Over the last year or so I have read several assertions that 21st century pirates, such as those who infest the waters off Somalia, are as distinct from historical 'golden age' pirates of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as chalk is from cheese. Modern pirates are 'just thugs in boats', we are told, while 'golden age' pirates 'had codes, rules of honor and even at times worked for the better good. Not just robbed, looted and shot people for no good reason.'
A pirate, by definition, is someone who robs others at sea, and it's difficult to reconcile stealing from others with being a nice guy, but that's exactly what happens in internet forums every day. Thanks to a century or more of family-friendly depictions of pirates, not least that lovable Jack Sparrow, the modern 'pirate' community has lost touch with the reality of historical piracy. In itself that's not a problem; it's part of a larger trend of elevating the plucking underdog to heroic status and it's been going on since well before the 'golden age' of piracy. Medieval outlaws represented a real threat to the lives and livelihoods of honest citizens in medieval Europe, but even in the medieval stories of Robin Hood the hero is, well, a hero. The trouble comes when we try to argue that medieval outlaws were really like the Robin Hood of the legends: history becomes blurred, logic falls down, and instead of Robin Hood being a fun but fictional character we start to think of him as a model for the historical reality. The same thing has happened with gunslingers of the 'wild West', prohibition-era gangsters, and 'golden age' pirates.
Does it matter that modern fantasy is different from historical reality? Probably not.
Should we care? Yes, I think we probably should. History can teach us a huge amount about our own times. Technology changes, fashion changes, but human nature, at its core, changes very little. Tackling the menace of modern day piracy depends to a large extent on understanding the pirates, and if we can learn about modern pirates through studying historical pirates then it's important that we understand the reality of historical piracy and its parallels with modern piracy, rather than dismissing any link between the two because the family-friendly fantasy of historical piracy doesn't match our perception of modern 'thugs in boats'.
So, are modern Somali pirates comparable to historical 'golden age' pirates? Yes, yes they are.
Modern pirates use fast boats to stalk busy shipping routes, particularly around the Gulf of Aden. Once they have a target in sight they use violence or the threat of violence to get aboard and plunder the vessel or hold it to ransom for monetary gain. Usually the target vessels have neither the manpower nor the firepower to offer much resistance, if any.
'Golden age' pirates used fast vessels to stalk busy shipping routes, including the Gulf of Aden. Once they had a target in sight they used violence or the threat of violence to get aboard and plunder the vessel. Usually the target vessels had neither the manpower nor the firepower to offer much resistance, if any.
Piracy has existed since ancient times and on virtually every body of water on the globe at some time or another, but the incidence of piracy has not been uniform - some areas have been more affected than others at different times. The so-called 'golden age' of piracy has been variously defined, but a generally acceptable definition would encompass the years from around 1690-1725 and geographically included the Caribbean, the northern Indian Ocean, and the Atlantic coasts of North America and Africa. A century before then, in the early years of the seventeenth century, the Mediterranean and the Irish Sea suffered explosions of piracy; in the nineteenth century the eastern Mediterranean and the South China Seas were piracy hotspots, the list goes on. The point is that the Somali piracy outbreak of recent years is simply the latest in a very long list of piracy epidemics. For the purposes of this essay, I'll concentrate mostly on the 17/18th century outbreak that is usually referred to as the 'golden age' for the simple reason that it is the outbreak I am most familiar with, having researched it extensively for my masters and doctoral theses.
Captain Charles Johnson, a pseudonymous but contemporary historian of the 'golden age' of piracy imputed the increase in piracy in the early eighteenth century to two causes; massive unemployment in the maritime sector following the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), and the inability or unwillingness of colonial officials in the Americas effectively to police the waters of the region. Subsequent historians have generally followed Johnson's lead in blaming underemployment as the major cause for men to turn to piracy, and the authorities' inability to police the shipping lanes for piracy's assuming epidemic proportions. The same was true of the outbreak of piracy in the early seventeenth century following the end of the Anglo-Spanish war in 1603. Within three days of the end of the war the mayor of Plymouth wrote,
...there do daily resort heither such a great number of sailors, mariners and other masterless men, that heretofore have been at sea in men of war, and being now restrained from that course do still remain here and pester our town which is already overcharged with many poor people. And some of them do daily commit such intolerable outrages as they steal and take away boats in the night out of the harbour and rob both English and French.
So, when maritime unemployment rises, especially in an area that is already impoverished, expect piracy. If at the same time there is limited policing of the area by the authorities, expect a massive outbreak of piracy. with that in mind, consider the following testimony by a Somali man from 2010.
You know, pirates are people like us. Before they were people who would catch fish and lobster. But after that, there came many big ships, because there is no government, no coastguard... They wondered, these people, 'what can we do?' Everyone bought a gun! To hunt these ships. They captured one, another one. they got a lot of money, and they never felt they could get so much money before. They got faster boats, and big guns! Then they became a little bit famous...
