Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

You are being lied to about pirates

… or, more precisely, only being told half the story. With news of Somali pirates taking a US cargo ship captain hostage (now released by US navy rescue, involving a shoot-out that has killed three Somalis), it is worth revisiting Johann Hari’s corrective on piracy from January. The media’s sins of omission are particularly grave when one considers that the US military’s recent fatal use of force has likely inflamed the situation.

The heroism of US Captain Richard Phillips, especially in volunteering to go with the pirates in exchange for his crew aboard the aid-carrying, US-flagged Maersk Alabama, is not in doubt and he is to be commended and his freeing roundly applauded.  Nor is kidnapping in any way excused or condoned. Up until now, all hostages have generally been treated well and to date, no hostage has ever been killed by essentially ransom- or levy-seeking — or resource-defending — pirates. With the killing of three pirates by US Navy snipers however, this is expected to change and it raises the violence stakes.

So what else is this story of pirates all about?  “Some are clearly just gangsters”, Hari writes. “But others are trying to stop illegal dumping and trawling” (bold emphasis editorial):

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?

7 comments on “You are being lied to about pirates

  1. 99
    13 April, 2009

    I guess we all missed this item when he published it in the Independent back in January, and another interesting aside I found today is that the “pirates” may have been trying to give Captain Phillips back to us when we shot them. Lovely, innit?

  2. peoplesgeography
    13 April, 2009

    Thanks for the McClatchy link, 99, and that’s really awful about the desperate Somalis. There’s clearly a lot more to this particular story — and the whole phenomena of modern piracy — than is being told in corporate channels.

  3. Jim Puskas
    13 April, 2009

    If I held you up at gunpoint on your way to work and held you against your will for ransom. Is it OK if I say that it’s because the company you worked for supposedly committed a crime? Or that I’m poor & need money. These are separate issues and by combining them, pirates lose their argument. If pirates were hijacking ships that were dumping chemicals & illegally fishing, I’d probably be on their side. But, if you kidnap somebody, you deserve to be killed. I’ve been held up before & I fought back. I’d rather be dead than give in. This is all about individual actions & consequences; not companies or countries. If I’m walking down the street & someone attacks me, their background & motives don’t matter. Individuals have a right to fight back. I also think that our government should have a firm policy of not paying ransoms because it puts more people at risk of being kidnapped.

  4. peoplesgeography
    13 April, 2009

    Fair points, Jim, thanks for your comment. I am sincerely sorry to hear you were held up. I take your last point that ransoms may encourage a greater incidence of kidnappings.

    There are at least two points with which I disagree. First, the article did clearly state that a substantial part of modern piracy was in fact defensive. Second, I agree that actions carry consequences and that law should be upheld, but do not subscribe to your personal view that kidnappers “deserve to be killed”. Third, your analogy does an injustice to the context ie it doesn’t provide any, which is the whole point of Hari’s piece: not to excuse or condone, but to show that there is far more to the picture than one of gangs of thieves.

    Fourth, it is your prerogative to prefer to be dead than to give in, but for many of us — including our families, we’d certainly prefer to be alive. Lives are worth more than money. Also, as stated in the introduction, since the advent of modern piracy, to date no one has been killed by pirates. I wonder to what degree the companies owe these communities and countries taxes and levies they are not paying, by illegally and immorally dumping waste and depleting fish stocks? The communities and their livelihoods are clearly being devastated. Its time for these companies to pay up their fair share and adhere to international law and norms — the same thing we demand of pirates, Somali or otherwise.

    The other main point is that modern piracy is not going to be stamped out with this heavy-handed approach, in fact it will likely serve to escalate piracy.

    If this were episodic, I might be persuaded by your analogy of a singular instance of an individual and that poverty and ongoing theft and flagrant misuse of resources don’t matter in motives. But it is in fact countries and companies we are talking about. It involved the US Navy and the direct input and decisions of the President of the United States.

    To take your own analogy further to reflect the situation Hari alleges, your company had robbed the kidnapper prior to his act and stolen his assets. While the aggrieved kidnapper is certainly still not justified in kidnapping you as the company representative, it does paint a more nuanced picture and doesn’t assign only one way culpability. Why aren’t we also focusing upon the clearly illegal actions of the dumpers and illegal fishers? Have they not taken whole communities hostage through their inexcusable actions?

    The fact that international piracy is a more persistent, systemic phenomenon suggests that there are deeper structural causes and motivations that have to be addressed. To tackle it effectively, you can not divorce it from its broader history or patterns and treat it as a motive-less singular occurrence. Just as ransoms form part of the motivation, so too does the original plunder and dumping outlined by Hari. Reacting with violence instead of justice doesn’t simply encourage more kidnappings as ransoms might, it encourages more fatal kidnappings.

  5. 99
    13 April, 2009

    It horrifies me how hard it is for most people in the first world to identify with the desperation in the third world, how the means of combatting injustice and the means of survival can so often merge into the same thing, and how they are so unthinkable to people with houses and closets and groceries as to just about automatically turn them into villains in our eyes. Watching your children go hungry, starve, even when it might be said it’s your own fault, can very easily turn you into a thief or a mugger, let alone when it’s a power greater than you, be it foreign or domestic. In the case of the pirates, it’s clearly a survival mechanism in a situation they did not create, except insofar as they may have sat back and done nothing out of fear, or denial, or cowardice, like so many Americans do, when horrible things begin happening in their government. Even if they fought like mad against the forces that brought them to this pass, they have come to it, and whether they were immobile or active against it, they are all now faced with extinction if they don’t however they are able take matters into their own hands.

    Make a decent and just world, this stuff stops.

    Continue to ignore your duty to your fellow man, this stuff gets worse, far, far worse. We may think we are immune, but we are so very seeeeeeeeeeeriously mistaken in that. That can be predicted right now, without any doubt, and even yet people are completely unaware of it. Ignorance, ignore-ance is deadly.

  6. obviously
    14 April, 2009

    Did anyone else notice the whole “europeans fishing in their illegal nuclear waste dump” dynamic? i guess there might some sort of justice after all

  7. Pingback: Valg i Somaliland i september: Vil et demokratisk valg føre til uavhengighet? « Blikk – Nyheter for aktivister

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on 13 April, 2009 by in Somalia, UK, US military, USA and tagged , , .

Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"