Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


5.3 Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life
December 11, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: Most Fascinating Characters of 2008 | Tags: , , ,

383px-piratey_vector_versionsvg1So if we’re talking about fascinating people this week, let’s talk about pirates.

Like many preschoolers his age, my nephew, Garrett, likes pirates.  He even asks me to play pirates with him sometimes.  It’s basically the way we play lots of things:  he tells me what to do, and I follow along obediently.  Captain Garrett’s pirate philosophy usually involves taking prisoners, whenever and wherever he can find them.  And when he’s found them, the prisoners don’t tend to live long—he usually shoots them multiple times while they are in his custody, and then tells them to get up so he can shoot them again.  (In fairness, his “prisoners” are usually his uncles, and they usually like to stage comedic and elaborate death scenes.)  As you can imagine, he has achieved a fearsome reputation on the high seas, given that the mortality rate for his prisoners is so shockingly steep—the fact that each one is dying multiple times means that the number of deaths is actually higher than the number of prisoners, which is a very difficult statistic to achieve.  But Captain Garrett has skills.

Modern pirates have skills, too.  So much so that there has been a sharp rise in the number and scale of pirate attacks on merchant ships in the past two years.  They’ve hijacked fishing boats; cargo ships; cruise liners; and last month, even a supertanker carrying about $100 million worth of oil.  (The supertanker MV Sirius Star and its crew are still being held today almost a month after they were first attacked.)  During these daring escapades, the pirates usually take the passengers, crews and cargo hostage and demand exorbitant ransoms for their release. It’s estimated that the shipping industry loses somewhere between $13 and $16 billion worldwide every year because of pirate activities.300px-sirius_star_2008e

But who is this fascinating figure, the modern pirate?  One of the most prominent “motherlands” of modern pirates is Somalia, which started to see pirate activity begin back in the late 1990s after their vicious civil war.  The first Somali pirates were fishermen keen to protect their fishing rights and boundaries, which were being violated by outsiders—international trawlers taking advantage of the breakdown in Somali government control.  Now that piracy has been perceived as being so lucrative, many others—such as warlords and their former soldiers—have gotten into the game.  And it is a very attractive game to play:  in parts of Somalia, one of the poorest countries in the world, piracy has become accepted as a part of the norm.  Pirates build the big houses; they marry the most beautiful women; they buy new cars and new guns;  they have the power and money.  This line of work (despite its illegality) is now so attractive that scores of young men are being recruited; the average age for a pirate is often well under 35.

Somali pirates

Somali pirates

With such social legitimization, at least in their own country, these pirates are far from their 17th and 18th Century counterparts of old.  They have no need for treasure maps or hiding places; they have their spoils in plain sight.  There is even speculation that they have financial backing from businessmen in certain Middle Eastern countries, and have become loan brokers, themselves. 

But perhaps what is most shocking is that now, in the 21st Century, with all of the technological tools we have to fight it, piracy on the seas still exists.  And it does not look much like the fictionalized image of piracy we have in our minds, complete with the eye patches and swordfights and grog and bawdy songs and cries of “me hearties.”  No; in comparison with its 18th Century counterpart, modern piracy, with its emphasis on financial negotiations, looks much more like a day at the office.

Captain Garrett would be disappointed to learn this.  But perhaps he’ll learn to adapt his game a bit, and start ransoming his uncles to supplement his college fund.  

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