Tuesday, April 14, 2009

You Are Being Lied to About Pirates

Johann Hari
Columnist, London Independent
Posted April 13, 2009 | 10:05 AM (EST)

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 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 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.



Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I'm all for a different angle on a news story, a fresh persepctive and this is definately that but I must say, I don't buy it.

First off, the piece seems to glorify and romantisise the 'art' of piracy in it's opening section to prepare the way for making out the current Somalian pirates are in that tradition, when in reality they are not.

It would seem the vast majority of the Somalian pirates are not eco-warriors with Robin Hood syndrome but poor desperate people using any means at their desposal to raise funds.

I'd buy that in an article but not some steal from the rice rob the poor nonsense.

SecondComingOfBast said...

This isn't the first time I've heard about the dumping, though it is the first time I've ever read about the exploitation of seafood. I can believe this all too well, and that's why the fucking UN needs to go the way of the motherfucking brontosaurus. Assuming this is true (which I don't, though it could well be, though possibly at least slightly exaggerated) then the UN is either impotent to do anything about it, or is actually complicit, the latter being the more likely scenario, especially where the dumping of toxic waste is concerned.

Isn't there some kind of international sea treaty they're supposed to enforce. Seems to me like they might at the very least have blinders on when it comes to Somalia. Then again, Europeans have spent the better part of four centuries raping and pillaging Africa, why should today be any different. Everything that goes on in Africa today is either a direct or an indirect result of European colonialism.

The General Assembly of the UN, which is a collection of brutish thugs pretty much interested only in receiving handouts to shore up their thuggish regimes, are unlikely to do much about it either.

I must add that this is the first time I've ever seen seventeenth and eighteenth century pirates held up as a positive example of a socialist collective. While there might be some merit to that view, I think this is probably an all-together different situation here regarding Somalia. Then again, they could well have more justification than a great lot of the piracy that occurs in the Caribbean, which I think we can safely assume is a wholly criminal enterprise, if not exactly an organized one.

Frank Partisan said...

I'll be replying tonight.

I found a second similar article.

sonia said...

Call me cynical, but I don't believe that Somali pirates are angry about depleted fish stocks and nuclear waste. Fish don't pay ransom money and it makes no difference if you starve to death while suffering from radiation sickness or while being in perfect health.

There is another explanation....

Somalia is a failed state, totally dependent on international aid. They get many OXFAM packages, but those are usually reserved for weak people like pregnant mothers, the elderly and little children. Piracy is an effective way of collecting international aid and making sure it ends in the hands of strong males with AK-47s, a key demographic unjustly ignored by international aid organizations...

It's the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest at its best...

Nevin said...


Democracy Now did a great analysis of the situation this morning. When you have the time, look at the link above to get more info on the situation....

One must never see any issue in a one dimensional manner....

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...


I'm loving your words.

Frank Partisan said...

Daniel H-G: The writer Johann Hari, wrote this piece before the events of this week took place. I believe him. He is a respected journalist, not in the kitsch left.

I don't disagree with you, except you're only seeing half the picture.

There are contradictions in the world.

Pagan: The UN is as worthless as the League of Nations was.

Sonia: I agree with what you said, except it's not the whole story. Really clever.

Nevin: I agree there are two kinds of piracy as the writer said.

Dardin Soto said...

I read a similar article a few months ago, before this became a media-lollipop of a story, and only wish I remembered the URL. I will try to send it to you via email if my cerebellum cooperates...

Desert Mystery said...

Some of this recent piracy can be attributed to centuries old practices of piracy in the area. Ask the Arabs, they've been hit by Somali pirate attack for centuries. Although far worse off then others, Somalia is not the only failed state in Africa this past century and one can't put all the blame on it.

Where was the piracy off the coast of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, etc? Both Liberia and Sierra Leone had huge quantities of garbage dumped in their territorial waters...yet piracy on this scale never broke out over there.

There are several angles to this story, I am sure all of them contributed one way or another to this. Great article tho.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I don't disbelieve him Ren, it's that I don't buy the concept he is suggesting.

Also, The Independent is in the kitsch Left as you phrase it in the UK.

Anonymous said...

We're being lied to alright, only it's the author of this piece that's doing most of the lying. Pirates existed WAY before the 1600's and have terrorized coastal communities since before the Phoenician's. The Athenian's were some of the most successful pirates of all time. They not only raided coastal communities, they conquered and then colonized them.

There's a reason why these Somali a-holes are raiding the seas when they're not robbing Kenyans, Ethiopians and Eritreans. It's because their neighbors who exist to their sea-ward are unarmed and make easy victims. They couldn't give 2 licks about "fishing" or "waste dumping" in Somalia's territorial waters because let's face it, Somalia doesn't exist. They're raiding passing ships because of only one reason, it's easy.

Anonymous said...

Fishing and toxic-waste dumping are merely ex-post-facto "pretexts" for justifying the pirate's actions. Kinda like other fabricated 'causus belli', WMD's, Gulf of Tonkin, CIA sponsored coup d'etats, etc.

The world is will to power, and nothing besides. ...--do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?-- This world is the will to power--and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power--and nothing besides! --Nietzsche

Joseph Dubonnet said...

By the way, thanks for changing the Link from The view from steeltown to the United Socialist Movement of the Americas one. I have linked your blog to ours as well.

SecondComingOfBast said...

FJ, you're right about the ancient days and piracy, as a matter of fact Philistia (the original Philistines) was a nation founded by pirates. I guess the Vikings were in that tradition as well. But what does that have to do with a "will to power" in regards the Somalian pirates? I'm not defending them, nor saying we ought to put up with it, or that we should give them any kind of a pass, but the fact that they do have a failed state seems to suggest they might feel as though they have no other recourse.

