After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.—John Huston, 1950
Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.
—Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
The present economic crisis has placed under grave threat a good many occupations—hedge fund manager, condominium developer, print journalist—which to future ears may sound as mystifying as the pure finders, bone grubbers, or scriveners of centuries past. But one of the few growth industries of the current downturn has emerged, if not from the pages of history, then at least from the mists of popular fantasy. 2008 was a fine year to be a pirate—an actual pirate—much to the dismay of the maritime shipping trade, which carries 90 percent of world commerce. Pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa tripled last year, as Somalis in wooden dhows stalked the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden, through which passes twenty thousand merchant ships annually and 7 percent of global oil supply. Armed with little more than modified ladders, Kalashnikovs, and an utter absence of fear, Somali pirates attacked at least a hundred ships and succeeded in capturing at least forty. After protracted negotiations, they managed to squeeze from ship owners around the world as much as $150 million in ransom, a particularly colossal sum in a failed state where per capita GDP is $600.
Piracy has existed off the Horn of Africa for millennia, but last year’s attacks were more coordinated, numerous, and brazen than any previously recorded. In September, pirates hijacked a Ukrainian freighter carrying, among other prizes, thirty-three secondhand Soviet tanks. In November, 450 miles off the Kenyan coast, nine men on a twenty-four-foot skiff captured the Sirius Star, a Chrysler Building-sized supertanker carrying $100 million in Saudi crude to the United States. By the end of the year, a dozen ships were still being held for ransom, along with three hundred crewmen, mostly impoverished merchant sailors from the Philippines.
In today’s Somalia, piracy has found extremely fertile soil. In 1991, the authoritarian government of Siad Barre collapsed. Fractured along clan lines and ruled by warlords, its ten million people have been threatened with famine ever since. Life expectancy is forty-nine years, infant mortality is 11 percent, a third of the population survives off of World Food Program aid—the shipments have been frequently interdicted by the pirates, who respond to protests that they are stealing food from the mouths of their fellow Somalis with the claim that they are keeping them out of the hands of the warlords so they can be equitably distributed.
The interference with the shipping trade has become so severe that the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on October 16, 2008, authorizing states to invade Somali territory in an effort to combat piracy. Naval vessels from at least twenty countries—among them India, Denmark, Germany, France, Iran, and the United States—have been assigned to the near-hopeless task of patrolling Somalia’s roughly eighteen-hundred-mile coastline and the million square miles of ocean around the Horn of Africa. Shipping insurance costs have skyrocketed from $900 to $9,000 to transit the Gulf of Aden, crews are demanding danger pay, and a detour around the Cape of Good Hope can add weeks to a voyage. Merchant ships forbidden by international maritime law to be armed in territorial waters have had to improvise their means of defense. Fire hoses can be aimed at pirate skiffs that attempt to hook ladders against a ship’s rail. Other vessels have installed a non-lethal electric fence around the decks, or even considered smearing their railings with lard. Guards have been hired to stand watch on risky passages, though as a cost-cutting measure some ships have posted inflatable dummies on the rails, a sort of nautical scarecrow. In 2005, a cruise ship fended off attackers with an acoustic cannon that projects a deafening shriek a quarter of a mile. The American mercenary firm Blackwater has offered the escort services of its 183-foot maritime security vessel McArthur, which carries a crew of forty-five men and two attack helicopters. One Filipino crew, it was reported, pelted the boarding pirates with tomatoes.
These measures have done little to slow the pirates or to ease the anxieties of the already shaken financial markets, fully aware that too much trouble at a handful of choke points (the Gulf of Aden, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, the Panama Canal) could effectively shut down global commerce. But the exploits of the Somali pirates provided endless fodder for the ravening news cycle and the insatiable blogs throughout 2008—televised images of men in scarves and sunglasses waving defiantly from the deck of a hijacked oil tanker captivated audiences familiar with piracy mainly through the multibillion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Pirates make good copy, and journalists went often to the well of brigand clichés in writing their leads and nut graphs. Even the New York Times managed to work in the phrase “wily buccaneers.” Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times featured a “grizzled buccaneer” chain smoking and sitting on a crate filled with a million-dollar ransom. CNN provided a lengthy exegesis on how one of its reporters persuaded a pirate to answer his cell phone.
