Pirates of Hollywood

By: Johan Mathew, Assistant Professor of History

Tom Hanks’ new movie comes out next week. The internet is abuzz with excitement over the trailers which have recently been playing in theaters and online. Oscar speculations are percolating for the film, Hanks and his co-star, Barkhad Abdi. The film is entitled Captain Phillips, and recounts the real-life hostage taking of the Maersk Alabama by Somali Pirates. Hanks plays the title character, who heroically volunteers himself as a hostage in order to spare his crew and the ship. The pirate leader, Abd al-Qadir Muse is played by Barkhad Abdi, a first time Somali actor. If the trailers are any indication, he gives a complex and portrait of a man driven to piracy by the tragic political and economic circumstances of contemporary Somalia. Needless to say, the film is almost the antithesis of Hollywood’s other piratical venture: the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

So the question presents itself, are these two forms of piracy comparable? Why does Hollywood choose to imagine 18th century pirates as loveable rogues and those of the 21st century, as violent criminals? Are these fundamentally different sorts of people and circumstances, or are they perhaps more similar than we’d like to believe. To what extent does race and the simple passage of time allow us to absolve the violence of English pirates and demonize the violence of the Somali pirates. I’d suggest that if we strip away the barriers of race and religion, of funny clothes and funny accents there is little to distinguish the European and American pirates of hundreds of years ago from the African pirates of today.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison to Somali Pirates in the first decade of the 21st century is the pirates who raided exactly the same waters over three hundred years before. The end of the 17th century was a flourishing time for piracy, and pirates were focused on the Bab al-Mandeb, or the Gate of Grief. The Bab al-Mandeb refers to the narrow strait of water that separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden and the wider Indian Ocean. Full of reefs and intersecting currents, it could easily have inspired the Greek myth of Scylla and Charybdis. Even with the latest technology, vast modern container ships and oil tankers must slow down to safely navigate these treacherous waters. Somali pirates today are perfectly situated to exploit the vulnerability of valuable cargoes on this short stretch of water.

Three centuries ago the only substantial difference was that the pirates tended to be English and American, and the cargoes were going to Asia. At the end of the 17th century, European and American pirates had established a base off the coast of Madagascar from whence they could pick off the most valuable cargoes in the world at that time. A thriving trade flowed between the Mughal Empire in India at the zenith of its power, and a newly resurgent Ottoman Empire that spanned the Middle East, North Africa and Europe up to the gates of Vienna. To protect against pirates, trading ships traveled in massive convoys, guarded by gunships, but sometimes that was not enough. Arguably the largest pirate booty ever captured, was taken in the Gulf of Aden by the English pirate, Henry Every. In 1695, Every captured two ships of the Mughal convoy returning with cargo and wealthy pilgrims who had been on the Hajj to Mecca. Up to 600,000 pounds of coins, jewelry and precious stones were captured (upwards of US$ 50 million in 2013, depending on how you calculate inflation). By comparison the largest ransom paid to Somali pirates was about US$12 Million. So, the most valuable cargoes in the world continue to travel through many of the same narrow stretches of water vulnerable to pirate attack.

But what about the motivations of these pirates, did the same sorts of people become pirates for the same sorts of reasons? Certainly, both for pirates today and in the past, economic deprivation was a major impetus towards piracy. Somalia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and those who cannot migrate, have few options within the Somali economy. Tom Hanks’ character asks his captor “there’s got to be something other than kidnapping people?” and he responds “Maybe in America… maybe in America.” Even accounting for a dramatically shortened life span, piracy can provide an astronomically higher lifetime incomes for an impoverished Somali man. Similarly, sailors comprised the recruiting pool for pirates in the 17th and 18th centuries, some of the most destitute and desperate individuals in the Atlantic world. Pay was low, and the possibility of death from disease, malnutrition and shipwreck was high. Payment was frequently withheld for any number of reasons, and discipline was brutal. But perhaps most disheartening was that even this cruel form of employment could be terminated with little notice. The employment market for sailors vacillated between gluts and scarcity, as wars commenced and terminated at the whims of royalty. Harsh labor conditions and volatile employment created a desperate population that proved fertile ground for piracy.

