Western attitudes to piracy have dripped with hubris. In his classic history of 1932, Philip Gosse confidently argued that European empires and technological superiority had ‘done away’ with pirates entirely. He and others regretted the sacrifice of these noble savages to the march of progress. Nostalgia imbued pirates with a romantic aura as happy-go-lucky rebels, rough in appearance but pure of heart. Long John Silver aspired to be an MP; the Pirates of Penzance swilled sherry, with ‘dash it all’ their adorable attempt at foul language.
Dr Peter Lehr puts the brakes on: 174 incidents of piracy were reported to the International Maritime Bureau last year, with Somali pirates responsible for only three. The rest ranged from the discreet theft of coils of rope in the Yellow Sea to the notoriously ferocious Nigerian gunmen attacking and hijacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Guinea, as well as armed robbery off Singapore and the Venezuelan coast and kidnapping in the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal. For Lehr, an expert on modern-day piracy, the phenomenon’s history should be a source of instruction rather than entertainment, piracy past offering lessons for piracy present.
A systems-based approach allows historians of piracy to band a disparate group under the same black flag. Lehr makes Vikings stand alongside Elizabethan privateers, the Knights Templar with the Barbary corsairs, and Coxinga of Ming China with the inevitable Caribbean buccaneers. All are accused of committing ‘the action of robbery, kidnap or violence’ at sea, with or without state backing.
But with such a flexible definition, where does piracy begin or end? According to St Augustine, a corsair captain once told Alexander the Great that in the forceful acquisition of power and wealth at sea, the difference between an emperor and a pirate was simply one of scale. By this logic, European empire-builders were the most successful pirates of all time. A more eclectic history might have included the conquistadors, Vasco da Gama and the East India Company. But Lehr sticks to the disorganised small fry, making comparisons with the renegades of today possible.
The main motive for piracy has always been a combination of need and greed. Why toil away as a starving peasant in the 16th century when a successful pirate made up to £4,000 on each raid? Anyone could turn to freebooting if the rewards were worth the risk — including, we learn, monks, prostitutes and a graduate of Brasenose College, Oxford.
Initially considered rebellious pariahs, the most successful pirates were soon accepted by the establishment. Nation states would pay them to raid rival ports, or would turn a blind eye in return for bribes. A veneer of respectability allowed Spaniards to plunder ‘infidel’ Ottoman trading ships, and Sir Francis Drake to then pillage ‘heretical’ Spanish galleons in turn.
Prhaps emphasising his disregard for the sensational, romantic pirate tradition, Lehr’s retelling of historical piracy is inclined to be dry, peppered with uninspiring bursts of facetiousness (‘going a-pirating requires a vessel from which to plunder and pillage in the first place’). But things get juicier when he discusses modern piracy, his area of expertise.
Increased globalisation has done more to encourage piracy than suppress it. European colonialism weakened delicate balances of power, leading to an influx of opportunists on the high seas. A rise in global shipping has meant rich pickings for freebooters. Lehr writes:
It quickly becomes clear that in those parts of the world that have not profited from globalisation and modernisation, and where abject poverty and the daily struggle for survival are still a reality, the root causes of piracy are still the same as they were a couple of hundred years ago.
Illegal fishing by Korean, Taiwanese and Chinese trawlers in Somali waters has severely depleted local fish stocks and forced many into poverty. Somali fishermen initially took the law into their own hands, attacking such ships in the role of badaadinta badah, ‘saviours of the sea’. But they rapidly found they could make more money from hostages than from fish.
Modern pirate prevention has failed. After the French yacht Le Gonant was ransomed for $2 million in 2008, opportunists from all over Somalia flocked to the coast for a piece of the action. As Aethelred the Unready could have told the French government, paying out to pirates merely fans the flames. A consistent rule, even today, is there are never enough warships to patrol pirate-infested waters. Such ships are costly and only solve the problem temporarily; Somali piracy is bound to return as soon as the warships are withdrawn. Robot shipping, eliminating hostages, has been proposed as a possible solution; but as Lehr points out, this will only make pirates switch their targets to smaller carriers unable to afford the technology.
His advice isn’t new. Proposals to end illegal fishing are often advanced but they are difficult to enforce. Investment in local welfare put a halt to Malaysian piracy in the 1970s, but was dependent on money somehow filtering through a corrupt bureaucracy to the poor on the periphery. Diplomatic initiatives against piracy are plagued by mutual distrust: the Russians execute pirates, while the EU and US are reluctant to capture them for fear they’ll claim asylum.
Lehr’s conclusion is that as long as there is poverty and maritime trade, the problem of piracy will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to solve. It seems that history can teach us nothing but humility, and the West is nowhere near eradicating what Gosse believed ‘one of the oldest recorded human activities’.
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