But the breathless coverage has obscured the fact that very little is understood about the pirates. Not that Western journalists weren’t trying to get access, but investigative reporting doesn’t work in Somalia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for foreigners. Last year four foreign journalists—two of whom were investigating piracy—were kidnapped. As of today only two have been released.
The term buccaneer, in reference to certain seventeenth-century Caribbean pirates, derives from the French corruption of the Tupi word mukem, a wooden rack on which the meat of manatees, among other things, was smoked. Somali pirates are not buccaneers and do not eat manatee—reportedly they prefer spaghetti and the occasional camel’s hump.
The Walker, by Max Klinger, 1878. Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.
A few clues to the motives behind piracy’s resurgence were provided by the “pirate spokesman,” a designated P.R. man. Sugule Ali, reached by satellite phone on the Ukrainian arms freighter by Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, laid out the pirates’ grievances. “We just saw a big ship, so we stopped it. We don’t consider ourselves sea bandits; we consider sea bandits those who illegally fish in our seas and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas. We are simply patrolling our seas. Think of us like a coast guard.” By some estimates, $300 million in fish is illegally taken out of Somali waters by foreign travelers every year. Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, Somalia’s U.N. Envoy, believes nuclear waste has been dumped off the coastline as well. Sugule sought to frame the pirates’ actions as a means of survival and an attempt at justice. “Killing is not in our plans,” he insisted. “We only want money so we can protect ourselves from hunger.”
Indeed, some evidence suggests that today’s pirates are not so different—in motive if not method—from their eighteenth-century forebears. They may be seen as criminals or heroes, or both at once, depending on the observer. Johann Hari, a columnist for the London Independent, citing the despoiling of the Somali coastline, has argued that the pirates have “some justice on their side,” enjoying, if not a clear moral high ground, enormous popular support. The independent Somali news site WardherNews found that 70 percent of Somalis “strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defense.” In fact, the pirate-controlled regions of Somalia are some of the most stable parts of the unbelievably broken country. In the pirate town of Eyl on the Puntland coast of Northeast Somalia, a clandestine BBC reporter found a thriving local economy that spread well beyond the individual pirates. New houses were being built, and new SUVs cruised the streets. Restaurants were constructed to keep the hostages well fed and healthy until they could be exchanged for duffel bags stuffed with hundred-dollar bills. Hoping to marry pirates, eligible girls from across the country flock to towns like Eyl. The Islamists holding sway elsewhere in the country have no power in the pirate havens, which are by many accounts the only functioning political structures in Somalia.
It is little surprise that the reemergence of piracy into the public imagination has garnered so much attention. For at least three hundred years, the pirates and their swashbuckling rebelliousness have held our imaginations captive. And when they return sailing from over the horizons of our collective memory into the choppy seas of the news cycle, they captivate us still. One of the most popular books of 1724 was titled A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, an encyclopedic volume written by Charles Johnson, documenting—and celebrating—the exploits of various seventeenth-century pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. “Charles Johnson” is today believed to be a nom de plume of one Daniel Defoe, disguised to avoid reprobation for his scandalous topic.
One of the many remarkable (and almost certainly fictional) tales in A General History concerns the French Captain Misson. Born in seventeenth-century Provence to a large and wealthy family, as a young man he sought his own fortune in the French Navy. While on leave in Rome from his ship Victoire, he was disenchanted with the licentiousness and hypocrisy of the Vatican’s clergy, and a chance encounter in a confessional introduced him to a “lewd priest” named Caraccioli, who became his spiritual advisor and lifelong companion. Joining Misson aboard the Victoire, the apostate priest soon won many converts to his brand of proto-Marxist ideology:
He fell upon Government, and shew’d, that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him, as to the Air he respired... that the vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other.
To the sailors who toiled under the multifarious strictures of organized religion and naval discipline, this philosophy was a siren song, offering a glimpse of a liberty they had heretofore never dared imagine. One event led to another, from inspirational speeches to cinematic broadsides, and in short order Misson found himself the democratically elected captain of several hundred pirates. Applying Carracioli’s philosophy to shipboard life, the crew held all spoils in common, and decisions were made by “Vote of the whole company.” They captured a Dutch slaver off the coast of Africa, and with Misson declaring that “he had not exempted his Neck from the galling Yoak of Slavery, and asserted his own Liberty, to enslave others,” promptly freed the ship’s human cargo, clothed them out of the Dutch stores, and invited them into their ranks as equals.