In addition to economic deprivation, political grievances motivated pirates in both instances. The main justification for Somali piracy was the illegal exploitation of Somali fishing grounds. With the declining power of the Somali state in the 1990s, there was little in the way of a coast guard to protect Somali territorial waters. Fishing trawlers from other corners of the Indian Ocean started exploiting these rich fishing grounds. Somali fishermen, using smaller boats found their nets empty as Asian trawlers had decimated local stocks. The turn to piracy was rationalized as the protection of national resources and foreign ships were taken hostage to compensate for the damage to the local maritime economy. Henry Every and his compatriots had a similar grievance. The English Civil War and the brief rule of Oliver Cromwell had spread the ideals of republicanism to the English lower classes by the end of the 17th century. But shipboard discipline was fiercely anti-republican, and aristocratic captains had the power of life and death over their peasant and working class crewmen. Many sailors were impressed (i.e. forcibly conscripted) from the lower classes of English society, whether or not they had any aptitude or inclination for the seaborne life. Around the turn of the 18th century, mutiny and piracy were thus an act of resistance against this social and political order. These pirates proudly embraced a lower-class identity, perhaps most memorably expressed in Johnny Depp’s attempt at a cockney accent. Moreover, they embraced democratic forms of self-governance. Their pirate hideout off the coast of Madagascar was even reputed to be a utopian socialist community called Libertalia.

Yet, were the actual piratical actions themselves the same across the centuries? Certainly violence and extortion have remained central to maritime piracy across history. But perhaps this is also where these two piratical moments diverge most substantially. Somali pirates cannot do very much with a supertanker carrying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil, so their preferred method is to hold the ship and its small crew hostage until they are paid a substantial ransom. It is not so much robbery, as hijacking and extortion. Violence, physical assault and even killing have been part of their methods, but they are kept to a minimum. A hostage is worth far more alive than dead, and the chance of military retaliation is also minimized by adequate treatment of hostages. The methods of Henry Every and his crew, on the other hand, can be summed up as rape, plunder and murder. They were interested in taking every last item of value from the ships and their passengers, and once those goods were obtained, there was little incentive to generous treatment of captives. Particularly in the case of attacks on Indian and Arab ships, English pirates could justify more heinous actions because their targets were heathens. The relatively benign treatment of lower class captives evident in Atlantic piracy of this era, may well have been absent where lingering notions of Christian morality no longer held sway.

In the long term, though, both the piracy of the 17th century and 21st century Indian Ocean were suppressed when they became too successful. Over the first decade of the 21st century, Somali pirates became increasingly successful and increasingly daring. They captured dozens of ships and obtained hundreds of millions in ransoms. But for the most part the crews they captured were from the Philippines, Vietnam, India and other Asian nations. Until the hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, no American ship had been subject to a pirate attack in over 100 years. The events recounted in Captain Phillips were momentous not only for the particular crew, they were the beginning of the end of Somali piracy. Following this attack, the American government and navy became far more involved and a coordinated global response has led to an effective elimination of Somali piracy in 2012. Similarly, Henry Every’s attack in 1695, provoked the wrath of the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb. He imprisoned European traders, forced European governments to compensate the victims and to protect ships going through the Bab al-Mandeb. Within a few years, European governments and trading companies were far more aggressive in prosecuting piracy in the Indian Ocean. European piracy in the Indian Ocean subsided by the beginning of the 18th century. Of course, a little over a decade later, a new generation of sailors had grown up with stories of Henry Every, and would become even more famous as they mutinied and turned into the Pirates of the Caribbean.

Sources and Further Reading
Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (2005)
Jan Rogosinski, Honor among Thieves: Captain Kidd, Henry Every and the Pirate Republic of Libertalia (2000)
Herman Melville, Billy Budd
The Economic Cost of Somali Piracy 2011
What Happened to Somalia’s Pirates

1 comment
  1. Mary Wilson said:

    Hi Johan, Terrific exploration of transnational and trans-generational history. And thx for the reading list. Cheers, Mary

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