[News] You are being lied to about pirates

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Apr 13 10:50:23 EDT 2009

Johann Hari: You are being lied to about pirates

Monday, 5 January 2009

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 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 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?

<mailto:j.hari at independent.co.uk>j.hari at independent.co.uk

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