Pirate Lessons

April 16, 2009 at 8:59 pm (By Miles Lascaux)

The media inhabit an eternal and simplified present tense, and when they try to set up a historical backdrop they usually get it backward or upside down.

For instance, AP and other wire service news accounts of the recent dust-up between the U.S. Navy and Somali brigands (I pitched the headline “Yankees 3, Pirates 0” but was overruled) called it “the first such attack on American sailors in around 200 years.”

It isn’t. Evidently the AP was aware of the Barbary Coast pirates but not later cases. Especially the naval war against Sumatra pirates in the 1830s. Which is a shame because the parallels there are a lot more informative than the ones that can be abstracted from the Barbary Coast war.

A good, brief account of the fight is in Max Boot’s “Savage Wars of Peace.” If I can do the link right, the relevant passages are here,from the bottom of page 46 to the end of page 49.

It involves a lawless Muslim land on the Indian Ocean. It involves U.S. merchant ships seeking precious cargoes (spices) and carrying on dubious trade (opium). And it shows the influence of politics on military decisions and the consequences of disproportionate responses and collateral damage.

It also shows that nothing — hard power or soft power — worked for long. What worked was when the Dutch took over Sumatra and banned all non-Dutch ships from the spice trade there. Then and only then did the pirates stop attacking American ships — because there weren’t any.

Unfortunately for modern sensibilities, when you look at history, the best antidote to piracy is colonialism/imperialism. That’s how the British quelled the nasty gang of cutthroats preying on ships from along the southern Persian Gulf in the early 1800s — they cowed them into submission out of fear of what other colonial powers might do to them, and eventually made them a protectorate of the Empire. The Arab pirates learned to behave, then their descendants discovered the virtues of oil. Now they’re our good friends in Dubai. Who recently aspired to run our ports.

-Miles Lascaux

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1 Comment

  1. rodjean said,

    I missed the pun in saying you “pitched” the headline at first reading. Clever.

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