Piracy, Past and Present

Piracy has enjoyed a surge of attention in recent months, especially this past week as pirates based in Somalia unsuccessfully attempted to capture a US cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama. Three pirates were killed and another is being held in custody while the heroic captain of the vessel, Richard Phillips, is free after a hellish ordeal. Yet pirates still hold over 200 hostages and continue to stage brazen attacks on merchant vessels at an alarming rate.

Things were not so different in Cervantes’ time, when piracy was a huge concern for nations with Mediterranean coastlines. Pirates of all nations terrorized coastal villages and took captives for the purpose of raising ransom money. Moreover, piracy was not limited to one region or religion. Cervantes, who was a captive himself in Algiers for years, writes of Christian, Muslim, and renegade pirates who would often claim whatever religion was convenient. The famed Knights of Malta and Francis Drake are two other examples of Christian pirates, reminding us that piracy was perceived as a legitimate activity if undertaken in the service of a sovereign state or military/religious order. Perhaps most fascinating about piracy in Cervantes’ time is that after the expulsion of the moriscos from Spain in 1609 and afterward, Northern Africa became home to thousands of disaffected former Spaniards with an intimate knowledge of the country and its coast, many of whom became pirates. Piracy was a perfectly acceptable source of income for people of all nations and religions.

In a recent article, Jeffrey Gettelman compares the current situation to the Barbary Pirate Wars in the early 19th century, a few hundred years after Cervantes’ death. He notes that

the Barbary pirates actually had an ambassador — who met with Jefferson and Adams, no less. The pirates worked for a government. The Barbary rulers commissioned them to rob and pillage and kidnap, and the rulers got a cut. It was all official. And open. It was truly state-sponsored terrorism. And the Western nations’ response was to pay “tribute,” a fancy word for blackmail.

Yet comparisons between piracy in Cervantes’ or Jefferson’s time and modern-day Somalia would seem to fall a bit flat. Pirates can operate in Somalia precisely because it is a failed state that has lacked a working government for nearly 20 years, as Gettelman acknowledges. Somalia itself has no interest in supporting piracy—or eliminating it, at that—because it has no power to enforce any rule of law. Moreover, no nation or company is immune to piracy or able to pay tribute to a unified body representing the pirates; rather, they are run by a decentralized network of clan elders willing to negotiate with anyone—for a price.

Indeed, the pirates have few motives beyond financial gain. In an interview last year, a Somali pirate mentioned concerns about illegal dumping of hazardous waste and overfishing of Somali waters by international corporations, but conceded the pirates’ main motivation was indeed financial:

Q. What will you do with the money?
A. We will protect ourselves from hunger.

While Hollywood continues to produce ridiculous images of honorable, swashbuckling buccaneers hiding loads of treasure in films like Pirates of the Caribbean, the truth is that piracy has long ceased to be a business with rules of engagement. Out-of-work Somali fishermen and disaffected peasants swell the ranks of modern-day pirate ships armed with assault rifles and sophisticated electronic equipment, while US Navy Ships threaten to blow wooden boats out of the water.

In this sense, piracy has evolved from a state-sponsored terrorist/paramilitary activity to yet another questionably legal capitalist enterprise, akin to a more violent version of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Is it more dangerous now? Cervantes and Jefferson might argue otherwise.

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