While sailing around the coast of Madagascar, they discovered a sheltered harbor and there established a settlement and a fort, which Misson named Libertalia. The soil was rich, the natives friendly, and his people, by now a multiethnic stew of French, Dutch, English, and African, were adjured to abandon their previous national affiliations and identify themselves as Liberi. Theirs would be an anarchist free-state beyond the edges of the “civilized” world: an egalitarian pirate utopia that stood as a defiant alternative.
Captain Misson and his paradisiacal Libertalia may well have been a wishful invention of Defoe’s fancy, but some writers and historians have supported the idea of piracy as a means of creating a society based on democracy, consensus, and equality. In his book Villains of All Nations, the historian Marcus Rediker weaves a pirate history which shows our popular conception of the so-called golden age of piracy (circa 1650–1730), in which pirates are vicious, cruel, and amoral, was a propaganda tactic to mask British brutality and mistreatment of sailors. Life aboard a British ship of the line or merchantman was an unrelenting horror, with many crewmen pressed into service and cheated of wages. Small infractions led to vicious floggings. More serious infractions might result in keel hauling, the dragging of a victim to his death beneath the bow of a ship. As Dr. Johnson famously observed, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in jail with the chance of being drowned.”
Faced with such brutality, many British sailors deserted and became pirates, often creating an autonomous social order of the “outcasts of all nations,” in which they would vote for their captains, share spoils equally, and abide by a commonly agreed-upon moral code. The Welsh pirate captain Bartholomew Roberts, who plundered ships off the Americas and West Africa in the late eighteenth century, even drew up a series of articles to be signed by all prospective recruits:
ARTICLE I. Every man shall have an equal vote in affairs of moment. He shall have an equal title to the fresh provisions or strong liquors at any time seized, and shall use them at pleasure unless a scarcity may make it necessary for the common good that a retrenchment may be voted.
Roberts’ articles even established a sort of universal healthcare which was surely the envy of eighteenth-century mariners: “Every man who shall become a cripple or lose a limb in the service shall have eight hundred pieces of eight from the common stock and for lesser hurts proportionately.”
The pirate world was an untenable threat to British authority. So despised were the pirates of the golden age that a common punishment was gibbeting: hanging an executed corpse in a steel cage as a cautionary tale. The “Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy,” passed by Parliament in 1700, mandated the death penalty for those found guilty; in 1722 the British Admiralty tried 169 pirates of Bartholomew Roberts’ crew and hung fifty-two of them. The executed pirate Captain Kidd’s body was coated with tar and gibbeted over the Thames for more than twenty years, “a terror to all that saw it.”
Nation-states don’t look kindly on challenges to their monopoly on violence. Eighteenth-century pirates, in Rediker’s view, posed a “radical democratic challenge to the society they left behind.” The pirates of the golden age often met brutal ends, but their conquest of the popular imagination persists. Witness, if not exactly admiration, the worldwide fascination the Somali pirates have commanded. Or, for the kids, the $2.6 billion Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
Not all observers, of course, look so sympathetically upon the Somali pirates. The historian Douglas R. Burgess Jr., writing an op-ed in the New York Times on December 5, 2008, titled “Piracy Is Terrorism,” declared that the “golden age of piracy has returned.” He proposed the creation of a global antipiracy coalition, invoking the ancient legal concept, passed from common law to admiralty law, of the special status of the pirate as hostis humani generis, “enemy of the human race,” and therefore subject to arrest and prosecution by any nation.
Other proposed solutions have been less measured. John Bolton, the former U.S. representative to the United Nations, having decamped from the U.N. to the American Enterprise Institute, recommends forthright invasion and bombardment:
Ironically, Western military authorities, including Washington, are reluctant to take on the pirates, in part because they fear accusations of violating the pirates’ human rights! Even more paradoxically, NATO officials contend that the pirates are part of a larger societal problem that cannot be addressed in isolation. This, of course, is a radical departure from America’s attitude toward piracy two hundred years ago. Then, worldly-wise European governments were content to pay tribute to North Africa’s Barbary pirates, but the young United States decided to use force to stop attacks on its commerce. America was right then, and it would be right today to use force to destroy the Somali pirate bases and ships.
