A Haunting Presence: Pirates, Then and Now

Indeed that was an apt and true reply which was given
To Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized.
For when that king asked the man what he meant by keeping
Hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride,
‘What thou meant by seizing the whole earth; but
because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while
thou dost it with a Great fleet art styled emperor-

— Saint Augustine

In his ode to British imperialism, Empire: The rise and demise of the British world order and the Lessons for Global Power, Niall Ferguson begins his first chapter with the subtitle ‘Pirates’ where he describes with considerable sympathy some of the many adventures of the British, relatively late comers to empire building, search and seizure for gold all over the New World. When the new territories under the Union Jack (Canada, Virginia, etc) came up empty in terms of precious metals in contrast to Spain’s plundering of Mexico and Peru, the British turned their attention to robbing the Spanish fleet. The exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake among others, under the license of Elizabeth I, yielded large dividends:

In a period of recurrent war with Spain from 1585 to 1604, between 100 and 200 ships a year set off to harass Spanish vessels in the Caribbean and the value of prize money brought back amounted to at least 200,000 pounds a year.

For Ferguson this ‘naval free-for-all’ was a major building block toward British domination.

Of course Britain wasn’t the only major power to have its origins affected by piracy in some form. The newly independent United States, like the Atlantic European powers, saw its shipping interests under siege from pirates of the Barbary States of North Africa, themselves reduced to a state of piracy as a result of the struggle between Ottoman and European interests for control of the Mediterranean. In prior centuries the Barbary States had a lucrative trading niche with Mediterranean markets through Venetian and Florentine merchant ships. The cargo of these pirates included slaves captured from ships and coasts as far away as Ireland (the Irish town of Baltimore was emptied of all its inhabitants in 1761) held for ransom and tribute against future attacks. While paling in comparison to the Atlantic slave trade, an estimated one million Europeans were enslaved in northern Africa between the years 1530-1780. In addition to the Barbary pirates the U.S. saw its access to the Mississippi river blocked by Spain and locked out of trade to the British East Indies (one former advantage of colonial status was the protection offered to American ships by British treaties with the Barbary regimes). Both the Barbary States and European powers were apt at using all sides against each other and none of the Europeans were anxious to see the emergence of a potentially dynamic new trading economy on the mercantilist stage. After several American ships were captured and sailors held for ransom, a newly formed navy and Marine Corps were established for a series of skirmishes in North Africa sometimes called the Tripolitan War (1801-05) which ended for the U.S. with a favorable, if temporary, treaty . It was less than a decade later this same navy would prove its mettle in the War of 1812.

An old, familiar adage claims that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. The examples above demonstrate t he battle with and against pirates can lead to empire; perhaps they also show one man’s criminal can be another’s mercenary, or adventure hero. In an interesting book titled Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Edward Kritzler romantically tells the story of some Jews expelled from Spain by the Inquisition who took to the seas to attack and rob from the ships of the regime that expelled them (these adventures included what was apparently the largest heist in pirates history). It’s a safe bet that in this case moral condemnation wouldn’t be universal; in fact it’s safe to say sympathy would largely be with the pirates.

Since ancient times when humans first took to using the sea for trade to the present day, pirates have had an everlasting presence. The first recorded pirates were the Lukkans who appear in the records of Egyptian scribes all the way back in the 14th century BCE. From there pirates were able to haunt the Athenian, European, and Byzantine empires; soon after pirates were employed by the French, Dutch, and English against Spain, the French word in this case being ‘corsair’. From classics such as Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island to modern day blockbusters like The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the image and mythology of the pirate, in both romantic and negative lights, has never been far from popular culture. American professional sports feature the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the team insignias displaying the customary eye patches and skull and bones, a figure which continues to be a fixture of theme restaurants and Halloween costumes.

