Sunday, November 01, 2009
Most of us grew up reading stories or watching cartoons and films about pirates. Hollywood’s release of the Pirates of the Caribbean films a few years ago have brought piracy back into public consciousness. But the fictional accounts of piracy recounted in children’s stories and films bear little resemblance to the historical phenomenon called piracy. It is important to bear this in mind when one hears one-sided reports about the current piracy problem off the coast of Somalia.
We should begin by asking what the word piracy means. Piracy came into English around the 13th century via the French pirate. This word in turn was derived from the Latin pirata “sailor or sea robber”. The root of the word goes back to Ancient Greek peirates from the Greek verb peiran to attack, make a hostile attempt on, try. But the Greek word empeiros gives us the English experience in the sense of a trial, risk, experiment or danger. The Greek word denoting attack, trial risk and danger is an Indo-European cousin of the Irish word for vigilance ‘aire’.
Keep these notions of vigilance, trial, risk and danger in mind we will ask: who were these pirates and what did they do? Professor Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburgh has made a cogent contribution to our understanding of piracy. In his most recent book ‘Villains of All Nations’ he explains the historical causes of piracy. Pirates were predominantly poor and abused sailors who worked for pittance on the international trading ships of the French and British empires. These renegade groups consisted of sailors of many nationalities and races who could no longer bear the cruelty of their masters , the inhuman hardship of their working conditions and the obscene poverty of wage-slavery on the world’s imperial ships.
Far from the covetous, one-eyed barbarians, the Long John Silvers of folklore and fiction, pirates tended to come from highly skilled sailors who rebelled against the tyranny of their imperial masters. Once they had procured their own ship, articles were drawn up governing the conduct of the pirates. These articles were remarkably egalitarian. The captain of the ship was elected by the sailors and a quartermaster was elected to administer booty and to act as a counterweight in order to keep the captain’s power in check. Profits from shipping raids were distributed equally among all the sailors. When a pirate misbehaved, a meeting of all the sailors was called to determine the appropriate punishment. Far from being criminals, the pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries developed a unique form of distributive justice; they were, in fact, proto-communists.
Once a ship was raided, the captains were often lined up on the deck before the crew. They would then ask the crew members if they had been beaten by their captain. If the crew responded negatively the captain received his just merits.
In many respects today’s pirates off the coast of Somalia are similar. They too have deep grievances with European countries. Why? Because since 1991European companies have been dumping nuclear and toxic waste in their waters; polluting their fish; scaring the skin of their children, spreading cancer among their people and destroying their livelihood. Because European, Chinese, Indian, Russian, Japanese and Korean ships have taken over their waters looting and pillaging what is left of the fishstock that is safe to eat.
According to Nick Nuttal of the United Nations Environmental programme “European companies found it to be very cheap to get rid of the waste, costing as little as $2.50 a tonne, where waste disposal costs in Europe are something like $1000 a tonne." The EU talks about the disruption of Aid to Somalia due to the actions of the pirates but the people of Somalia. As in other Third World countries, EU aid is simply the payoff to their client regimes for our looting of their resources. The looting of Africa by the west is the cause of its poverty. Aid is our way of showing we care. Letting them starve would be bad publicity.
This is the reality of the Somali piracy crisis. The Somali fishermen have organised a hitherto effective resistance to the international looting of their waters. To their credit, they have also made a huge contribution to their local economies, extracting just ransoms in exchange for the Western terrorists who patrol their shores in our name. They treat their hostages well and often pour the ransom money back into their villages, buying generators for electricity and building up the local economy while the barbarians from the USA shoot and kill them with impunity.In one of the world’s poorest countries, these Somali pirates, these vigilantes of the people, these intrepid combatants of international criminality are worthy heroes.