The Electric Commentary

Monday, August 22, 2005


For some reason there has been much written on the subject of pirates lately.

First, Douglas R. Burgess Jr. writing in Legal Affairs notes a similarity between piracy and terrorism, and the lessons that the United States should take from the former (Hat tip, ALD):

By the 16th century, piracy had emerged as an essential, though unsavory, tool of statecraft. Queen Elizabeth viewed English pirates as adjuncts to the royal navy, and regularly granted them "letters of marque" (later known as privateering, or piracy, commissions) to harass Spanish trade.

It was a brilliant maneuver. The mariners who received these letters, most notably the famed explorers Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, amassed immense fortunes for themselves and the Crown, wreaked havoc on Spanish fleets, and terrorized Spain's shoreside cities. Meanwhile, the queen could preserve the vestiges of diplomatic relations, reacting with feigned horror to revelations of the pirates' depredations. Witness, for example, the queen's disingenuous instructions saying that if Raleigh "shall at any time or times hereafter robbe or spoile by sea or by lance, or do any acte of unjust or unlawful hostilities [he shall] make full restitution, and satisfaction of all such injuries done." When Raleigh did what Elizabeth had forbidden - namely, sack and pillage the ports of then-ally Spain - Elizabeth knighted him.

This precedent would be repeated time and again until the mid-19th century, as the Western powers regularly employed pirates to wage secret wars. After a series of draconian laws passed by George I of England effectively banished pirates from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean corsairs emerged as pre-eminent maritime mercenaries in the employ of any European state wishing to harass another. This situation proved disastrous. The corsairs refused to curtail their activities after each war's conclusion, and the states realized that they had created an uncontrollable force. It was this realization that led to the Declaration of Paris in 1856, signed by England, France, Spain, and most other European nations, which abolished the use of piracy for state purposes. Piracy became and remained beyond the pale of legitimate state behavior.

If this chronology seems familiar, it should...

Next, we have Christopher Hitchens writing in the NYT Review of Books, on The Pirates LaFitte, By William C. Davis, The Barbary Wars, By Frank Lambert, and White Gold, by Giles Milton:

Slavery of another type was part of the subtext of the Laffite affair. The American officer most determined to close down Barataria was a 25-year-old naval lieutenant, Daniel Tod Patterson, who had spent unpleasant time as a captive in Tripoli (today's Libya). His experience was not uncommon. The evidence of the best modern historians -- Linda Colley's ''Captives'' being the most salient work -- is that upward of a million Americans and Europeans were kidnapped or enslaved by the Barbary States, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Command of the Strait of Gibraltar gave the Barbary monarchs a huge strategic advantage. They kidnapped human property not only on the high seas but also from towns as far north as Iceland as well as from Ireland and the western peninsula of Britain.

More recent angst between the United States and the Arab and Muslim world has revived interest in the half-forgotten Barbary wars, during which Jefferson and Madison dispatched successful naval expeditions to punish the piratical regimes in Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis and Morocco. (The words ''to the shores of Tripoli'' in the first line of the Marine Corps hymn enshrine the memory of the first conflict in which American troops were deployed overseas.) In ''The Barbary Wars,'' Frank Lambert deals with the macro element of this campaign: the economic imperative underlying it. In ''White Gold,'' Giles Milton takes a more micro approach, generalizing the story of the many victims through the horrific experience of one English captive.

Finally, an updated version of the classic Sid Meier videogame, Pirates! was just released for the X-Box.

Pirates was one of the very first non-linear video games out there. A friend of mine had an early version of this game when we were growing up (How early? To get the game to boot up you had to put the 5.25" floppy disk into the computer before you turned it on.), and we spent way too much time on it. However, Pirates! is also a rare blend of education and entertainment. It came with a full map of the world, and it dealt heavily in European politics of the 17th-19th centuries. Real world events often ended up shaping your actions. I'm quite sure I learned more European history from that game than I did in high school.

It also spent a lot of time romanticizing pirates. Had it been released in 1717 (in the Middle of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach's reign of terror) it would have caused a public outcry.


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