Piracy: the way the books are balanced?

Pirates are intercepted by HMS Cumberland

Image of Somali boats from , November 12, 2008

Recent events in the Gulf of Aden where Somali pirates have been boldly attacking passing ships are a reminder that piracy, like prostitution, is one of the oldest professions in the world. By the late twentieth century pirates on the high seas had become such a rarity that the word ‘piracy’ was hijacked to describe the activities of copyright violators. But by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century pirates were back, using the latest technology to do the same thing the fabled pirates of yore did–hold down an’ tek weh—from ships that passed in the night.

To have the exploits of the Somali pirates unfold just when I happened to be reading the manuscript of a novel called Heart of a Pirate has been quite extraordinary. I was contacted by the author, Pamela Johnson, a few months ago; she wanted someone competent to read the ms and give their reactions and I had been recommended. I agreed to take a look at it but wouldn’t have time to read it it till mid-March to April, I told her.

Anne Bonny

Heart of a Pirate is a novel about Anne Bonny, the female pirate who once inhabited these shores. Her story has come down to us in song and legend rather than official history. As I wrote in the blurb I sent the author:

A rollicking adventure story starring women instead of men— Heart of a Pirate brings to life the legendary female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the times and places they inhabited. Set in the early eighteenth-century between Jamaica, Ireland, and the Southern United States Pirate plots the coordinates of the extraordinary life of a woman who unceremoniously spit the silver spoon she was born with out of her mouth, taking to the unpredictable and dangerous high seas rather than abide by the laws of patriarchy. Pirate society itself is presented as a more democratic alternative to the hierarchical social system that ruled Britain and its colonies; the political history of Ireland and plantation slavery are referenced and undergird this bracing tale of female bravery, gallantry and piracy. Heart of a Pirate is a story of the human desire for equality and freedom, social justice and piratical valour—a thought-provoking romp of a read particularly at a time when contemporary piracy is occupying international attention again.

An adept swordswoman, who knew how to use the superior strength of men against them, Bonny was a force to reckon with. Dressed in men’s clothes she took on soldiers and sailors alike, besting them and earning her place on many a pirate ship. Although to the manor born, Bonny abhorred slavery and inequality of any sort, chafing under the bit of her father’s authority. She started leaving her house under cover of night to keep the company of sailors and ‘women of the street’ “real people who lived on the edge of life, one day to the next.”

For she understood their poverty, the small wages, the persecution and social circumstances from which many of them ran—debtor’s prison in England, branding, thumbscrew and boot, whip and cane and cat o’ nine tails, long, arbitrary sentences for petty theft or for being on the losing side in some religious war. Almost all had been born on the wrong side of the blanket, bastards, orphaned or abandoned as children. The men, outlawed, turned to theft as the occasion rose, and protected each other better than any army or police. Together, sword in hand, they would take back from the world what had been taken from them. Piracy was the way the books were balanced.

The pirate’s code, also called the Articles of the Brethren or The Brotherhood of the Coast allowed pirates to vote for their captain who would remain captain till he was voted out. “Every man of us is a freeman and stands for his own self, but a man serves his best interest by standin’ with other free men. We don’t hold to colour or class or wealth. A man’s not born with his rank, but earns it.”

To Anne Bonny, the pirate’s code meant equality, something she had not encountered previously and now defended fiercely against the very pirates she lived with. At one point she turns on her husband demanding: “Have ye not just told me that the Code made all men equal? By what right do ye tell me how to speak…or what to think? I’m here precisely because I will have no one tell me what I can or cannot do.” At another moment she argues: “Do not try to tell me that because I am a woman, I must have a different set of rules, for God knows, I have earned my place as an equal. I am a crew member and entitled to all the privileges of any man here.”

