There is a kind of romance around piracy. It is the romance of anti-authority figures and of a life lived not just in the margins but outside the boundaries. Just think about the masses of novels and films about piracy and the scholarship (and I will eventually write about Marcus Rediker’s extraordinary work). Or think about Pirate Jenny… Here, sung by Lotte Lenya:
There is something about her high nasal voice and the pauses between verses… Something about the lyrics written by Bertolt Brecht…
And a ship with eight sails,
And with fifty canons,
Will raise up her flag…
And by noon the men will come by the hundreds,
And into the shade will step,
And they’ll catch any man who steps out the door,
And put them before me in chains,
And they’ll ask me “Which one’s should we kill?”
And this afternoon it will be silent at the ports,
And when they ask me who must die,
You’ll hear me say “All of them!”
And when the heads fall I’ll say “Whoops!”
And when Nina Simone sings it – with her references to the “black freighter”which makes you think of all the ways she appropriates the song for the struggle of African-Americans in the US:
And just for the hell of it, before I move on, the Dresden Dolls doing a pretty fabulous version:
But of course there was an imperial discourse around piracy, spun out of London, which saw the pirates as invading the turf of the imperial navies:
or worse still, they were political actors who had to be renamed as pirates and outlaws -much like guerrillas and revolutionaries being called bandits and outlaws- in order for them to be more easily made the objects of imperial law. In the Middle East, any seafaring peoples who disrupted British trade routes, who attempted to collect customs or taxes on the goods leaving from or going to India, were dubbed pirates. I recently read a novel about one such character. Though it wasn’t a literary masterpiece, and it was so very obviously written as an allegory of today’s Qatari politics (and its publication was supported by the Qatar Foundation), it did give something of a flavour of what it must have been to try and sail the seas that the British considered their own.
That is why in Rose George’s otherwise fantastic and fabulous book the chapter on the Somali pirates is so deeply problematic. Perhaps the fact that she embedded with a NATO anti-piracy ship has something to do with it too.
Anti-piracy is now big business. Not just in the Indian Ocean –off the coast of Somalia– but also in the Malacca Strait. Even Erik Prince, of Blackwater fame, has gotten into the game. From his hideout in Abu Dhabi, he has set up a company that provides private protection services for logistics firms operating in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the coast of East Africa.
Modern piracy has less to do with the ships themselves than with the blizzard of paperwork through which they sail. You can steal a ship with the right notarized form. You can operate a ship under the noses of its owners eight month of the year and no one any wiser. With the kinds of profits you can make, you can afford to hire and pay the crew you’ve ‘captured’. It’s a white-collar crime now, as abstracted in its way as the shipping industry it feeds upon. Most hijackings aren’t reported. Most ships are returned without a ransom. Why steal a boat when you can borrow it? Nab a ship, use it to shift a drug cargo across the China Sea. Or don’t handle anything illegal: just lease the ship out to some desperate import-export hack with a letter of credit about to expire. When you’re done, hand the ship back to the owner with a nod and a wink. The less the company bemoans the seizure of its ship, the more affordable its insurance premiums, so nobody says anything.
Professional, multinational piracy runs under the surface, right across the Indian Ocean, from Karachi to Dar es Salaam, from Sur to Bandung. It’s a desk-bound business, reliant on newfangled skills: cryptanalysis and ADSL, network administration, even AI.” (pp. 245-6)
So the image either of heroic young men or of the villainous brutes of Rose George are only that which can be seen at first glance and without looking too deeply…