The Myth of the Pirate


root - Posted on 30 September 2009

The truth behind the global corporate theft of Somali resources and the folks who are working to stop the theft.

by Johann Hari/UK Independent

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
labelling 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 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: "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
national defence".

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
understand.

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?

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