This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.
US Navy ships fired upon pirate boats off the coast of Africa and were engaged in a wide ranging sea battle over long distances. The pirate boats were sunk, but this is just a small episode in a wider war of religion, imperialism, diplomacy and military efforts lasting for years.
The local rulers are very upset with the USA, but the US Armed forces are not taking no for an answer and are practising gun-boat diplomacy to the core. Other nations are hoping that USA will be successful in eradicating this menace of piracy.
While the USA is beset with war related fatigue and challenges, which is pretty obvious, it has clear congressional backing to do something about these pirates. The pirate leaders are using the Islamist Jihadi resistance framework to defy the USA, but to no avail. And all this in America's 1815 war against the Barbary Pirates of North Africa.
The North African Barbary States were basically pirate hell holes, full of bandits and stuffed full of slaves that they had taken as part of their jihad. Yes, sir! It was considered incumbent to prey on the Christian ships voyaging in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and up to Ireland and Northern Europe. You didn't know that, did you? These Pirates were raping and pillaging up in Northern Scotland? I didn't know that either.
Robert Davis, of the University of Ohio, who is also completing a study on white slave trade, believes that in the 250 years from 1580 onwards more than a million Europeans were kidnapped for slavery or ransom. Gwarsh! I refer you to an excellent book by Frederick C. Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror, America's 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa (ISBN:0-19-518994-9).
Leiner describes how the European nations were frankly supine in the face of this Barbary Muslim threat, either living with the threat of piracy and slavery of their Christian citizens or paying off the Barbary Pirate Leaders by giving tributes. But their thieving, barbarous, piracy time started to come to an end when they captured a small American ship in 1812 and enslaved twelve American sailors.
President James Madison tried diplomacy, which was only minimally successful. Then America's first inter-continental foray happened. America built up a squadron of fighting ships, sent them across the pond, fought the Barbary pirate navy and captured two ships. Then they went over to Algiers and basically threatened to blow the city apart if the treaty was not signed.
Negotiations happened "at the mouth of the American cannon". They did not pay tribute, they got all their sailors released and got rid of a cancerous Islamist growth. Not only that, this effort on behalf of saving White Christian slaves can be said to have lead directly to the civil war and the eventual ending of slavery in the USA. I mean, you can't really go about saving slaves in Algeria, while enslaving others in Arkansas, can you?
But in a sad ironic twist of fate, the rescued enslaved sailors never made it back to home port, they are assumed to be lost at sea in some storm. So this book comes very highly recommended, although the author might have tried to use some local North African or Turkish archives to flesh out the view of the pirates from the Ottoman or Barbary side as well.
Now, if you think that piracy used to happen a couple of centuries ago and is now just a matter written about in books and seen in films such as the series of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean Movies', then that is a sad mistake. I was talking about anti-piracy multi nation maritime war games in the Indian Ocean a few weeks ago and people piled on top of me bellowing about anti-imperialism and god knows what.
But then, the Lord will forgive them for they know not what they talk about.
Between 2004 and 2006, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has reported about 150 attacks per month. Out of a total of about 4000 analysed, about 15% were stopped by local authorities, 10% by the crew itself and ONLY 12% by security forces. Because it happens out of sight of land and away from the media, and because it seems to be a victimless crime and mainly impacts trade, nobody takes much notice of it. And when a navy actually does do something about it, it is usually castigated. But when the political leaders have some steel tinkling bits, then the pirates can be destroyed as we saw in 1815.
The IMO produces piracy reports on a monthly basis and they make glum reading indeed. It just seems like the world's oceans are infested with these robbers and pirates. Whether we are talking about the seas off Nigeria, the seas off Bangladesh and Somalia, the South China Sea, the Sunda and Malacca Strait, you name it, they had and have pirates.
If you place these areas on a map, there are certain commonalities. These areas are heavy on the oil and trading shipping lines and therefore there is a large population of ships to prey on.
Second, the states around these areas are weak or failing states such as Nigeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Somalia, Yemen, etc.
Third is that the seas around these areas are not dominated by a single Navy nor is any Navy available there at all. The IMO has released guidelines on how to deal with piracy but it is a long fight, I am afraid.
There are major issues relating to (1) corruption (2) inter-governmental cooperation (3) lack of equipment (4) lack of legal structures in many countries. Ports, docks and coastlines, for some reason, seem to attract all the flotsam and jetsam of society. Corruption flares in almost every port and dock. Whether you are talking about the stevedores, the customs, the navy, the contractors, the transporters, somewhere - someplace - somebody is on the take!
Now when this is the case, it is not surprising that the pirates have a way to slip past all these legal weapons.
Second, inter-governmental maritime cooperation ranges all the way from good to pathetic. For example, think about the number of times there have been oil slicks in our nations in the past 25 years. Just how much has been done in terms of getting double hulled ships as compulsory vehicles for transporting oil? Minimal! Even with the EU, very little has happened. So no cooperation and plenty of corruption!
Then you talk about equipment? Now, how many countries actually have the ability to prosecute pirates in the blue seas? Most of the countries of this world don't have a blue water navy to speak off. They are fine with pottering around the shores in the remote cases the diesel has not been corruptly sold off by the navy or captains. But to actually have sufficient ships to go on the oceans, with oilers, communications, diplomatic connections with countries, etc. etc. with trained marines, light boats, oh!, that only happens with very few countries. And those few countries are looked upon with suspicion somewhere or other such as USA, UK and few others like India and Australia, which further reduces their effectiveness.
Can you imagine the American Navy or the Australian Navy doing hot pursuit of a suspected pirate skiff into Indonesian waters? And very few countries actually have the legal structures present to prosecute these pirates properly, even if they are caught. Think about the archipelago of Indonesia to the huge coastline of Burma and the states surrounding the South China Sea. We don't even have a state in Somalia, forget about legal structures.
Here are some interesting pictures of pirates and the recent event off the waters of Somalia. And here and here. So all in all, life has not changed that much since 1815. While the pirates are not out to catch slaves any more, they are still open to robbery, theft, tributes and generally making a bad egg out of themselves. Pirates have a romantic image in our minds as typified by this quote by Bern Williams "The average man will bristle if you say his father was dishonest, but he will brag a little if he discovers that his great-grandfather was a pirate.".
But if you think of yourself being at the receiving end of that RPG, which that Somali Pirate fires, then the romanticism will evaporate instantly and will be replaced with hope that the maritime nations of this world will get together and stamp hard on these robbers and thieves on the high seas.
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest-- ...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum! Drink and the devil had done for the rest-- ...Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!" Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.
All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt, not a bottle of rum!