Monday, December 13, 2010

As Croce said, You Don't Tug on Superman's Cape

Historian Carl Swanson, in his book, Predators and Prizes: American Privateering and Imperial Warfare, 1739-1748, regarded official government sanction of maritime raiding and “piracy” as nearly the same thing.   A “letter of marquee,” or the official government permission, alone separated one act from the other.  Swanson agrees with many maritime and pirate historians that the end of war and naval demobilization left many privateers with an armed ship and nothing else to provide them with income.  They turned to piracy, or the taking of vessels on the open seas without government sanction.   Earlier, King James regarded similar men as “lewd and ill-disposed persons.”   Still, King James had little problem with depravations upon the sea, until it came against England.  Captain Henry Avery, “Commander of [his] Majesties Ship the King's Fisher,” turned pirate and committed those depravations upon all shipping, becoming a thorn in King James’ side.   It may be that Avery simply followed the dollar, as any businessman or country, or state business would.  

El Draque, “the dragon” became the quintessential state pirate.  Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth’s favorite pirate/privateer, incurred the fear and wrath of Spain and their authorities the world over.  His biographer, historian Wade Dudley, remarked upon the death of the infamous knight.  “Even as his mortal remains descended into the murky depths, the old pirate who had feared his God, sometimes obeyed his queen, and died while reaching for a final bit of plunder, ascended into the realm of English myth.”   Drake represented the military arm of a nation intending to gain as much as possible – pirates with a plan.  He became a state pirate who battled others just like him, with aims no different than any other pirate, official or otherwise.

Piracy has existed for a long time.  It still exists today and has usually been difficult to define, for the same reasons to which Dudley alluded.  In the Crimean War, British ships patrolled the Cyclades for pirates.  Professor Henry Ormerod regards the North African coast as still dangerous to sailing vessels and mentioned that a contemporary case of Turkish brigands in the Black Sea bordered on piracy.  His book, Piracy in the Ancient World, told of the nature of piracy at that time and how little it differed from its modern counterpart.  For Ormerod, piracy existed in the Mediterranean world as a norm for centuries.  Furthermore, he implied that it had always been part of human nature and reflected that nature in governmental structures, composed of human beings and their idiosyncrasies.   

Historian Cyrus H. Karraker agreed with Ormerod and considered piracy to be a normal “risk of commerce” in the ancient world.   Organized states with larger interests had a stronger desire for control of the sea routes and often suppressed unsanctioned piracy as a burden of informal competition.  Little has changed.  Piracy can be called a barometer of sea power for without a state structure, in a state vacuum, it flourishes.  Again, as two ends of the spectrum, states and individuals differ little when it came to piracy.  A better scale for that barometer might be from state sea power to pirate sea power, with “sea power” as analogous to “rule of force.”  Whoever has the force, rules.

Piracy often begins with indignation (often against state force) and ends with greed, arguably its “Achilles heel.”  Organized states often follow the same trends, from revolution to “death by decadency” to the next revolution, if one follows the dialectic to its Marxist conclusion.  Greed ultimately gets everyone.  As long as human beings measure value in terms of money, as long as countries struggle over the mere acquisition of wealth, piracy will remain a significant force on the open seas as well as the state boardroom.  

Daniel Defoe wrote his A General History of the Pyrates in 1724, just two years before British authorities “quieted” the turbulent Caribbean waters as modern historian, Marcus Rediker saw it.  Defoe’s view of the urge to eighteenth-century piracy for most men became vengeance.  He told of crewman Jones, who, after hearing of his friend’s death at the hands of Captain Roberts, attempted unsuccessfully to kill him.  Soon thereafter, Jones and several of the disgruntled crew of Robert’s ship, left on pretense and joined with a pirate ship.  Rediker showed that pirates routinely killed merchant captains when they captured them, but left others alone upon hearing that the captain had dealt justly with his crew.  Captain William Snellgrave’s account of his capture in 1719 by pirates almost resulted in his death until his crew saved him by vouching for his decency.  Not the brutes that tradition had painted them, pirates had reasons for becoming pirates and their society represented the most democratic ideal in that time.  Eighteenth-century society did not clearly understand the value of democracy yet.  At that time, democracy only existed at the bottom of the barometer, the state vacuum.

