Toward an understanding of just why the hell we're so fascinated with pirates.
And why shouldn't they? These men are pirates, and pirates are cool.
Did you forget, dear reader, that you, that all of us, have a lot of romantic notions about pirates? Don’t tell me that, suddenly, your concern for international shipping is greater than your love of pirates. Are you uneasy about Somalia and its warlord culture? It scares you? Well, that's the whole point of pirates. Pirates are dangerous and sexy.
Don't we all harbor some secret inner sympathy and admiration for Sugale Ali, the so-called Pirate Spokesman? Having hijacked a cargo ship partly filled with Russian tanks and other weapons, he commented to The New York Times, “Somalia has suffered from many years of destruction because of all these weapons. We don’t want that suffering and chaos to continue. We are not going to offload the weapons. We just want the money.”
Is he a hypocrite? Of course. Pirates are hypocrites, constantly toeing the line between a righteous, anarchic rebelliousness and naked self-interest. But don't we all have our issues? Journalist David Zlutnick unearthed the following juicy quote from 18th-century pirate Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy: “They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?”
There have been pirates forever. Since man's first excursion into the sea there have been guys taking stuff from other guys. Generally, the takers were the scoundrels. But piracy is a special category of scoundreldom. First of all, the classical pirate dresses well. He’s effete and outrageous yet still manages to be manly (see, for instance, Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow). The names of the great pirates still excite the imagination: Blackbeard, Captain Morgan, Calico Jack, Barbarossa.
As Joseph Lewis French puts it in his Great Pirate Stories:
The fact remains and will always persist that in the lore of the sea he is far and away the most picturesque figure, — and the more genuine and gross his career, the higher degree of interest does he inspire.
There may be a certain human perversity in this, for the pirate was unquestionably a bad man--at his best, or worst — considering his surroundings and conditions, — undoubtedly the worst man that ever lived.
Henry Morgan was fond of using priests and nuns as human shields while his crew of armed men attacked towns around the Caribbean. A "no mercy, no quarter" sort of fellow, he was attracted to the good ol' fashioned pillage. After taking an enemy town he would let his men loot the place sometimes for months, torturing people randomly in the hopes of finding hidden riches.
This raises another troubling issue. Henry Morgan was acting under the protection and mandate of the British Crown, and is therefore often considered technically to be a buccaneer and not a pirate. To the Spanish citizens he stole from and killed, the distinction was of dubious comfort. But piracy has always existed in the gray areas. It was the war between England and Spain that created the opportunity for much of the piracy of the Golden Age (usually thought to span roughly from the middle of the 17th century to the middle of the 18th century). Basically, the Golden Age was but a consequence of the discovery of the New World and the resultant competition among various European powers to control it. No one power was strong enough to dominate the territory. Piracy became warfare by other means. It disrupted the colonial ambitions of one's enemy. But the political and economic instability of the New World also meant that there was space for independent action. Henry Morgan was a pirate for England. Jean Lafitte was a pirate for France, most of the time, and a sometimes ally of the early American republic, especially when he was attacking English ships. Blackbeard (Edward Teach) was an Englishman by birth, but, in the end, a pirate simply for the sake of piracy, if ever such a thing existed.
The new Somali pirates exist for two simple reasons. One, Somalia is a desperate failed state. Two, it lies, rather conveniently, at the cusp of one of the world's most important international shipping lanes. Voila! — the new pirates. The logic hasn't changed a bit since the Golden Age. The only thing that's shifted are the players. The now stable and rich states of the West want stable shipping corridors. But the local residents of Puntland take a less sophisticated view, having never been to the Great Outlet Malls on the Western horizon in order to sample the fruits of said international shipping lanes. That's the politics of it, the straight-up socioeconomics.
There is another aspect to our fascination with pirates. It is existential rather than political. It is about civilization and its limits, about our need for a sense of home versus a need to break those boundaries altogether. The sea has always played a big role in that dialectic. The sea is, potentially, an avenue for intercommunication and exchange among men. It is, in short, a vast shipping lane. But it is also an outer boundary. The land stops at the sea. The city stops at the sea. We human beings have conquered this earth, mostly and swiftly, but the sea is still unnatural territory for us, we aren't as sure on its surfaces as we are on those harder surfaces more suited to bipeds.
The pirate takes that insecurity and runs with it. Indeed, the word pirate can ultimately be traced back to the ancient Greek word "peira," which means trial, attempt, experiment. To have peira, to posses peira, is to have gone through an experience. If I try something, I get to know it. In fact, it is out of the collecting of peira that a person constructs the greater web of experience (ex-peira) that makes one person, one person, and another, another.
The pirate is, quite literally, taking a chance. In doing so, pirates reenact the basic process that everyone goes through in becoming a person. You start out with very little sense of the world, and you gradually gain experience and put it all together. Pirates are simply less complacent than the rest of us. For reasons specific to historical circumstance and the accident of birth, some people decide to take that ultimate chance and continue to push the boundary of peira, to become a peirate — a pirate. Such figures dive back into the chaos of the sea, the edges of civilization, the end of the world. That such a journey is wrapped in physical danger, violence, moral ambiguity, cruelty, and heroism is only natural. Things are messy at the limits. Sureness dissolves at the boundaries.
But that's why pirates are exciting, despite it all. And that's why the Somali pirates are no different from the pirates of yore. The Somali pirates are simply doing what pirates have always done. So remind me again, please, how we are supposed to feel about pirates. • 16 April 2009
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.