As is often the case popular conceptions miss a much larger picture. During the Golden Age of Pirates, considered the years 1716-1726 (the aftermath of the War of Spanish Succession during which there was again wide spread use of ‘privateering’, i.e., piracy in service of states, particularly, once again, against Spain), the years that gave the world Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts, as well as the mythology of eye patches and hook hands, life aboard a pirate ship presented an intriguing alternative of democracy and egalitarianism to the rigid, exploiting ways of the navy and merchant ships with their all powerful captains, harsh punishments, disease, and brutal working conditions. Pirate crews, often made up of former sailors and indentured servants, elected their=2 0own captains, sat on common councils, and shared food and booty equally. When compared with the Atlantic trade economy and its sugar plantations, low wages, and slavery, piracy offered a version of a free life, albeit almost always a short one. Many are the pirates who hung on the gallows from Jamaica to New York, often not renouncing an ounce of their defiance and getting at least occasional sympathy from locals.

In his mesmerizing history of the period, Villains of all Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, Marcus Rediker puts it thusly:

Piracy…offered the prospect of plunder and ‘ready money’, abundant food and drink, the election of officers, the equal distribution of resources, care for the injured, and joyous camaraderie, all as expressions of an ethic of justice.

It also offered harsh vengeance against captains who mistreated their men, while captains who were established to be largely of a just character were let go, sometimes with compensation.

During this decade around 4000 people, most of whom were previously sailors mutinied against their captain and took over the ship or were taken prisoner before deciding to join their pirate captors, lived the pirate’s life. The number included a diverse motley of ethnicities including a fair number of Africans and African-Americans, both escaped slaves and free men. All in all over 2000 ships were captured and plundered, including many slave trading ships, probably contributing to the prolonged slump in English shipping that coincided with the period.

Recent months have seen a surge in pirate related headlines, mainly news of ship captures and ransom off the East African coast of Somalia, a point where about a tenth of global trade passes near or by. It was widely reported on February 5th, 2009 that Somali pirates made off with $3.2 million ransom for freeing the Ukrainian ship the MV Faina that was seized last September. In fact pirates are still holding ten other boats, this after, according to the French military, 43 boats were seized off the Somali coast in 2008. The situation has grown severe enough that at least 20 warships from various nations including the first ever naval mission created by the European Union as well as the U.S., Russia, China, Malaysia, and India are patrolling the near by Gulf of Aden. Japan recently announced it will add two of its destroyers to the mix that U.S. Rear Admiral Terry McKnight was quoted describing as “one of the most coordinated international efforts I’ve ever been a part of.”

While the pirates in Somalia have grabbed the headlines, they are far from operating alone. In its 2008 annual report, the International Maritime Bureau documents an ‘unprecedented rise’ in piracy with 293 reported incidents, up 11% from the year before. Nigeria ranked second with 40 reported incidents, and while numbers are down from recent years, pirates continue to be active around Indonesia and the Malacca Straights (another key point of global trade located between Singapore, Malaysia, and Sumatra).

Much like their Atlantic predecessors, today’s pirates are branded by governments and their mouth pieces as pure villainy, menace, and, as fitting the age, terrorists — a word that wouldn’t have been lost on King George or Cotton Mather. Also like their predecessors today’s piracy has its roots in an economic context. In Somalia, it has increased with the lost livelihoods of local fisherman whose traditional methods are no match for illegal trawlers and European fisheries that overexploit East African waters (the same thing is also occurring with devastating consequences for wildlife as hunted ‘bushmeat’ replaces fish for protein consumption). The pirates consider themselves a coast guard of sorts in a cause that can claim some justice, especially in a country rocked by warlords, famine, and violence the past two decades. Of course as the piracy stakes have grown some of these same elements appear to have become intertwined with it, however once again a pirate’s life offers a chance for riches well beyond what the surrounding economic system provides. The BBC reported last October that pirates have actually become a source of loans to businessmen. It’s for these reasons that a survey conducted by the Somalia news site Wardheer News found that 70% of respondents viewed piracy as form of defense of the country’s territorial waters.

