Dangerously Misguided Journalism – Should We Stop Calling Them Pirates?

John Konrad
Total Views: 7
January 6, 2009


I recently subscribed to and have been enjoying one of the top blogs in the political arena, The Huffington Post. The reasons are two fold. First, I enjoy the articles but more important is the second… I admire their model of collaboration, where every subject expert is given his/her own section and only the best articles of the day are promoted to the homepage. It, in fact, serves as guide for the next iteration of this blog’s design.

By having a diverse set of columnists, each expert in a niche of our industry, we hope to broaden the perspective of this site and create an incubator for new ideas that solve the problems facing ocean transport today. There are, however, negatives to this model which become apparent after reading today’s front page article; “You Are Being Lied to About Pirates” by Johann Hari, Columnist for the London Independent. In the article Hari begins with a history lesson writing:

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.

In correlating historical record with with the situation in Somalia he writes:

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 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.

Now I would like to preface my editorial comments with a statement of agreement. He’s got the root causes right. In a recent article I listed the hardships of the local Somali fisherman as the primary root cause of the problem and share the words of someone who has intimate knowledge of the situtation, piracy hostage Fred Parle. He wrote:

Wake up and listen to those who ” have been there done that ” not listen to people in soft comfortable beds who wonder which paper to write to with inane and deadly suggestions. I’m angry , right ,as I see after all these years of chaos in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere that results to improve Safety at Sea have been a big ZERO. Pirates in Somalia are after CASH to feed their families only, no politics, no religion, just old fashioned gnawing empty bellies at home that drive most of these marine bullies to Piracy. I repeat its all about money and food , education, health , the lack of things we take for granted every day of our lives. There are agencies spending BILLIONS every year on wasteful items, WAKE UP and listen to the VICTIMS who will tell you the truth and the full story. A hungry family will not tell porkies they know it as it is in their homes .

While I agree with most of Hari’s statements and was impressed by his research into both the history of Somali bandits and piracy himself, his analysis is no longer appropriate to the events at hand and his title is dangerously misguided. A September article by the NY Times explains why:

Somalia’s pirates are typically former fishermen who have turned to the more lucrative work of plying the seas with binoculars and rocket-propelled grenades. They travel in light speedboats, deployed from a mother ship far out at sea, and they have attacked tankers as far as 300 miles from the coast. Pirates even tried to attack an American naval supply ship this week. The ship fired warning shots at them. The pirates sped away.

“These pirates are getting bolder ever day,” said Andrew Mwangura, the program coordinator of the Seafarers’ Assistance Program in Kenya, which tracks pirate attacks.

Somali officials say the pirates are growing in numbers, with more than 1,000 gunmen at their disposal, and they have evolved into a sophisticated organized crime ring, with their headquarters along the rocky shores of northern Somalia.

An official close to the Somali government described the pirates as an oceanic “mafia” and said they had netted millions of dollars, which they use to buy fancy cars and big houses.

As a vocal supporter of mariner rights this blog sympathizes with the plight of Somali fisherman and we are actively looking to promote possible solutions to the problem but we will not support the actions of pirates. Johann Hari’s article would have been a breakthrough and accurate piece of journalism if it had been written at the onset of the current situation but romanticizing an organized crime ring to support an anti-military point of view is going to keep actual fishermen from getting the help they most desperately need. It is also going to land significant numbers of my fellow mariners in the arms of these pirates.

While this point is significant on it’s own there is another troubling side of the article… these pirates are not our shipmates, they aren’t even mariners. Hari writes:

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.

If anyone knows of a Somalian Pirate Ship, please contact us because this would surely be breaking news. He continues:

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: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age, 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.

This is a severe journalistic miscalculation and shows a deep misunderstanding of the current situation. The pirates noted by Hari were professional mariners well versed in the operations of the ships they hijacked. Cruel treatment broke them down and gave reason to commit acts of mutiny and desertion but once conditions aboard ship improved the situation improved. The bandits in Somalia have no coloration to these pirates, instead they are closely related to the less well know Barbary Pirates of Tripoli. This group of pirates did not take in escaped slaves and treat them as equals but, in fact, captured free men and forced them into slavery. Like their modern day counterparts the Barbary Pirates find their origins in desperation after misguided exile by European powers. In their case it was Spain’s expulsion of the Moors followed by invasions into their new territory of Northern Africa. Depending on your point of view with regard to Europe’s treatment of Muslim minorities and North African countries (related problems of which continue to this day) there came a point when motives switched from retaliation and survival to opportunity and profit.

The similarities between modern day pirates and those of the Barbary Coast continues with these points:

  • The involvement of local government.
  • The involvement of organized crime.
  • The payment of large ransoms.
  • Lack of action by world naval powers.
  • A failure of Imagination ( via Kennebeck Capt) in solving the problem.