Bolton’s version of the Founders’ attitude toward piracy is a bit forgetful. One need only look among the powers enumerated for Congress in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Listed immediately after the power to declare war is the power to “grant letters of marque and reprisal.” A letter of marque, for all practical purposes, is license to practice piracy, authorizing a private vessel to seize enemy shipping on behalf of a state. It’s a handy way to raise a de facto navy in a hurry, and General George Washington understood this well. During the Revolution, as many as 55,000 American seamen served as privateers, seizing British and Loyalist shipping along the Eastern Seaboard and dividing the spoils between themselves and their state governments. To the British, of course, they were merely pirates, and if captured were treated as such. Long Island Sound was a swarm of privateering activity, with ships based out of such brigands’ nests as Stratford and New Haven. Privateers played an essential role in the financing and ultimate victory of the war. Once the young nation began establishing its own international commerce, the American attitude toward piracy shifted with the winds of fortune. When it was in U.S. interests to engage in sea robbery, it was undertaken with patriotic glee. But when piracy interfered with free trade, it was a different matter. For centuries, the Barbary States of North Africa—Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—had preyed upon the maritime trade of the Mediterranean, enslaving or ransoming their captives. In 1786, Congress instructed its British and French ambassadors (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, respectively) to meet with the envoy of Tripoli in London, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman, to negotiate an agreeable tribute. Abdul Rahman demanded a million dollars. Jefferson railed against paying protection money. “From what I learn from the temper of my countrymen and their tenaciousness of their money,” Jefferson wrote in a letter to the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles, “it will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.” Adams thought a payoff would be cheaper than fighting, and for fifteen years the U.S. paid vast sums to the North African pirate states. By 1800, ransom and tribute amounted to nearly 20 percent of the national budget.
When Jefferson was inaugurated president in 1801, he ordered all tributes to stop. Without informing Congress, Jefferson dispatched the Navy to the Mediterranean. By August 1801, U.S. frigates were engaged in open-sea battles with the corsairs off the shores of Tripoli. The war was settled by 1805, but with the distractions of the War of 1812—and the United States’ reengagement in privateering along its own coast—American shipping was again plundered in the Mediterranean, and ransoms were again paid for prisoners. In 1815 the Navy returned, capturing the flagship of the Algerian navy. The U.S. formed a coalition with the British and Dutch, who ultimately bombarded Algiers into submission. The Second Barbary War ended in a treaty guaranteeing the U.S. freedom of shipping. The age of imperialism commenced, and within a century most of Africa had been carved up into colonies. The British and Italians would eventually split what today has become the violent, broken, non-state of Somalia.
Which brings us to the present and raises the question: Are the values espoused by the Somali pirates so very different from those upon which America was founded? They work hard, they revere property, and they believe in the pursuit of happiness. They aren’t Islamists and bear no natural alliance with the would-be theocrats of the now ousted Islamic Courts Union. If they have kindred spirits today, they are more likely to be found in the boardrooms of Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Theft has become so codified, our commerce so digitized, that it is small wonder the robbing of actual ships laden with actual goods seems so romantically anachronistic. But all the ransoms paid to the Somali pirates would amount to roughly 0.002 percent of the bailout paid to AIG.
Pirates may be terrorists, but if one may make distinctions between different grades of terrorists, then the Pirates of Puntland might be just the fellows to make Somalia safe for democracy and the American way of life. Rather than whistling the Marine Corps Hymn and sending in the Delta Force for an encore performance of Black Hawk Down, we could establish a sort of Peace Corps for our white-collar criminals: Bernie Madoff could teach accounting, Rod Blagojevich civics. We could invest in infrastructure: 1,879 miles of undeveloped beachfront could fit the Atlantic City boardwalk and all the condos in Miami. Dubai would become a regional backwater. And there would be a museum to the heroic pirates who started it all, who finally persuaded the world to pay attention to the Horn of Africa. Maybe it is a modest proposal, but nothing else we have done for (or to) Somalia has worked.