While I was reading Heart of a Pirate the pirates of Somalia were rousing international consternation by capturing a US ship and holding its crew hostage. Though the mainstream media were quick to condemn the so-called pirates other voices disagreed. “You Are Being Lied to About Pirates” went one headline in the Huffington Post. Another account simply called Roman Piracy, was making the email rounds, linking slavery to the prevalence of piracy in Roman times:

The piracy threat which came to a head in the decade of the 60’s BC was in part due to Rome’s complacency about the issue. Rather than stamping out small pockets of pirates early on, they allowed piracy to flourish into a large force of marauders. A poor economy and oppressive social conditions also fed the pirate forces as men who were on the verge of bankruptcy discovered more profit as robbers and pillagers. Rome was unwilling to act conclusively toward the reduction of pirate forces because those forces, along with tax companies, provided slaves for the large luxury markets. The pirates did not attack Rome as an enemy, but treated all targets equally, as opportunities for profit. During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.

I emailed Pamela Johnson remarking on the coincidence of her sympathetic portrayal of pirate society and the view that the Somalis were being unjustly demonized and might have good reason to be resorting to piracy in response to the severe social injustice they had suffered: Do you have a comment on the Somali activity? I asked.

Comments? Actually, a lot! replied Pamela.

When I first began to think of writing about this fascinating woman, and why she has been the subject of song and legend, why the story has stuck with us for so many years, I looked for the reasons why. Piracy, clearly, is not a good thing, so how could I justify the heroism of it, other than to look at the romance of Rafael Sabatini (Captain Blood) and Errol Flynn and Paul Henried movies (Paul Heinreid filmed a movie in the 50’s entitled The Spanish Main that features a pirate named Anne Bonny–my first hearing of the woman when I was in my teens).

I found that answer in the scholarly theories of Marcus Rediker of the University of Pittsburg who studies piracy and emerging capitalism in the 18th century. Not until then did I realize the extent of poverty, unemployment, and economic stress on a society facing massive population migrations.

The pirates of Somalia face the same situation as the pirates of ‘the Golden Age of Piracy’, in that they face poverty, lack of education, and hopelessness. Instead, these one-time simple fishermen, men of the sea, decided to take from others who, in their view, have more. The issues in our own times are the same, the pirate’s search for greater weaponry, navel tension in parts of the world, even religion.

The outcome for the men of Somalia, and indeed pirates anywhere, the Amazon region and the south China Sea, among others, is that they face overwhelming odds of retribution in superior armies, navies, and funding. When fifty-two of Bartholomew Roberts’ men were hanged along the African coast, the governments of nations were making a statement, commerce will succeed, capitalism is important, men who invest will have their due. Even Anne knows she will fight anyone who tries to take the product of her own land.

Today we like to think that we are above such barbarity as gibbeting men and leaving their bodies to rot. Yet commerce will not be disrupted. Investors will lose money if the situation is not contained. Ordinary seamen will face threat, torture, and even death to move their vessels from port to port. And searobbers will die if they test themselves against superior power.

We are still faced with questions of social justice and the hard issues of finding solutions to the hopelessness of poverty, overpopulation, and ignorance born of lack of education. Wherever we cannot give to all members of society a fair footing, we will see theft. It happens everyday in all countries, not just on the seas. One man who struggles to eat will look at another who has more than he needs, wonder, and come to certain conclusions. Poverty breeds chemical dependencies for self-medication and escape, whether it be the rum of the pirates of Anne’s time, or those drugs of today, adding another layer of complexity to the situation. It will take some very smart, very compassionate people to begin to unravel the factors that create poverty that continues generation to generation.

I like to think we in the United States are on the right path in electing a President who knows the poverty of communities, who has worked to better the lives of ordinary people, and who is compassionate. He understands the excess of corporate capitalism, and although we all have the right to comfort and the freedom of mobility, the earnings of our hard work and creativity, greed does abound in some areas of business. We will see.”

Heart of a Pirate is at press now and will be available for distribution at Calabash, Treasure Beach, May 23-25 this year.

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