Most convincingly is that neither know how to operate ships. Should we allow them to be elevated to the “rank” of Pirate or refer to them as simply as bandits? The more important question is will history repeat itself from this point forward?

Early in the problem pirates attacked ships without considering the vessel’s flag or crew nationalities, MT Svitzer Korsakov and S/V La Ponant serving as examples, but today the pirates are attacking vessels whose mariner’s come from the world’s emerging economies, most notably China and India. To date not a single US Flagged vessel has been captured.

Today the US Navy sits relatively idle as the Indian Navy takes the offensive and, in the first ever global show of force, the Chinese navy has sent warships to the area. Will they be the ones to find a military solution to the problem? They certainly are the ones most effected by the events at hand.

Those familiar with US history will know that an emerging country pushed aside global inaction and was ultimately responsible for ending the Barbary Pirate’s reign of terror. In a biography of Thomas Jefferson the author Christopher Hitchens writes:

One of the historians of the Barbary conflict, Frank Lambert, argues that the imperative of free trade drove America much more than did any quarrel with Islam or “tyranny,” let alone “terrorism.” He resists any comparison with today’s tormenting confrontations. “The Barbary Wars were primarily about trade, not theology,” he writes. “Rather than being holy wars, they were an extension of America’s War of Independence.”

Let us not call this view reductionist. Jefferson would perhaps have been just as eager to send a squadron to put down any Christian piracy that was restraining commerce. But one cannot get around what Jefferson heard when he went with John Adams to wait upon Tripoli’s ambassador to London in March 1785. When they inquired by what right the Barbary states preyed upon American shipping, enslaving both crews and passengers, America’s two foremost envoys were informed that “it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon whoever they could find and to make Slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.” (It is worth noting that the United States played no part in the Crusades, or in the Catholic reconquista of Andalusia.)

Ambassador Abd Al-Rahman did not fail to mention the size of his own commission, if America chose to pay the protection money demanded as an alternative to piracy. So here was an early instance of the “heads I win, tails you lose” dilemma, in which the United States is faced with corrupt regimes, on the one hand, and Islamic militants, on the other—or indeed a collusion between them.

Today the situation in Somalia is one of Trade and profit not, as Hari noted, the plight of fisherman. Some of the other issues of the day:

Questions of nation-building, of regime change, of “mission creep,” of congressional versus presidential authority to make war, of negotiation versus confrontation, of “entangling alliances,” and of the “clash of civilizations”—all arose in the first overseas war that the United States ever fought. The “nation-building” that occurred, however, took place not overseas but in the 13 colonies, welded by warfare into something more like a republic.

Sound familiar? I do not know enough about military operations on the ground to support or oppose the invasion of Somalia but I do think one justification is clear;

In The Federalist No. 24, Alexander Hamilton argued that without a “federal navy . . . of respectable weight . . . the genius of American Merchants and Navigators would be stifled and lost.”

The outcome is historic, US Marines invaded Tripoli and effectively stopped piracy in the region.

I can provide no solutions to the problems facing commercial mariners and fisherman in the area but do wish reporters would contact maritime professionals prior to writing articles that has the potential to block any particular action to solve the problem. My final comment to Johann Hari: Take a good look at the headline image of a ship that fell victim to pirates then ask yourself who we should be romanticizing, the mariners transiting the region or the Somali bandits?

This article began with some insight into our redesign and offers a glimpse into the questions we face prior to moving forward. On one hand magazines like the Coast Guard’s Proceedings effectively manage and publish expert articles with great success but it’s a closed system. In the blogosphere no one wears a uniform. As we move forward with publishing articles from individual contributers there are bound to be mistakes and differing opinions. As our readership grows so will the number of parties visiting to find answers. The question is how do we approve, edit and publish articles in areas we are not expert in? How will we separate solid ideas from those that arise out of misinformation? In the end it will come down to working as a team. The keyword is work, as it’s not going to be easy, but if we are going to launch this new format it’s going to be up to you, the reader, to identify fault and write the comments and articles to rebut misguided statements. This is your task for 2009…. any questions?



An anonymous reader contacted us to say we are not the first to see the link between Somalia and Tripoli. Click HERE to read a recent article by Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council. We were also able to find similar mentions on the following sites:

And the Saudi Gazzete had the following counterpoint to this theory:

Said Farah, 32, a shopkeeper in Garoowe, said the pirates seemed to have money to burn. “If they see a good car that a guy is driving,” he said, “they say, ‘How much? If it’s 30 grand, take 40 and give me the key.’ ”

Somalia’s seafaring thieves are not like the Barbary pirates, who terrorized European coastal towns hundreds of years ago and often turned their hostages into galley slaves chained to the oars. Somali pirates are known as relatively decent hosts, usually not beating their hostages and keeping them well-fed until payday comes. “They are normal people,” said Mr. Said. “Just very, very rich.”

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