A state vacuum occurred again in Somalia on the east coast of Africa in 1991.  Ever since that time, Somalia’s “nine million people have been teetering on starvation ever since – and the ugliest forces in the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to steal the country's food supply and dump [their] nuclear waste in [Somali] seas.”   For some, this became the reason for the recent pirate activity off the Somali coast that incurred significant reaction from powerful thallosacracies across the world.  Sea powers who may have been responsible for the Somali reaction in the first place, collectively forced order upon Somali pirates in 2009.  Significantly, this did not occur until the pirates made the transition from protecting their coast to collecting huge ransom payments, which made them rich.  Even more important, their depravations in the Gulf of Aden interrupted shipments of oil from Saudi Arabia to powerful countries (including the United States) that depended on them.  

Johann Hari with the Independent in London compared Somali pirates today with Aegean pirates during the time of Alexander the Great.  He told of one pirate captured and dragged before Alexander who asked him “what he meant by keeping possession of the sea.”   The pirate smiled, knowing all too well that his acts were no different than those of the great emperor.  His response came with some sarcasm.  “What 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.” 

Sometimes, pirates joined forces as mercenaries-for-hire with established states to accomplish their ends.  After Alexander’s death, his generals Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus, successfully divided the kingdom among themselves.  Rhodes formed strong commercial ties with the Ptolemies in Alexandria that controlled trade throughout the Aegean in the 3rd century BC.  The city developed into a maritime, commercial and cultural center that became the envy of the other former Alexandrian generals.  Antigonus’ son, Demetrius Poliorcetes (sieger of cities) developed weapons to siege the great city of Rhodes.  These included a great battering ram that required 1,000 men to operate and a huge siege tower called Helepolis.  Demetrius also relied upon 1,000 Aegean pirates to operate Helepolis.  Not being part of Demetrius’ state forces, however, these pirates realized early the futility of the effort and abandoned Demetrius’ main forces.  Demetrius lost.  The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the great wonders of the ancient world, commemorated this Rhodian triumph against Demetrius and his pirates. 

Johann Hari pulled his Alexander quote from any of a number of sources who repeated this famous conversation with the Aegean pirate.  Linguist and political activist, Noam Chomsky used the same quote in his book, Pirates & Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World and attributes it to St. Augustine.   Chomsky attempted to convey that people throughout time have viewed pirates and piracy as variously good and bad, depending on the point-of-view.  He regarded large states as committing the same acts, but with the support and approbation of a large number of people and the military might to enforce their will.  He made an offhand reference to Demetrius and Elizabethan England, to name two.

After the beginnings of capitalism and the modern view of property rights, governments began to regard piracy as an abominable thing, a distinct danger to the steady progression of finance and power.  It became a type of unacceptable competition, “akin to war,” and eliminated by force in 1726 in American waters.   The causes of piracy did not change – nations simply grew stronger.  Historian Marcus Rediker infers that “once this ‘inefficiency of production’ had been removed, the productivity of maritime labor increased dramatically.”  Rediker (who wrote with a decidedly Marxist flavor) and Chomsky would have agreed.  Still, a stronger state, expressed with a cat-o-nine-tails, encouraged another surge of piracy.  Piracy seemed to be a part of the human condition, a fact that Rediker made apparent when he stated that piracy “was deeply imbued with the collectivistic tendencies produced by life and labor at sea.”   

