Friday, April 10, 2009

"A Bad Meeting"

SOME FAST BREAKING NEWS, or what's known in the news business as a big development, in that pirate story. For the last two days, as you had to have heard by now, four Somali pirates have kept Richard Phillips, the American captain of a merchant vessel, hostage in an enclosed lifeboat. Now it turns out Phillips made an unsuccessful escape attempt sometime last night, jumping into the water. It's not clear from The New York Times story whether Phillips' action was coordinated with the American warship stationed nearby.

The Somali kidnappers are said to be desperate to make it back onshore with their captive, while at the same time a pirate known as Badow is saying additional pirates are on their way to the scene of the standoff in the Indian Ocean:

“They had asked us for reinforcements, and we have already sent a good number of well-equipped colleagues, who were holding a German cargo ship,” the pirate, identified only by the name Badow, was quoted by The A.P. as saying.

“We are not intending to harm the captain, so that we hope our colleagues would not be harmed as long as they hold him,” Badow told them. “All we need, first, is a safe route to escape with the captain, and then ransom later,” he added.
Last year alone, Somali pirates collected a cool $80-100 million via ransom, and I'm fairly certain they didn't declare it on their income tax statements when they split up the loot. Let's face it: defiance pays.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the pirates "nothing more than criminals" and, showing off her encyclopedic knowledge of pirate history, reminded everyone that "One of the very first actions that was undertaken by our country, in its very beginning, was to go after pirates along the Barbary Coast” of North Africa. Aside from that history lesson, there's really little her State Department can do at the moment given no state of Somalia to negotiate with. Using language similar to my Scourge of the Seas post the other day, Clinton called on the international community to “come together to end the scourge of piracy.” Good luck with all that. Civilized nations have been saying that for years, going all the way back to the mid-18th century, when when the famous English jurist William Blackstone wrote:
As, therefore, the pirate has renounced all the benefits of society and government, and has reduced himself afresh to the savage state of nature by declaring war against all mankind, all mankind must declare war against him: so that every community has a right, by the rule of self-defense, to inflict that punishment on him, which every individual would in a state of nature have been otherwise entitled to do.
Looks like the Somali gang still hasn't gotten that memo, if the quote attributed to one of the four pirates holding Phillips hostage on the lifeboat is any indication: "We are safe and we are not afraid of the Americans. We will defend ourselves if attacked."

If that's backing down, I'd hate to see them when they're being uncooperative. Just heard that these modern-day Blackbeards are demanding a ransom of $2 million. Actually, in the past the ransom has been paid off in crisp U.S. $100 bills, as opposed to Pieces of Eight, the traditional pirate currency of yesteryear. My money no pun intended would be on the pirates. Seemingly outgunned and outmanned, what with the American warships in the area, yet they're still calling all the shots, and they hold the main card in the deck: the American captain of the Maersk Alabama.
Incredibly, just minutes ago came the report that a French attempt to rescue five of its citizens held captive aboard yet another ship seized by Somali pirates has ended in the death of one hostage and the freeing of four others, including a child, with two pirates killed and three others captured. The French vessel, a 41-foot yacht, was hijacked about a week ago. According to the BBC News:
The French operation to free those on board the Tanit - the third time French troops have freed hostages from pirates - began late on Thursday, five days after the yacht was seized, the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy said. Negotiations with the pirates which began earlier this week had failed to secure the release of the hostages, the president's spokesman said.
With obvious implications for the resolution of the American hostage crisis, a BBC reporter quotes the French government official as saying that with "the threats becoming more and more specific, the pirates refusing the offers made to them and the [yacht] heading towards the coast, an operation to free the hostages was decided upon."
Even if this one ransom attempt is thwarted, it's doubtful to have any lasting effect on the stunning frequency of hijackings taking place recently in the waters off Somalia. It would take a long-term concerted effort to root out the numerous pirate lairs along the hundreds of miles of African coastline, to say nothing of the deep-rooted conditions that make the area ripe for piracy and terrorism. It's the broken parts of the world that have always produced the best candidates for piracy, and in that regard the year 2009 is no different than 1809 or 1609.

A famous sea shanty composed in 1609, "Ward the Pirate," tells of the notorious English pirate John Ward, who later changed his name to Yusuf Reis, converted to Islam and made a fortune plundering ships sailing in the same part of the world where the Maersk Alabama found herself confronted on Wednesday:
A ship was sailing from the east
And going to the west,
Loaded with silks and satins

And velvets of the best,

But meeting there with Captain Ward,

It proved a bad meeting;
He robbèd them of all their wealth
And bid them tell their king.
According to Wikipedia,

Ward was an enigmatic figure, in some ways like a Robin Hood, but in the 16th and 17th centuries many English pirates operated out of the mouth of the Sebo River and preyed on Mediterranean shipping. Ward was supposed to have spared English ships while attacking "papist" vessels. John Ward and Simon Danseker are credited with introducing Barbary corsairs to the use of square-rigged ships of northern Europe.

I kind of imagine that in Somali these modern-day corsairs are enigmatic figures, and if they get away with the two million in booty, you can bet there's gonna be a folk song or two written about the daring exploits of the fearless pirates who defied the Americans and lived large enough to tell all about it later.

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