label "pirate" is inevitably emotive, and linked to particular cultural-historical contexts and moments in global-regional time, especially in Southeast Asia, where the scourge of piracy and its eradication featured largely in the annals of colonial mercantile history. In the past, the categorization of individuals or ethnic groups as "pirates" was ascribed to local "marauders" by colonial powers, signifying a powerful value judgement which was invariably connected to political and territorial ambitions, world commerce, and economic growth. Given the long history of piracy in Southeast Asia, it is necessary to discuss briefly the historical background of sea robbery in the region before shifting the focus to contemporary piracy.