Add to this the idea that other developed nations might indeed be engaged in dumping toxic materials in their waters, and it makes it easier to view them in a more nuanced light.

Right makes right is all well and good as far as explaining what gives nations the right to deplete fishing stocks and dump toxic wastes (if that's what you're saying), but on the other hand, such actions (if indeed they are occurring) is bound to provoke some kind of reaction.

A good rule of thumb would be to stay out of those waters if you don't have the means to arm yourself adequately, and otherwise not to dump your shit in their waters. This is a minor problem, to us, that is being built up out of all proportion to its actual importance, all because proper precautions are not being taken.

Anonymous said...

The point is, Pagan, that the Somali's haven't turned to piracy as a "reaction" to toxic dumping or their fisheries being depleted. They're turning to piracy because of the POWER VACUUM that has been created through ceding the seas (LOST) to a toothless and essentially POWERLESS organization, the UN. The pirates are merely "armed opportunists" who are preying upon unarmed merchantmen and who DESERVE to be squashed like the blood-sucking leeches they really are.

I'm a sailor. Allow me to arm myself. Allow me to hire Blackwater escorts.

But the Left brings up the "failed state" argument to justify another pre-destined to fail Somalia intervention. Screw THAT!

Anonymous said...

Better yet, issue Blackwater a letter of marque against Somali shipping.

SecondComingOfBast said...

I'm all for merchant vessels being armed to the hilt and protecting themselves from piracy, including by the hiring of private contractors if need be and by letters of marquee, so we are not in disagreement on any of that, nor by any means do I disagree with your assessment of the UN. To compare that organization to pirates is an insult to the act of piracy whenever and wherever it is practiced.

Still, a depleted fishing stock would seem to obviously be an influence on a nation that probably is so heavily dependent on it, and the dumping of toxic wastes, with or without the approval of the UN, is something that is certainly deserving of condemnation, regardless of its influence in this matter, or lack thereof.

ravin said...

I have to agree with FJ. These "lovable pirates" have slaves where they live in Somalia. They still the food sent for the poor in order to control them.

As far as I care they are a part of Al Queda. Including that they only take an Iranain ship inorder to have a reason to have high level talks with the Iranaians. Not to mention money.

The fishing story is just that. Because they are not attacking fishing boats. But they are getting money and weapons to use in Sudan, Ethipia, and Somalia.

Over a year ago, I read an article about how these "lovable pirates" are making themselves rich and killing the poor around them unless they need them or control them.

Typical Hollywood BS.

Somali Jack Sparrow said...

Aaaarrrggg! You white European curs had bester stop dumping yer waist in our oceans else wel make ye walk the plank, and stop yer steelin' our fishes, or we Somali pirates will hang ye frum the highest yardarm, maties! And wen we gwets our 'ands on the female cur that called us Al-Queda we will sell 'er as a sex slave to the hi'est bidder, shiver me timbers. An farmer John ye'd best stop the arguin' with the pagan temple as he is a smart man who knows whad e's talkin' bout, ye cur ye.

Somali Jack Sparrow
(A luvable pirate)

Anonymous said...

I tip my hat to Somali Jack, a true knave if ever there was one.

*h/t* :)

Foxessa said...

I wrote a thoughtful response to this, but it is not here. Hmmmm.

Love, C.

Frank Partisan said...

Truth-Pain: Should be good.

Daniel H-G: Hara has supported Maryam Namazie. The kitsch left in the UK is groups like RESPECT or supporters of Gallaway.

FJ: This article was originally written before this week's problems.

Blackwater is already involved.

It is possible that piracy in Somalia can be contradictory. I doubt if the people concerned about waste, are at all the same people who attack only for $$.

Ravin: The comment box on your blogs, don't open with my browser.

I don't think Al Queda is involved, or much of a force in Somalia. Overall it's a small group. There may be a similar group, but not Al Quada. These groups have informal links.

Nobody except Sparrow thinks piracy is lovable.

Pagan: I agree with your direction. Atleast you acknowledge contradictions.

Foxessa: Until next time.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...


I do live here you know? I do know what the forms of the left take in my own fine nation and the Independent is a lovely, well meaning comic with daft articles in it.

Having said that, Galloway should be mainstream for all his skills.

SecondComingOfBast said...

I enjoy the Independent, I've linked them occasionally, though I haven't received any breaking news updates from them for a while, which I should check into. I like them better than the BBC. They have a better website. If you link on a BBC breaking news link, you have to hunt it down if you wait too long.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Maybe they are better from a website technical perspective but as a newspaper (and I used to be a subscriber for the print edition), it has gone terribly downhill.

I read it but prefer the Guardian, which is the UK's left wing paper of real note, The Times and the BBC for regular news, as well as the NYT's print edition.

nanc said...

hell - i just wish they'd send the navy seals into washington to clean up THAT piracy mess!

ren - i was surprised at your comment on waylon...i loved that guy.

Frank Partisan said...

Nanc: I judge art as art first, politics second.

I'll explore the UK newspapers. BBC Int'l Radio drives me nuts, it's so reactionary at times.

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

I must say, I've never heard BBC International, is that the World Service?

Unknown said...

Great find, Ren! I think I'll 'snitch' it for my site. You'll get credit, of course. :)

jams o donnell said...

I know this thread has probably rubn its couree but Hari's lionising of Somali pirates is sheer idiocy. I don't doubt thet there is some (or a lot of) truth in the allegations of dumping and ilegal fishing. These acts of course make poor copy when there are pirates in the same waaters.

I hardly see the capture of a vessel like teh Maersk Alabama as the act of the Horn of Africa's own latter-day Robin Hoods!

Daniel Hoffmann-Gill said...

Spot on Jams.

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