So the basic operational practices of modern and 'golden age' pirates are the same, the main reasons for their rise are the same, but the similarities do not end there. Most Somali pirates are young men under 35, most 'golden age' pirates were men in their 20s. Most Somali pirates come from a maritime or military background with a few technical specialist, most 'golden age' pirates came from a maritime background, with ex-soldiers and technical specialists like coopers and carpenters making up significant minorities.
Modern pirates do two things with the money they make from their operations. Firstly, they use some of their cash to buy bigger and better weaponry and other essential supplies. Secondly they spend it on the traditional joys of women, alcohol, and drugs. 'Golden age' pirates tended to steal the weaponry and supplies they needed, but did on occasion use their ill-gotten gains to purchase them: for example, in the 1690s Anglo-American pirates operating in the Indian Ocean made frequent use of Adam Baldridge's trading post on St. Mary's Island, Madagascar, where amongst other things they could purchase supplies such as 'three barrells of cannon powder', beef, lime juice, sugar, tarr, salt, and dried peas. Once their immediate supply needs had been met, pirates of the 'golden age' liked to party in the same way as modern pirates (perhaps without the drugs), once ashore 'their first care was to find out a Tavern,' where they could 'get all Hands drunk' and perhaps 'spend their Money with the Portuguize Negro Women.'
Perhaps one of the most significant similarities between modern and 'golden age' pirates is their willingness to associate themselves with outlaw political groups. Modern Somali pirates have been linked to Al-Shabaab and to Al-Qaeda. Association with Islamist groups gives the pirates a sense of legitimacy that they might otherwise be lacking, and incorporates them into a larger organisation for mutual support and protection. In return, the Islamist groups profit financially from the raiding activities of the pirates and gain an extra paramilitary force. Doubtless, many modern pirates identify with the Islamist movement on a personal level as well. The same might well be said of the 'golden age' pirates' association with the politically-dissident Jacobite movement of the early eighteenth century. My article 'Jacobitism and the "Golden Age" of Piracy, 1715-1725' explores the links between pirates and Jacobites in some depth, but in essence it mirrored the relationship between modern pirates and Islamist groups. The Jacobite movement never actually received any financial input from the pirates, but it was certainly offered by pirates who were prepared to act as a Jacobite fleet in the Caribbean in exchange for legitimacy and support from the Jacobite leadership. Many pirates identified with the Jacobite movement on a personal level.
One of the arguments used to dissociate modern pirates from 'golden age' pirates is that 'golden age' pirates sometimes acted for the protection of vulnerable settlements, they 'worked for the better good' as the quotation at the beginning of this essay would have it. In fact, it is almost impossible to find an example of 'golden age' pirates doing that, but if we look outside the 'golden age' a few examples might be found, of which the most notable and certainly the best known is Jean Lafitte's Baratarian pirates assisting in the defence of New Orleans during the War of 1812. However, it should not be assumed that modern pirates are incapable of such activities. Two of the issues on the Somalian coast which led to the outbreak of piracy there are the dumping of toxic waste by Western companies and over-fishing by non-Somalian fishermen, both of which contributed extensively to the underemployment in the maritime sector mentioned above. The UN estimated that at its height $300 million worth of seafood was stolen from the Somalian coast each year. Somali pirates claim to be working to combat both of those problems, and according to a poll conducted in the region some 70% of locals 'strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence of the country's territorial waters.' Pirate Sugule Ali said, 'We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. We consider those who illegally fish and dump waste in our seas and carry weapons in our seas.' In fact, the pirates don't like to be called pirates, they prefer names like the National Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia (pirates of the 'golden age', on the other hand, were generally quite content to be called 'pirates'). For what it's worth, the pirates' efforts to protect their coastline have met with some success: local fishermen are reporting record catches, a direct result of the regulation of industrial fishing in the area.
Make no mistake, modern pirates are reprehensible in their actions, their use of violence, and the terror they inflict on their victims. But so were the pirates of the so-called 'golden age'.
1. Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (Mineola, 1999), pp.3-4
2. E.T. Fox, Scattergoods and Swaggering Rascals (Okehampton, 2015) p. 8
3. From The Trouble With Pirates documentary
4. Why Pirates Fight Each Other; Somali Pirates Living the High Life
5. Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations (London, 2004), p. 49
6. Somali Pirates Living the High Life
7. Rediker, Villains of All Nations, p.46
8. Somali Pirates Living the High Life
9. E.T. Fox, Pirates in Their Own Words (Okehampton, 2014) pp. 347, 362
10. American Weekly Mercury, 17/3/1720; Daily Post, 24/11/1720; Boston News-Letter, 22/8/1720
11. Shabaab-Somali Pirate Links Growing
12. How Somalia's Fishermen Became Pirates
13. You Are Being Lied To About Piracy