For centuries, this sliver of ocean has captivated seamen, offering the most direct route between India and China, along with a bounty of resources, including spices, rubber, mahogany, and tin. But it is a watery kingdom unto itself, harboring hundreds of rivers that feed into the channel, miles of swampy shoreline, and a vast constellation of tiny islands, reefs, and shoals. Its early inhabitants learned to lead amphibian lives, building their villages over water and devising specialized boats for fishing, trading, and warfare. Some made their living as pirates, preying on foreign vessels that dared to ply their waters. Armadas of these skilled sea raiders in light, maneuverable craft regularly plundered passing ships and retreated upriver to fortified villages. Their raids yielded troves of gold, gems, gunpowder, opium, and slaves, which they used to build powerful sultanates that dominated much of the Sumatran and Malaysian coastlines.
Sailors chronicled the horrors they faced in the strait and nearby waters. One 19th-century episode involved the capture of British Captain James Ross. Believing his ship held a stash of silver coins, lanun forced him to watch as his young son was lashed to an anchor and drowned. Then they cut off Ross’s fingers joint by joint.
European colonizers and their navies brought the sultanates under control in the late 1800s, but the lanun were never eradicated. The 21st-century inheritors of their tradition continue to hunt these waters, mainly in three incarnations: gangs that board vessels to rob the crews; multinational syndicates that steal entire ships; and guerrilla groups that kidnap seamen for ransom.
Modern lanun have no shortage of targets. Each year, according to Lloyd’s of London, some 70,000 merchant vessels carrying a fifth of all seaborne trade and a third of the world’s crude oil shipments transit this critical choke point in the global economy. The strait’s geography makes it nearly unsecurable. It passes between Malaysia and Indonesia, known for thorny relations, further complicating the security picture. Some 250 miles (400 kilometers) wide at its northern mouth, the strait funnels down to about ten miles (16 kilometers) across near its southern end and is dotted with hundreds of uninhabited mangrove islands, offering endless hideouts to all manner of criminals.
Since 2002, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) has recorded 258 pirate attacks in the Malacca Strait and surrounding waters, including more than 200 sailors held hostage and 8 killed. The insurance arm of Lloyd’s classified the strait as a war zone in June 2005. Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia responded by bolstering security in their respective waters, and Lloyd’s suspended the rating in August 2006.