You Are Being Lied to About Pirates

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 labeling as "one of the great menace of our
times" have an extraordinary story to tell -- and some justice on their

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 thief that lingers today was created by the British
government in a great propaganda-heave. Many ordinary people believed
it was false: pirates were often rescued 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 to find out. 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 for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with
the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently, 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 against their tyrannical captains - 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. 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 popular, 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-pirating to
live." In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa -
collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on starvation
ever since - and many of 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 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 over-exploitation - and now we have moved on to theirs.
More than $300m worth of tuna, shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is
being stolen every year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into
Somalia's unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost
their livelihoods, and they are 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

This is the context in which the men we are calling "pirates" have
emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary Somalian fishermen who at
first took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or
at least wage a 'tax' on them. They call themselves the Volunteer
Coastguard of Somalia - and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal
telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule Ali, said their
motive was "to stop illegal fishing and dumping in our waters... We
don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be]
those who illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our
seas and carry weapons in our seas." William Scott would understand
those words.

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 the "pirates" have the overwhelming support of
the local population for a reason. The independent Somalian news-site
WardherNews conducted the best research we have into what ordinary
Somalis are thinking - and it found 70 percent "strongly supported the
piracy as a form of national defence of the country's territorial
waters." During the revolutionary war in America, George Washington and
America's founding fathers paid pirates to protect America's
territorial waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their
own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their
beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch their fish
to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? We didn't act on
those crimes - but when some of the fishermen responded by disrupting
the transit-corridor for 20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin
to shriek about "evil." If we really want to deal with piracy, we need
to stop its root cause - our crimes - before we send in the gun-boats
to root out Somalia's criminals.

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
in today - but who is the robber?

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