Taken from Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/22/piracy-somalia
Pirate is a forgiving word. Thanks to at least two centuries of British and American romanticism - Lord Byron to Johnny Depp - it implies a man (or in two famous instances, a woman) who is not wholly bad and many moral levels professionally above footpads, rapists and serial killers. For instance, is there an epoch known to historians as the Golden Age of Rape? No, but sometimes in books about buccaneers you will find the Golden Age of Piracy, which in British terms lasted from the 1650s till about 1725.
In some respects, the pirates of Somalia are behaving in the classic tradition. According to reports, they are spending millions of dollars of ransom money on imported food, alcohol, drugs and prostitutes, just as predecessors debauched and befuddled themselves whenever possible with tobacco, rum and whoring. In other ways, though, their behaviour (so far) matches the romantic ideal rather than the brutal reality.
More than 200 kidnapped sailors are being well looked after on a dozen hijacked ships that have been moored at the fishing port of Eyl; or, in the case of the Sirius Star, their biggest prize, a few hundred miles down the Somali coast at Harardheere. No harm has been done to them. What their captors want are dollars from the ships' owners, not the blood of their crews. With this in mind, a Somali pirate with historical leanings might scoff at the outrage of David Miliband and consider the case of Thomas Avery, whose old exploits in the present Somali hunting ground, the Gulf of Aden, make modern piracy look like peacetime manoeuvres by a marine branch of the Fabian Society.
According to the historian David Cordingly's account, in his book Life Among the Pirates, Avery was a typical British pirate - "of middle height, rather fat, with a dissolute appearance". He was born in Plymouth in 1653, served in the Royal Navy, and then seized command (the captain was drunk at the time) of an English privateer - a privately owned ship licensed by the government to attack the state's enemies. By 1695, he was prowling at the entrance to the Red Sea waiting for the pilgrim fleet that sailed every year from India to Mecca, filled with valuables, because pilgrimage was also an opportunity to trade, and protected by the heavily armed ships of the Great Mogul in Delhi. Avery got lucky. One of his cannonballs dismasted the Great Mogul's flagship, which was not only carrying piles of gold and silver but also many slave girls and, it was said, one of the Great Mogul's daughters. What Cordingly calls "an orgy of rape, torture and plunder" lasted days and Avery's crew got away with the equivalent of £1,000 each.
The English government was embarrassed - it needed to preserve the East India Company's relationship with the Mogul emperor - and eventually caught six of the pirates and had them hanged. Avery himself vanished; rumour suggests he died in poverty in Devon, rather like Ben Gunn at the end of Treasure Island who spent a thousand pounds in 19 days and was "back begging on the twentieth". Like most pirates, Avery was an amoral opportunist who switched easily among the blurred divisions between privateering, buccaneering and sailing as a navy or merchant seaman (by the end of the 17th century the average age of a pirate was 27 - roughly the same as Somalia's modern pirates - and almost all had begun their working lives in the Royal Navy or on cargo ships).
Still, his legacy was profound: you might even argue that he began the process that enabled the careers of Byron's Corsair, Long John Silver, Captain Hook and Errol Flynn, and has brought us to the recently announced Pirates of Caribbean, Part IV. A now obscure dramatist, Charles Johnson, took the story of Avery's barbarous raid in the Gulf of Aden and turned it into a play, The Successful Pyrate, in which all the horrid facts were left behind.
Avery, now King Arviragus of Madagascar, became the first of piracy's noble outlaws. A captured ship is brought to him. It contains the Mogul's granddaughter, the fair Zaida. Arviragus falls in love, but Zaida loves another: one of her fellow captives, the young Aranes. Disaster! Revelation! Aranes turns out to be Arviragus's long lost son.
The play opened at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in 1713, the first in a succession of pirate melodramas that went on being produced well into the 19th century, until Gilbert and Sullivan's satirical The Pirates of Penzance put an end to them. But where did writers do their research, supposing any were needed? The answer comes from the same period in a book by a Captain Johnson, who in 1724 published A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, which ran to several editions and was translated into French.
Nobody knows who Johnson was: a theory that Daniel Defoe was the author has now been discredited. But his book became the seminal text. Out of it came the public's first appreciation of Blackbeard and Captain Kidd and the two women pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonny. Robert Louis Stevenson consulted it, when, in a Highland cottage during the wet and chill summer of 1881, he began to devise an entertainment for his stepson. Nobody in Johnson's book says "yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" but there is a vivid description of "a fellow with a terrible pair of whiskers, and a wooden leg, being stuck around with pistols ... swearing and vapouring on the quarter deck".
By the time Stevenson invented John Silver, real pirates were at best a folk memory in the western world. A few might survive in the South China Sea, but efficient navies had destroyed them elsewhere. Motivation had also been reduced. Pirates often fenced their stolen cargoes to smugglers, but free trade had dramatically lowered import duties and smuggling died as an occupation.
The way was open for the pirate as an antihero, the rebel against society, or simply a comic character as in Captain Hook. As Pieter van der Merwe of the National Maritime Museum says: "Blackbeard was a terrible man - a psychopath - but piracy had been effectively wiped out in the 18th century. You forgot the fact that it was a curse.'
It became a hobby. Philip Gosse, the son of litterateur and memoirist Edmund Gosse, was a doctor who collected nearly 500 books on piracy and in 1932 published an authoritative history of the subject (his library is now the Gosse collection at the National Maritime). And next it became a study, with historians anxious to revise or enlarge our previously simple ideas. Some pirates were proto-feminists and others gay (Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition, 1983). In The Many-Headed Hydra, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker define pirate ships as "multinational, multicultural and multiracial" institutions - fine little democracies - that resisted the oppression of the capitalist merchant shipping industry. Pirates were "egalitarian, class-conscious and justice-seeking" and always shared their spoils.
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