For the most part, the western world has developed along the lines of the capitalistic economic system since the seventeenth century.  Today, great nations ply the maritime routes for specific financial reasons and generally regard piracy as a thing to be destroyed.  It raises the net price of goods.  The right-wing reports of Brian Scudder, with African Business magazine, regard pirates of Somalia with the expected outrage.  However, Johann Hari, with The Independent viewed a completely different side of the story.  Like Rediker’s eighteenth-century “brotherhood of pirates,” Hari saw pirates today as “social bandits” who merely tried to prevent economic disaster and major health risks from nuclear waste being dumped on their shores.  Scudder states that “there has been no policing of Somali waters by any locally recognized authority.”   However, an independent Somalian WardheerNews, Hari contends, found 70 per cent of the country “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defense.”   Yet, the British Royal Navy – backed by a coalition force of more than two dozen nations, from the U.S. to China – sailed into Somalian waters to destroy these pirates.  According to Hari, more than two dozen nations had declared war on the non-existent country and their “Volunteer Coastguard,” as they call it.  

Hari’s opinion carried emotional appeal.  The tone of his article suggested that Somali pirates had every right to defend themselves against the undeserving onslaught and inconsideration of these many powerful nations.  To Hari, the Somali nation was obliterated after their civil war and since 1991, these nations had viewed the Somalian waters as a free-dumping zone and free fishery.  He states:

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.

At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."

These acts endangered more lives than the Somali.  News articles never mentioned possible health dangers from fish taken from an area infested by illegal nuclear waste.  If Hari was correct, these unauthorized fishing trawlers may have obtained tainted seafood from Somali waters to be consumed “in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome,” as he remarked.   They may have poisoned their own people for the profit.  Somali pirates seem mild by comparison.

Still, Hari mentioned that not all of the “Somali” pirates served the Somalian people.  While, he did not elaborate on these peripheral pirates, Thomas Land of New African magazine did.  In his article, titled “Somalia Pirates Beware,” he contends that Somalia “lacked a central government since 1991 when Mohamed Siad Barre's regime was toppled by warlords.”  Since that time (except for a brief period of control by Islamists until 2006), piracy increased 14% worldwide during the first nine months of 2007.  They affected major ports and coastal waters of Tanzania and Kenya as well as the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea area.  The primary area affected still centered upon Somalia, indicating not only the point of origin, but also that Somalis “stretched” the local appellation of the “Volunteer Coastguard” somewhat.  Their influence may also have inspired others to engage in illegal piracy for less noble reasons.   

Lee Shi-lan reported that “In war-ravaged, bitterly poor Somalia, there are many men living in palatial beachfront villas and driving luxury cars.”   Shi-lan contends that these men have turned Somalia into a “pirate’s paradise.”  Heavily armed men prey with impunity on shipping in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea routes.  “The ships - including oil tankers - are worth millions each.  Their cargoes are also worth millions.  But these are not what the pirates are after.  They hijack the ships and hold the crew hostage for something better - cold hard cash in [U.S.] currency.”   Josette Sheeran, the World Food Program executive director, Shi-lan said, commented that piracy had damaged and stopped food shipments intended to help the starving Somali people.  “Another disturbing factor is the funnelling of ransom money to Somali insurgents, who are mounting an increasing number of assaults in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.”  

"The pirates with money to burn appear to have become beacons of hope for many young men who are desperate for work in one of the planet's poorest countries," stated Shi-lan.  Each ransom payment made the lure of piracy difficult to resist for Somali youth.  These youths formerly worked as bodyguards or in the government militia.  They saw the lucrative rewards in piracy and decided to enlist in the pirate gangs without the nobler incentives of the earlier pirates.  A vicious cycle was born, not unlike Tripolitan pirates in the Mediterranean of the early nineteenth century.  A young United States paid ransom payments before 1801 to the Barbary pirates to prevent seizure of their vessels and ultimately went to war over it.  

British Broadcasting Company (BBC) news reporter, Robin Hunter, said that these Somali pirates now “live a lavish life” because of these payments.   They drive the best cars, marry the prettiest women, and local businessmen ask them for loans.  They remain heavily armed, supplied with rocket-propelled grenades from Yemen, across the gulf.   

