Thursday, April 16, 2009

You Are Being Lied to About Pirates

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
labeling as "one of the great menace 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 thief that
lingers today was created by the British government in a
great propaganda-heave. Many ordinary people believed it
was false: pirates were often rescued 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 to find out.
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 for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you
with the Cat O' Nine Tails. If you slacked consistently,
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 against their tyrannical captains -
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. 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 popular, 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-pirating to live."

In 1991, the government of Somalia - in the Horn of Africa
-collapsed. Its nine million people have been teetering on
starvation ever since - and many of the ugliest forces in
the Western world have seen this as a great opportunity to
steal the country's food supply anddump 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 metalssuch 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
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 over-exploitation - and now
we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m worth of tuna,
shrimp, lobster and other sea-life is being stolen every
year by vast trawlers illegally sailing into Somalia's
unprotected seas. The local fishermen have suddenly lost
their livelihoods, and they are 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 men we are calling
"pirates" have emerged. Everyone agrees they were ordinary
Somalian fishermen who at first took speedboats to try to
dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least wage a 'tax'
on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard
of Somalia - and it's not hard to see why. In a surreal
telephone interview, one of the pirate leaders, Sugule
Ali, said their motive was "to stop illegal fishing and
dumping in our waters... We don't consider ourselves
sea bandits. We consider sea bandits [to be] those who
illegally fish and dump in our seas and dump waste in our
seas and carry weapons in our seas." William Scott would
understand those words.

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 the "pirates"
have the overwhelming support of the local population for
a reason. The independent Somalian news-site WardherNews
conducted the best research we have into what ordinary
Somalis are thinking - and it found 70 percent "strongly
supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the
country's territorial waters." During the revolutionary
war in America, George Washington and America's founding
fathers paid pirates to protect America's territorial
waters, because they had no navy or coastguard of their
own. Most Americans supported them. Is this so different?

Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their
beaches, paddling in our nuclear waste, and watch us snatch
their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and
Rome? We didn't act on those crimes - but when some of the
fishermen responded by disrupting the transit-corridor for
20 percent of the world's oil supply, we begin to shriek
about "evil." If we really want to deal with piracy, we
need to stop its root cause - our crimes - before we send
in the gun-boats to root out Somalia's criminals.

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 in today - but who is the robber?

Johann Hari is a writer for the Independent newspaper. To
read more of his articles, click here. or here.

POSTSCRIPT: Some commenters seem bemused by the fact
that both toxic dumping and the theft of fish are
happening in the same place - wouldn't this make the
fish contaminated? In fact, Somalia's coastline is
vast, stretching to 3300km. Imagine how easy it would
be - without any coastguard or army - to steal fish from
Florida and dump nuclear waste on California, and you get
the idea. These events are happening in different places -
but with the same horrible effect: death for the locals,
and stirred-up piracy. There's no contradiction.

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