In the previous two posts I’ve been trying to build an argument that piracy functions not as the enemy of all mankind (hostis humanis generis) but as the shadow of mankind: umbris humanis generis. As rebels against a social order that is oppressing them, those who turn to piracy are critiquing the economic and political systems that have seen them disenfranchised. It was precisely in the emerging capitalism of the 17th and 18th centuries – in the golden age of exploration, where empires fought to expand their dominions and wealth by exploiting colonies – that we saw the golden age of piracy too. Fed up with making greedy princes and merchants rich through plunder, they decided to rob from the plunderers.
Somali piracy can be read in this light too, and one interesting episode is worth noting here. The French luxury yacht Le Ponant was captured in 2008 by a group of pirates. Le Ponant was the picture of the good life: a mixed crew of young men and women, sailing a fabulously luxurious boat to the Med to pick up passengers – with a good chef and plenty of wine on board. When captured, the crew hid the women of the boat in the bows, but, unable to last out they emerged after a few days. The pirates were furious, as William Langewiesche described in his article for Vanity Fair:
“We do not touch women! We want money!” Referring to himself and his men, he said, “Robbers! Not terrorists!” Ahmed escorted the group aft to the luxurious lower lounge, where he ordered that the women be provided with water and food. When the water arrived, he sent it back for being lukewarm.
The picture-perfect scene that the pirates had disturbed was not quite what it seemed though. Le Ponant was registered in the far-flung French protectorate of Wallis and Fatuna. This meant that they could fly the French flag – very nice for the tourists – but didn’t have to abide by any French employment or tax laws. As Langewieshe describes conditions for the crew:
The wages were low, the hours were long, and no retirement benefits were provided. During rotations ashore there were no wages at all. These terms were non-negotiable. They stemmed from the culture of a global shipping industry which over the past 60 years has pursued profit and efficiency in part by ridding itself of labor unions, and more fundamentally by freeing itself from the constraints of the nation-state and its laws.
So, although they initially feared for their lives when attacked, one could even push it a bit and say that the crew were in some respects more free during that time of occupation than they were under the oppressive regime of their employers. Either way, this leads us to a clue about why pirates remain so fascinating to us: they offer us a life that is more free.
The pirate life was a short one by all accounts, but it at least had the advantage of liberty – and merriment. For those living in the shadow of St Paul’s cathedral in London, reading Captain Johnson’s bawdy book on pirate exploits was an escape from the drudgery of their pretty grim lives. Working like dogs, with the twin powers of the merchants and the priesthood ready to pounce of them if they stepped out of line, here was a breath of fresh air – a short and merry life by proxy.
This then is also why pirates are equally hated by the establishment – and suffered such brutal punishments. They represented a sniggering critique of the system, a heretical, subversive alternative existence which threatened the very hierarchies and power-structures that kept them rich and comfortable. If the poor couldn’t be made to behave, they might have to do some work themselves.
And so it is to this idea of piracy as heresy that we will turn next… noting as we go that today a band of subversive musicians were found protesting at the government’s plans to go hell for leather after music pirates. Why would musicians not want piracy stamped out? We’ll try to answer that later in the series.