The once noble intentions turned bad.  Eight attacks per year rose to twenty-six by 2007.  Fatal attacks increased off Tanzania, Kenya, and the Red Sea.  Pirates hijacked WFP food shipments more often.  Even more fatal, operations in the Red Sea threaten 20% of the oil shipments to mostly U.S. ports.  Colloquially phrased, they “kicked” a known imperialistic, “oil-gobbling” superpower in the “oil pan” while following the example of Muslim Barbary Pirates by charging too much for the insult.  They brought back bad memories of the Tripolitan affair and the recent Islamic fundamentalist attacks in New York.  Furthermore, they provided a humanitarian reason to subdue these pirates while keeping U.S. popularity in the press.  From that point, U.N. efforts (guided by the U.S.) culminated in the 2009 operation to eradicate pirates on Africa’s east coast.  The Somali pirates themselves, completed the political equation necessary for their own demise, much like Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold, and Edward Teach in eighteenth-century America.  As Hari said, “when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for 20 per cent of the world's oil supply, we swiftly send in the gunboats.” 

This similar situation occurred in the Caribbean waters in 1718 with the British appointment of Governor Woodes Rogers to New Providence in the Bahamas.  A former governor of that island, Nicholas Trott (a later South Carolina judge) allowed pirate Henry Avery refuge after plundering in the Indian Ocean.  Trott not only allowed him “to water” and acquire provisions; he shared in the loot that Avery (alias “Bridgeman”) acquired.  Two of his crewmen also sailed to Bermuda to live on lands purchased from Trott.  The complicity of Trott and governors like him (for example, Charles Eden in northern Carolina) allowed piracy to grow unchecked in New Providence and most of America.  Piracy became commonplace in America by 1701.  Gov. James Moore, Goose Creek Indian slave trader, officially remarked in the House of Commons on the “proper” practice of piracy in Carolina.  “Mr. Painter [Peter Painter] having comitted Piracy & not having his majesties Pardon for ye Same.  It[‘]s resolved he is not fit for that trust.”   Like Somalia, piracy in early America appeared to be sanctioned by the people.  The Carolina naval forces compared with Somalia’s “Volunteer Coastguard.”  Still, after 1726, British authorities wanted pirates out of the way for profit’s sake and they made a concerted effort to accomplish this task.  

After the Act of Union in 1707 and with growing liberal, or Whig power in England, piracy faced greater pressures from a unified front.  Woodes Rogers spent three years, from 1718-1721 trying to arrest the growth of piracy and restore British commerce in the Bahamas.  While Rogers encountered some initial resistance, historian Michael Craton infers that most pirates welcomed the administration, however, having tired of the restless life.  The infamous pirates, Charles Vane and Benjamin Hornigold departed the islands upon Rogers’ arrival.  Craton believed that New Providence still contained a relatively lawless atmosphere, however, even after these efforts.   

Mohamed Ali Gedi, the Somali prime minister, stated that he would welcome a maritime naval police operation involving Kenyan and U.S. navies.  Yet, he has resisted giving them permission to operate in Somali waters.  Like New Providence, Somali peoples may yet welcome administration as well.  Gedi’s actions indicate that some of the pirates, like Vane and Hornigold, however, will most certainly not.  And the fact that piracy remains a difficult challenge for U.N. forces in Somalia reflects British efforts in the eighteenth-century Caribbean.  

Pirates across the ages share many similarities.  The weapons change, but the intent remains the same.  At first, these pirates begin their careers with a cause, a definite feeling of righteousness.  After living the lawless life for a time, they lose sight of the goal.  Still, most pirates do not have a chance nonetheless.  Larger and more powerful states better organized and with more resources, will be able to hold the military pressure on longer and eventually win.  Somali pirates began with a cause, to save their people from Western and European abuse and theft.  When they engaged in piracy for ransom, prevented food shipments to their own people, and threatened the U.S. oil supply, they signed their death warrant.  Like Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, and Henry Avery, they all succumbed to the bigger pirates with better guns.  The best weapon these “sea powers” wielded perhaps was a well-thought-out plan.  

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