For several years now I have been trying to work out what has gone out of kilter in Britain. And I have to admit I don’t get it all. If it is something political, it is not like anything taught in any political science course I know of.
There are innumerable instances of this peculiar dysfunction (death wish?) such as councils sending juvenile delinquents on Caribbean holidays while brave Gurkha ex-soldiers are allowed to starve to death on barren Nepalese hilltops, but the British attitude to piracy seems a good example of what is happening.
It is certainly true that a lot of other countries are not much better, or even worse, but in this matter Britain seems a particularly egregious example of impotence and paralysis, given its proud history as principal guardian of the freedom of the seas.
Civilized countries have fought pirates at sea, with no messing about, for as far back as history can be traced. Julius Caesar was captured by pirates as a young man. While waiting to be ransomed he became quite friendly with his captors and joked that after his release he would return and crucify them all. Or at least the pirates, who did not know Caesar well, thought he was joking…
Britain, having given rise to the Elizabethan buccaneers, then led the world in stamping piracy out. One of the worst British pirates, Henry Morgan, was knighted and made governor of Jamaica. Knowing all the tricks of the trade he gradually rounded up and hanged many of his former colleagues. The notorious Edward Teach (“Blackbeard”) met his end at the hands of Lieutenant Robert Maynard, RN, who, after an epic cutlass duel sailed into port with Teach’s head swinging from his bowsprit. A couple of female pirates of the same era got off on what was known as a “belly plea” (they were pregnant).
Methods of execution varied. A large letter “E” painted on a wall at the Thames marks Execution Dock, where, it is said, pirates were chained to drown by having three tides pass over them. Their corpses were then covered in pitch and hung in iron cages on prominent headlands as a hint to other mariners to keep to the straight and narrow.
With considerable effort and sacrifice Britain took the lead in abolishing slave-trading and at the same time also took the lead in sweeping away piracy, holding pirates to be the common enemies of all mankind. Many a Victorian British sailor cut his teeth on anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean.
By the late 19th century piracy at sea had all but disappeared. As Kipling put it, 19th century ships could sail without fear:
Ye have smoked the hives of the Laccadives as we burn the lice in a bunk,
We tack not now for a Gallang prow or a plunging Pei-ho junk;
After a brief outbreak at the end of the Napoleonic wars, by the late 19th century, with its complacent assurance in the advance of civilization, pirates has become nostalgic and comic figures, with their (partly apocryphal) plank-walking, eye-patches and peg-legs, a sure sign that their day in the real world was considered done.
In the Australian children’s classic, Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding, the disillusioned sailorman Bill Barnacle lamented:
So one fine day I sails away,
A pirate for to be.
But I found there was never a pirate left
On the coast of Caribee,
For pirates go, but their next of kin
Are merchant captains hard as sin,
And merchant mates, as hard as nails
Aboard of every ship that sails …
Or as John Masefield put it:
Alas, the quiddling pirates and the pretty pranks they played
Have all been put a stop to by the naughty Board of Trade;
The schooners and their merry crews are laid away to rest,
A little south of sunset, in the Islands of the Blest …
As well as pirate verses, schools of pirate paintings sprang up, led by Howard Pyle in the U.S. and Norman Lindsay in Australia. I remember being taught at school that the coming of the steamship had put an end to piracy, except, perhaps for a few quaint and queer places like the pre-revolutionary China coast.
That, however, was then and this is now. It seems grotesque that high-tech modern navies seem able to do almost nothing about Somali pirates, who are apparently getting their information about ship movements electronically from the information flowing in and out of Lloyds, the Baltic Exchange, and similar high-tech sources. Most bizarre of all, British ships, which led the world in stamping piracy out before, have been at the center of a series of incidents that seem to demonstrate civilization’s impotence in the matter.
The strikingly misnamed Wave Knight, a navy support ship with a contingent of heavily armed marines aboard, did nothing when pirates seized a yacht and the couple aboard from virtually alongside it. The victims were kept prisoner for months and badly mistreated. Journalist Melanie Phillips, whose predictions in this area have been proven correct by events, has written that “human rights law …has driven our legal system so catastrophically off the rails.”
Royal Navy ships (such as there still are) have been ordered not to capture pirates because, once they have taken them on board, they are not allowed to return them to Somalia or other African states where their human rights might be violated by the unenlightened authorities. However, in one of the latest incidents, pirates captured by HMS Cornwall were given meals of specially-prepared halal food, medical check-ups, cigarettes and, in one case, a nicotine patch, before being released, while, presumably, Robert Maynard spun in his grave. Apparently legal opinion was that there was no framework to prosecute them. This is odd when the outlawing of piracy is one of the oldest examples in existence of nations agreeing to a common international law. Pirates were traditionally held to be Hostis Humani Generis, or generic enemies of all humanity. In 1827 the British government defined piracy to include slaver-trading, making slave-trading punishable by death. The first post-revolutionary ships of the U.S. Navy were built to help suppress Barbary pirates and slavers in the Mediterranean in conjunction with the Royal Navy and other European powers.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Praveen Swami has stated that pirates took 1,065 hostages last year, up from 867 in 2009 and 165 in 2007. It would appear that giving pirates meals and cigarettes does not have a strong deterrent effect on their activities, especially not compared to the Caesar/Maynard methods. He quotes Jack Lang, the UN Special Advisor on pirates (why does the UN need a special advisor on pirates? Our friend Lieutenant Maynard got by without one and dealing with them is not, or should not be, exactly complicated), to the effect that 90% of those captured are released because of legal issues. According to the International Maritime Bureau, 587 hostage crewmen and 28 ships are being held right now. Given the weapons and equipment at the disposal of modern navies, this is a staggering figures.
Not all pirates have been quite as fortunate as those taken aboard HMS Cornwall for hospitality, however. Last summer a gang made the mistake of boarding a Russian ship, the Moscow University (a name almost as inappropriate in its way as the unknightly Wave Knight). Russian special forces promptly stormed the vessel. Later Russian authorities claimed to have released the pirates, but then stated cryptically that: “they could not reach the coast, and, apparently, all have died.” I think it is a reasonably safe bet that it will be some time before an attempt is made to hijack another Russian ship.
However, in Britain itself pirates have not had a completely free run: authorities have cracked down in their own peculiar way. There have been cases of local councils banning children’s pirate parties where skull-and-crossed-bones flags are flown. And no, I am not making this up.