January 5, 2009

Johann Hari: You are being lied to about pirates

Some are clearly just gangsters. But others are trying to stop 
illegal dumping and trawling

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 

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?

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