Medeshi March 5 , 2009
Pirates: Nation builders
By Kevin Potvin
It certainly was the case for Americay
It returns with the same anachronistic shock as tuberculosis and leprosy. High-seas piracy is raging again, at least in the region off Somalia.
It hardly seems possible in the 21st Century, what with global positioning systems, satellite communications and the projection of state power through aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, that men armed with knives and handguns bouncing over waves in whining open outboards can take over oil supertankers. But that’s exactly what has been happening in shipping lanes between the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and throughout the Indian Ocean. Pirates remain in control today of one of those from the largest class of ships ever to float, holding onto it now for months for a big ransom.
It’s not the only attack. Smaller cargo ships and oil carriers have been pirated with alarming regularity in this region. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has noticed. A sizable portion of the Canadian navy has recently been diverted from war support duties off Iraq and Afghanistan to the seas leading into and around the east coast of Africa to combat and suppress the scourge said to be more menacing than war itself.
A special UN committee has been struck to engineer new, widespread international cooperation to squelch the illegality that is a threat to all nations, friends and foe. Pirates are bad, everybody knows it. But history is irony’s attic trunk, and sure enough, there is a gem of irony in the reappearance of piracy off Africa, after a very lengthy hiatus. Specifically, the irony is found in exactly where piracy is reappearing, who is doing it, and to whom it is being done.
Three hundred years ago (come on, a mere blink of an eye!), pirates sailing out of safe harbours in lawless lands attacked and robbed with impunity state-flagged vessels of modern nations carrying the goods and money necessary to the smooth functioning of international commerce and tourism. Only in this case, they were pirates who called New York home, and it was Muslim cargo and passenger ships in and around the Red Sea that were mercilessly attacked, their crews hacked to pieces, their passengers raped, murdered and enslaved, and their merchant goods and gold stolen—to be auctioned at pennies to the dollar on wharfs in the harbours of New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other North American seaboard colonies.
Nobody in nascent America much minded, either. The victims were only heathens, usually well-heeled tourists on their way to and from Mecca for the Haj pilgrimage.
Popular movies and books have created the popular impression that the hey-day of piracy took place in the Caribbean and was run by outlaws unwelcome in the civilized world. The truth is quite different, according to the foremost expert on historical piracy, Douglass R Burgess Jr, in his 2008 book, The Pirates’ Pact: The secret alliances between history’s most notorious buccaneers and colonial America.
Caribbean piracy was nothing compared to what was going on in and around the Red Sea. The Muslim nations in the 17th Century were by far richer than anything European or in the growing European colonial occupations around the world. The Red Sea contained far more floating prizes to steal among the more advanced and more highly developed Muslim countries than anything to be found between newly emergent European countries and their barely functioning colonial enterprises. Most of these colonies were anyway established merely as land-piracy operations themselves, interested only in ripping out raw resources and gold for shipping back home, with piratical murder and mayhem brought to anyone who stood in the way.
We also have come to believe pirates then and now are outlaws. This would also be wrong. The most avaricious, and vicious, pirates not only operated in the full knowledge of British-appointed governors and the elite of the new business world in the American colonies, they operated with direct state and business sponsorship, support, and collusion.
Burgess makes clear in his book that the actual highwater mark for piracy—that which flowed out of American east coast cities like New York and attacked international shipping in the Red Sea—was integral to the growth and establishment of those ports as the teeming successful and wealthy cities they are today. Piracy in the years 1680 to 1720 or thereabouts was so openly encouraged and financed by leaders in the business and political world of the American north east that it would be accurate to say that in their early decades, at least, they were largely pirate economies, living and growing off the delivery, sale, and distribution of pirate booty. Pirates then and there were not outlaws at all. They were married to governor’s daughters, dined with the elites of commerce, strolled about dressed as dandies in the open daylight in streets of New York and Philadelphia and were entirely integrated into the high circles of social community in these cities.
Piracy, so long as it was aimed mostly (but not always) away from one’s own sea-borne trade, was not only legitimate in nascent America, it was honourable. Pirates of the Atlantic coast were not the swashbuckling swarthy outlaws of the popular imagination. They were top-hot wearing, socially well-connected elites themselves, entirely welcome in the high-end clubs and mansions just as any other well-bred, well-mannered (when ashore, at least) and successful businessman was, which is what, through anyone’s eyes at the time—at least in America—they were.
Burgess argues that American piracy, far from being a scourge to trade and a cost to the economy, brought the budding nation its first flexing of independence from mother Britain, not to mention its wide variety of goods and supplies from around the world, large stores of gold, and a self-sustaining (if constant theft can be self-sustaining) economy no longer dependent on Britain. America would not so soon have struck out for independence and would never have created its own economy, nor its own wealth and its own naval power, were it not for the piracy that was part and parcel of the founding of the American nation. (Apparently, the best crews for pirate ships were found in Newfoundland and other colonies that later became Canada. Lots of things never change.)
For blustering American bombastics now to condemn piracy off Somalia as destructive to all good people’s interests, and to label it evidence of failed states in the region, as press commentators in Canada have, is to deny America’s own founding and rise to power. It takes some kind of organizational ability to operate piracy. There are trained crews to recruit, navigational abilities to develop and far-reaching intelligence reporting to nurture, and then of course there is the hard part, disposing of the stolen cargo. That part requires a wide network of land-side collusion and systems of mutual obligation and reciprocity among elites in all communities throughout a pirating region, not to mention countless customs and import inspection officials, money-handling infrastructures, and distribution and land-side shipping services. For from being indicative of failed states, the arrival of piracy on the African east coast, regrettable though it is to Volvo-and-farmers’-market sensitivities, is indicative of a solid nation taking shape, much as piracy built the foundations for the modern successful American nation.
What is, after all, being pirated? Cargos of oil taken from fellow Muslim nations at piratical-like terms and destined, otherwise, to be sold largely on wharfs in America to the enrichment of elites living in those harbour cities, New York prime among them. If a Muslim war ship caught notorious American pirate Captain Henry Every and seized his Red Sea-stolen cargo of silks, gems and gold, would that also be piracy, or would it rather be the imposition of law and order? If the pirate ship was an oil supertanker and the vessels of law and order were small whining outboards, are we that easily led astray by appearances to get the picture completely backward? Or are we that transparently partisan as to settle for the outraged indignant claims of our own pirates, they being from among us, and not from among them others?
As Edward Randolph, emissary from London, sent to the colonies in 1698 to investigate piracy, said of his colleague, Lord Bellomont, busy trying to arrest the governors and pirates making a mess of English commercial monopolies, “Lord Bellemont has highly displeased the trading men of New York.” The “trading men of New York” have since fixed the source of their displeasure (through a war for independence). They might not look like pirates anymore today—but then, they never did.