Date: Mon Apr 13 2009 - 18:57:36 EDT
We're Being Lied to About Pirates
By Johann Hari, Independent UK
Posted on April 13, 2009, Printed on April 13, 2009
Who imagined that in 2009, the world'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 US 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 "one of the great menaces of our times" have an extraordinary story to
tell – and some justice on their side.
Pirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the "golden age of
piracy" – from 1650 to 1730 – the idea of the pirate as the senseless,
savage Bluebeard that lingers today was created by the British government
in a great propaganda heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false:
pirates were often saved from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What
did they see that we can't? In his book Villains Of All Nations, the
historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence.
If you became a merchant or navy sailor then – plucked from the docks of
London'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, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the Cat O' Nine
Tails. If you slacked often, 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
– 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, without torture. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker
calls "one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources
to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century".
They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The
pirates showed "quite 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." This is why they were romantic heroes, despite being
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: "What I did was to keep me
from perishing. I was forced to go a-pirateing to live." In 1991, the
government of Somalia collapsed. Its 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 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 UN envoy to Somalia, tells me: "Somebody is
dumping nuclear material here. There is also lead, and heavy metals such as
cadmium and mercury – you name it." Much of it can be traced back to
European hospitals and factories, who seem to be passing it on to the
Italian mafia to "dispose" of cheaply. When I asked Mr Ould-Abdallah what
European governments were doing about it, he said with a sigh: "Nothing.
There has been no clean-up, no compensation, and no prevention."
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."
This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen
took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least
levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of
Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site
WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of
No, this doesn't make hostage-taking justifiable, and yes, some are clearly
just gangsters – especially those who have held up World Food Programme
supplies. But in a telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule
Ali: "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to
be] those who illegally fish and dump in our seas." William Scott would
Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches,
paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in
restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We won't act on those crimes –
the only sane solution to this problem – but 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.
The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised 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 "what he meant by keeping
possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "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."
Once again, our great imperial fleets sail – but who is the robber?
© 2009 Independent UK All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/136288/