Real pirates, of course, weren’t free-spirited, swashbuckling rogues with hearts of gold. They didn’t swing onto your man-o-war, grin irrepressibly as they humiliated the stuffy Admiral in a sword fight, and sweep his oppressed daughter off her feet all while making off with the gold, gunpowder and spices. No, they killed you and then took your things. Oppressed daughter? Raped, and then probably killed too. Modern pirates are also like that, except even scarier because now instead of dueling pistols and rapiers they have assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
It was through that lens that I first heard about the now rampant piracy occurring in the lawless waters of the Gulf of Aden off the coasts of the “country” of Somalia. Somalia, failed state that it is, provides a safe harbor for criminals, and U.S. and U.N. navies claim they can’t be everywhere at once. So pirates raid at will, boarding ships, taking hostages and stealing cargo. They’ve become increasingly bold, even hijacking an oil tanker laden with oil. It’s terrorism at sea, making the world a slightly darker and scarier place.
But what’s this? It turns out that many of the pirates were only local fishermen or desperate youths a few years ago, driven to piracy by the horrible conditions of their homeland and competition with foreign fishing operations. Referenced here and here, the environmental degradation caused by the foreigners, who have apparently polluted the waters and killed off the fish, has rendered them unable to survive by fishing. So now piracy is the best game in town, the only industry that’s hiring and pays well. And Somalia is such a shambles that the pirates are actually boosting the local economy. When the pirates come ashore, they spend their ill-gotten money in local villages. The poor people in those places are taking the pirates’ money and using it to buy the necessities of life, send their kids to school, and generally have a little more hope for the future. Pirates as folk heroes, anyone?
The latest chapter is news of an Indian navel vessel, the INS Tabar, sinking a pirate mother ship. The 400 foot warship ordered the pirate ship to stop and be searched. The pirate ship refused to surrender, even though it must have been obvious that their vessel, (I’d guess a converted fishing boat) and hand held weapons were no match for the armored warship’s missile launchers and six-barreled, 30 mm machine guns. An unknown number of pirates went down to a watery grave in the fight. And why? One of their small raiding boats managed to escape while the mother ship was being cut to pieces. Was it bravery and self-sacrifice for their mates that drove them to this hopeless fight? Would their unyielding spirits simply not let them surrender? At any rate it seems that if confrontations like this continue more pirates will be sporting eye patches and improvised artificial limbs in the future.
It gets better. The pirates have been treating their hostages well, even hiring caterers to serve Western meals while they wait for the ransom money to come in. Do they also play chess with them and engage in battles of wit? It seems you might survive your encounter with Somali pirates after all, escaping the adventure with everything but your stolen heart (unless you’re a man, in which case you’ll be given the option of either becoming a pirate yourself or walking the plank.)
Seriously, though, PIRATES? For real? That’s messed up.