The current pirates of Somalia have generated as much confusion as pirates traditionally have. That’s because what you consider a pirate might be someone else’s privateer, like Sir Francis Drake. He made England a mighty fortune, though other nations would have hung him if they caught him.
Earlier this year, Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent, pointed out that the Somalia situation is more complicated than the media and governments portray it. He’s right about that, but like many he tends to romanticize the “golden age of piracy.”
It’s true that some Caribbean pirate ships were more democratic than the nations that spawned them. Their skippers were usually elected (for ferociousness) and served as battle captains.
Otherwise, the quartermaster was in charge of both the ship and dividing the booty. They were also more open-minded than the Europeans about race. Forty per cent of a ship’s crew might be escaped slaves. They even had health plans, which paid up to $156,000 for earning a wooden leg, and $26,800 for an eye patch.
But the real pirates mostly survived on limes and bananas and didn’t live long. While a few found themselves unspeakably rich, pirate treasure usually consisted of food, water, rum, and tools and sailing tackle to keep them going. Pirates were generally careful not to kill their captives, because otherwise victims wouldn’t surrender. There’s even a story that a fighting ship with 300 British soldiers surrendered after a short battle to the pirate Captain Tew and a crew of 40 men. No one died in the fight.
However, there were ferocious creatures out there, including Captain Henry Morgan who tortured too many and drank too much rum. An astounding warrior, he still found himself in chains several times yet ended up knighted by the British because of the damage he inflicted on the Spanish. Errol Flynn’s star-making role in Captain Blood was based on a sanitized version of the early days of Morgan.
Pirates have been reported since the 13th century BC in every ocean of the world. The Barbary Coast, now modern North Africa, was the home of pirates who assaulted European shipping for centuries. In seven years at the beginning of the 17th century they captured more than 3,000 British ships, and between 1600 and 1900 they sold at least 1.2 million Europeans into slavery. This piracy began when European nations banned African ships from trading in Europe.
In 1800 the Barbary pirates also had American shipping on the run, and it took the American Navy two wars over several decades to finally conquer them. The tide-turning battle, later commemorated in the anthem of the US Marines, occurred on the shores of Tripoli where the Americans destroyed the pirate’s capital. Interestingly, in those days, when the Americans captured Barbary pirates they were treated as prisoners of war.
Today’s Somali pirates are a tough, hardy crew of fishermen and thugs, unafraid of open water or warships. Three men with rifles were insane enough to attempt to stand down an American destroyer, after their failed attempt to hijack the Maersk Alabama and kidnap its captain for ransom.
This situation has been building since at least 1991 when the Somalian government collapsed. The American military already got dusted badly in Mogadishu and now the world shipping industry is also paying.
When the European Union began heavily regulating its fisheries, it turned a blind eye to the fleets of trawlers and draggers and giant factory ships moving on to Somalia, where they destroyed the once bountiful local fishery.
Then came the realization that with no one policing the waters of this impoverished nation, they could be used as a vast dumping ground for toxic waste. The notorious mafia of Naples, among others, have taken over the toxic waste disposal industry.
According to Nick Nuttal of the United Nations Environment Program: “There’s uranium radioactive waste, there’s leads, there’s heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there’s industrial wastes, and there’s hospital wastes, chemical wastes, you name it.”
This official states: “On average, it costs European companies $2.50 per ton to dump the wastes on Somalia’s beaches rather than $250 a ton to dispose of the wastes in Europe.”
Although the damage to the once-rich fishery has been evident for a decade, the toxic waste issue only became well known after the 2005 Tsunami which flung up tons of junk from the sea and shattered the containers and barrels, causing sickness along the coast.
The fishermen of Puntland province claimed they were fed up and were going to “tax” the illegal fish boats as well as any other vessel that passed by.
One Iranian vessel captured carried containers of “minerals” so toxic that 16 of the pirates died while others lost their hair and became ill. The Americans reputedly offered a bigger ransom than the Iranian government, merely to inspect what was on it. The eventually ransomed ship showed up in Rotterdam without the notorious containers.
Like the majority of pirates, the Somalis have been careful to keep the casualties down, but everyone knows this won’t last as the stakes rise and the world’s navies defend the innocent ships sailing past the tortured country. Lately there’s been reports that pirates have begun bribing Islamic fanatics to defend them from attack on land, and the conditions are growing more dangerous for both Somalis and mariners.
Canadian rap singer, K’naan, who was born in Mogadishu, is among those now trying to bring the plight of the Somalis to public attention, and to seek a different solution than more bloodshed at sea.
A bunch of desperate fishermen suddenly discovered they could make up to $S30 million a year as pirates. Meanwhile, the navies of the world are defending not only innocent shipping but the mafia’s dumping of radioactive waste and the illegal and destructive fisheries of everyone from Russia to Europe to China.
At this point, all of us are the pirates of Somalia.
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.