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A Pirate's Life for Them

Let's be real

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 15, 2009.

I went to the oldest boys boarding school in the United States, a school older, in fact, than the United States. Among its alums was Commodore Edward Preble, one of our earliest Naval heroes and far more important than John Paul Jones. Jones, after all, was serving in Russia when he died and is famous for a sound byte while losing his ship.

Preble served in the Revolution, but later commanded the US naval squadron (including the USS Constitution) that fought the Tripoli piracy on the north of Africa. Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge (whose namesake destroyer is in the news), Charles Stewart, Isaac Hull, Thomas MacDonough, James Lawrence, and David Porter – the men who made the United States Navy and gave us the win in 1812 – all served under him. Nearly forgotten today, those names provided the often exquisite seamanship and strategy that won against the British, and they learned much of it under Commodore Preble. So, I grew up with a closer knowledge of the history of pirates than most, from the arguable Captain Kidd to the prototype, Edward Teach, who terrified English commerce in the early 1700’s. We know him as Blackbeard.

Blackbeard apparently understood image and how terror worked. He’d attack merchant ships, board them, and seize anything of value. During this, Blackbeard would stand on the quarterdeck of The Queen Anne’s Revenge, his flagship, with a tricorner hat adorned with feathers, lit matches in his long beard, wore numerous swords, pistols, daggers, all sorts of bling. There were horrible stories of rape and murder. But, despite his ferocious image, there is not one verified account of he himself, you know, actually killing anyone. Others did, but he let victims go to spread the terror and fluff his rep.

So great a reputation had he that in May, 1718, he entered the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, and captured five merchantmen. Finding celebrity aboard, Blackbeard held them for ransom which was not money but a case of medicine. When acquired, the prisoners were released, absent, er, their clothing, yes, but unharmed. Blackbeard escaped only to be killed later in the year.

From the beginning, piracy was about money, not murder, not mayhem, and was practiced by people who often had no choice to get ahead. It’s not wise to accord them romantic gossamers, because they were violent thugs not adverse to rape and murder, but had people just stood and delivered, most of these pirates would have been happy and let them go and headed for Jamaica, mon.

Today, the United States, the world’s superpower, is congratulating itself because we managed to kill three Somali pirates off the horn of Africa from the deck of the USS Bainbridge this week, and extricate the kidnapped captain of an American ship. And these pirates, uneducated street thugs with Evinrudes and grenade launchers, powered up for revenge. They just captured several ships, but today lost one of their own to the French, the nation that from the start took no lip.

It is pointed out that Somalia, the surprisingly large failed state on the horn of Africa, has no income absent piracy, and to a large degree this is true. Somalia and Ethiopia suffered terribly by Italian and British colonialism and departures without structure, and can be said to have been in civil war for fifty years, pain above desert living and exploding populations. They claim that their fishing is being destroyed, their waters poisoned, and that the so-called pirates are really national defense militias. What’s annoying about this, along with the macho ignorance of punk kids with AK47’s, is that there is, at least, minimal truth to it. What is also annoying is that decayed malfunctioning cultures cannot adapt, cannot produce, cannot compete, and therefore need enemies to justify patriarchal gangs and the potlatch that wins them friends. That’s Somalia.

Not so different from Blackbeard, or the Libyan pirate states operating out of Tripoli, or the other Muslim pirates among Asia’s island nations. As in the past, laws and prejudices against the poor are inexcusable, and it is often believed that lower classes do not recognize virtue, and cannot. If they were worthy, they’d be rich by inheritance or marriage or comportment by vassalage or karma. And it’s not a foreign prejudice. It is, in fact, a feature supposed Christians periodically try to reinstall in this nation since FDR severed wealth from virtue with social security, the very benefit Republicans have fought hard to give to the Masters of the Universe in the private sector. Had they been successful, a lot of people would have nothing today, including military vets who’d have lost their pensions. At that point, who knows how safe the waters around our nation would be?

We cannot tolerate piracy, but like Darfur, the First World must, eventually, man up and face Somalia and all of Mother Africa and do the right things. We could start by not over-celebrating the deaths of three African punks, and install a convoy system, and not over react.