Piracy is a scourge, but the heroic narrative of their forerunners could serve the Somali pirates well
Thursday, November 18, 2010
In 1671 when Henry Morgan's buccaneer army streamed out of the jungle to attack the Spanish treasure city of Panama, some of his men wore the ragged red uniforms of Cromwell's New Model Army, taken from the government stores on Jamaica.
Some were in fact veterans of that army. They were (by then) "among the most debauched" pirates in Kingston but they nursed their old hatred of the Catholic enemy and used it to justify their aggression. This increased their support back home – support which in turn helped to feed the heroic myth of the buccaneer as swashbuckling adventurer. According to this myth, there was a distinction to be made between (Protestant) buccaneers, common men trying to make good, on the one hand and nasty greedy pirates, not infrequently French, on the other. Odd, since buccaneers were pirates of a sort.
The sufferings of Paul and Rachel Chandler and others have demonstrated that the Somali pirates are remarkably similar to their classic forebears, despite being of a different religion. The ransoms, the feasts, the anarchic style of living are all from the same stable.
Their victims can perhaps be mildly grateful that their captors are Muslims rather than rum-swilling Christians. Back in their pirate nests, Somali pirates appear to carouse on spaghetti and camel meat washed down with water rather than rum and gunpowder. A sober pirate must surely be preferable to a drunken pirate (though not quite always: in 1677 John Coxon captured the bishop and governor of Santa Marta but was too drunk to demand a ransom).
In addition, the Somalis try to avoid killing their victims because they know it could lead to savage reprisals. This compares favourably with the behaviour of such as L'Olonnais who would hack his victims to death with a cutlass and then lick the blood.
Absence of rum notwithstanding, the anarchic Somali pirates are far closer to the Christian prototypes than they are to the Muslim Barbary corsairs, and they have similar opportunities to garner public support – from a Muslim perspective. After all, their victims are mainly infidel sailors (substitute Catholic/Spanish) and the Somali pirates, like the buccaneers, are certainly common men making good. Many are fishermen who took to piracy after foreign fishing fleets began to destroy their livelihood. The heroic narrative could serve them well.
Piracy is a scourge, of course, and the heroic myth is a quasi-gothic subversion of a pretty ghastly reality. I have a friend who works for a shipping company based in Monte Carlo and every time one of their five ships sails through the Gulf of Aden on the way to the Suez Canal she can scarcely sleep at night. Their ships are festooned with razor wire and the men are armed to repel boarders. Even though navies of the world patrol those seas, the sailors are very vulnerable. And they will continue to be vulnerable because no country is willing to do what has to be done.
The Caribbean pirates were only suppressed after the Royal Navy equipped itself with small manoeuvrable vessels and began to track them down to their pirate lairs, and the same will have to be done along the long Somali coast.
I hope the Somali pirates are not too severely treated when that happens. I have a suggestion for them – those that survive. If Abshir Boyah and others of their chiefs were prepared to wear eye patches and sport hooks, there is probably more money to be made from writing their memoirs than there is in piracy itself. And there is long historical precedent for this strategy, viz William Dampier, Woodes Rogers, Daniel Defoe (indirectly) and several others. If criminals such as George Bush and Tony Blair can make money from their memoirs why not a decent pirate or two? As a pirate aficionado, I might propose myself for a ghost writer.