What does all this say about piracy? It’s clear that the line between the pirate and privateer is a blurry one. Pirates have been the servants and enemies of states, instruments and headaches for empires. Throughout history they have practiced violence, traded weapons and slaves, and terrorized communities. However they have also rebelled against oppressive authority, freed slaves, had local support and admiration, and given the opportunity for a better, freer life to many who wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance. That being the case the pirate it seems is destined to suffer the same fate the terrorist: admired by some, reviled by others and on an always slippery slope. Perhaps by now it should be clear that the disappearance of both will only come under a just economic order. That was Augustine’s observation sixteen centuries ago. How tragic that it still hasn’t come to pass.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Danny Ray said on February 9th, 2009 at 1:20pm #

    So you are saying that it’s OK to hang the SOB’s from the yard arm when we catch them?

    On Dec. 26 to 27 1851 during the capture of Lagos by HMS Bloodhound, and HMS Teazer the british navy burned many priate ships and hung their whole crews. This was the biggest defeat of priacy ever.

    For the next 20 years the brits set fire to the whole Sulu coast to stop priacy.

    What I wish to know is can we do that again?

    I mean social justice be damned this could be a real money maker.

    what if a group of private individuals like a group of unemplyed Blackwater boys took it up. Would it be a blow in the war of social justice?

    What I am tring to say is that a thug is a thug is a thug.

  2. Michael Kenny said on February 9th, 2009 at 3:35pm #

    Just to get the Irish history right, the Sack of Baltimore, as it’s called, occurred in 1631 and is a unique event in Irish history. About 100 English settlers (the English were colonising West Cork at the time: the Plantation of Munster) were taken. I doubt, therefore, if the locals shed many tears over them! The pirate captain was a Dutchman and I doubt if Algerians would have been able to navigate in the wild Atlantic as far as Ireland on their own.

    The one million Europeans enslaved in northern Africa between the years 1530-1780 is highly dubious. It was put about by some screwball American academic in a book designed to show that Muslims are inherently evil and that only the US can defend Europe from their ravaging hordes etc., etc.,etc., i.e. classic Israel Lobby propaganda. The Sack of Baltimore is one of those wierd little details that people chuckle about precisely because it only happened once and I know of no European country that regards North African piracy as a major chapter in its history in the way that the Barbary pirates figure in American history. There might have been a few raids on the Mediterranean coast in the context of the on-going fight with Turkey that Mr Grosso refers to, but a million people goes too far.

    As I keep saying, European history is a lie Americans agree on!

  3. anthony innes said on February 10th, 2009 at 7:22pm #

    Michael Kenny nice info thanks.The new history coming from a wider world view shows most history (at least as taught in schools) is bunk.
    Those interested in Piracy without the froth and bubbles and still rivetting will enjoy “Pirate of Exquisite Mind ” a biography of William Dampier. Finton O’toole’s “White Savage ” sheds light on the period . The greatest pirate of all was the Chinese woman Cheng I Sao.
    Danny Ray come on mate; social justice or its abscence is one of the root causes of piracy allied with connivance of rogue governments and arms traders.Try “Liberty Verses the Law ” by Christopher Hill if you want to understand a process that turns people into that thug. I have the same contempt for those of religious persuasion but I hardly want to kill them as a nice little earner.

  4. Hue Longer said on February 11th, 2009 at 5:42am #

    I think the term “terrorist” was first used by the French…I think too that it was used (in English) to describe Democrats in England who challenged the crown. Open to corrections on this, but the word has a long history of being used by those with power to describe those without it

  5. mary said on February 11th, 2009 at 9:55am #

    According to Wikipedia – it was a Russian

    “Terror” comes from a Latin word meaning “to frighten”. The terror cimbricus was a panic and state of emergency in Rome in response to the approach of warriors of the Cimbri tribe in 105BC. The Jacobins cited this precedent when imposing a Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. After the Jacobins lost power, the word “terrorist” became a term of abuse. Although the Reign of Terror was imposed by a government, in modern times “terrorism” usually refers to the killing of innocent people by a private group in such a way as to create a media spectacle. This meaning can be traced back to Sergey Nechayev, who described himself as a “terrorist”.[8] Nechayev founded the Russian terrorist group “People’s Retribution” (???????? ????????) in 1869.
    There is also the George W Bush version- a ‘terr’ist’ – one who is sought in the war on terr’r.