Who imagined that in 2009, the worldâ€™s governments would be declaring a new War on Pirates? As you read this, the British Royal Navy – backed by the ships of more than two dozen nations, from the U.S. to China – is sailing into Somalian waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somalian ships and even chasing the pirates onto land, into one of the most broken countries on earth.
But behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal. The people our governments are labeling as â€œone of the great menaces of our timesâ€ have an extraordinary story to tell – and some justice on their side.
Pirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the â€œgolden age of piracyâ€ – from 1650 to 1730 – the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage thief that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: Pirates were often rescued from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we canâ€™t?
In his book â€œVillains of All Nations,â€ the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence to find out. If you became a merchant or navy sailor then – plucked from the docks of Londonâ€™s East End, young and hungry – you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the cat oâ€™ nine tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.
Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains – and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls â€œone of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the 18th century.â€
They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed â€œquite clearly – and subversively – that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal navy.â€ This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.
The words of one pirate from that lost age – a young British man called William Scott – should echo into this new age of piracy. Just before he was hanged in Charleston, South Carolina, he said: â€œWhat I did was to keep me from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirating to live.â€
In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. Its 9 million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and many of the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the countryâ€™s food supply and dump our nuclear waste in their seas.
Yes: nuclear waste. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. envoy to Somalia, tells me: â€œSomebody is dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead and heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury – you name it.â€ Much of it can be traced back to European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the Italian mafia to â€œdisposeâ€ of cheaply. When I asked Ould-Abdallah what European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: â€œNothing. There has been no cleanup, no compensation and no prevention.â€
At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somaliaâ€™s seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by over-exploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300 million worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea life is being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somaliaâ€™s unprotected seas.
The local fishermen have suddenly lost their livelihoods, and they are starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: â€œIf nothing is done, there soon wonâ€™t be much fish left in our coastal waters.â€
This is the context in which the men we are calling â€œpiratesâ€ have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a â€œtaxâ€ on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coast Guard of Somalia – and itâ€™s not hard to see why.
In a surreal telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was â€œto stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters â€¦ We donâ€™t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.â€ William Scott would understand those words.
No, this doesnâ€™t make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Program supplies. But the â€œpiratesâ€ have the overwhelming support of the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news site WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary Somalis are thinking – and it found 70 percent â€œstrongly supported the piracy as a form of national defense of the countryâ€™s territorial waters.â€
One of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their motive was â€œto stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters â€¦ We donâ€™t consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.
During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and Americaâ€™s founding fathers paid pirates to protect Americaâ€™s territorial waters, because they had no navy or coast guard of their own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?
Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didnâ€™t act on those crimes – but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit corridor for 20 percent of the worldâ€™s oil supply, we begin to shriek about â€œevil.â€ If we really want to deal with piracy, we need to stop its root cause – our crimes – before we send in the gunboats to root out Somaliaâ€™s criminals.
The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarized by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know â€œwhat he meant by keeping possession of the sea.â€ The pirate smiled and responded: â€œWhat you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.â€
Once again, our great imperial fleets sail in today – but who is the robber?