(This is from November 2008. I pulled it out of the drawer because of the recent intensification in piracy, including the capture of an American captain by Somali pirates)
The hijacking of a supertanker by pirates hundreds of miles off Kenya earlier this month has thrown the spotlight on a phenomenon that had been growing in recent years but to which few had paid much attention. After nearly 200 years of law and order in marine transportation, the rise of piracy appears to be something of an anomaly. But history shows that piracy – the plundering of merchant vessels and the ransoming of their crew and passengers – has always posed a threat to shipping. Piracy flourishes when there is no strong empire that can rule the seas or when a country does not have a government capable of securing the well-being of its people or of maintaining order. In Somalia today there is no credible central government; no one is capable of – or interested in – maintaining order in the coastal areas. Anarchy and neglect push the people into ever greater desperation. Ambitious young men can choose between poverty and crime.
Pirates have a special place in the world’s folk tales and in the collective memory of people like ours, whose history, human geography and architecture has been shaped by piracy. (For example, for centuries no one could build settlements along our coast, for fear of pirates – unless the settlers were pirates themselves).
The oldest reference we have from a somewhat historical source is in Homer, where piracy is presented as the natural consequence of the collapse of the Cretan naval empire. After Minos, the Athenian empire and then Alexander the Great’s fleet maintained some kind of order. Political forces have always exploited pirates in order to harm the interests of their enemies.
We see this through antiquity right up to our recent past. In the Caribbean in the 17th century, for example, France and England encouraged pirate attacks on ships of their common enemy – Spain. Only after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, when Britain became the sole sovereign of the seas, was piracy stamped out.
Ancient Rome presents an especially interesting case. In the last years of the Republic – the 1st century BC – the Romans were undisputed masters of the land and showed little interest in policing the seas. But while they were involved in endless civil wars, piracy developed to such an extent that pirates would also carry out raids inland and more importantly, had also disrupted Rome’s food supply. With less wheat getting in, prices rose so much that fears of famine grew. That’s when – in 67 BC – the general Pompey was granted unprecedented absolute powers to raise a mighty army and fleet and stamp out piracy. The Roman elite was alarmed by the concentration of so much power in the hands of a single man, but Julius Caesar, to further his own plans, pushed the people into demanding Pompey’s appointment. Such was the public’s faith in the great general that his appointment alone sufficed to bring down the price of wheat in Rome. In three months, through methodical and effective campaigning, Pompey had ended the pirates’ reign.
But the road toward supreme authority resting with one man had been opened. This would quickly lead to the end of the republic and the beginning of empire. Caesar and then his adopted son Octavian, who was destined to become the Emperor Augustus, exploited this. Augustus later established an imperial fleet, which maintained order on the seas for nearly 300 years. When the empire weakened, the pirates took control of our region again for more than 1,400 years.
Today, the Somali pirates’ actions are leading to a rise in ships’ insurance premiums and the higher cost of shipping goods via longer routes. These costs will inevitably be passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices. A multinational fleet of warships has assembled off the Horn of Africa. But however much naval forces may try, the only way to beat piracy is to promise Somalia a better future. The secret of Pompey’s success was that when he had captured 20,000 pirates he neither executed them nor did he release them so that they would go back to their old ways. What he did was give them land – and they settled down and became peace-loving farmers.
Comment in Kathimerini English Edition, 24 November 2008