Aargh! and Release: Fishers of Men and Money in Somalia
October 8, 2010 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Are today’s ‘Barbary Pirates’ (i.e., Somalis engaging in high seas piracy) able accurately to be so-labeled? Not according to The New York Times East Africa bureau chief, Jeffrey Gettleman, and for several good reasons, presented in the current NYRB.

Moreover let us not forget that these pirates (who seem surely a kinder, gentler sort than those slavers of yore) suffer hugely at home from having had their coastal fisheries devastated, to say nothing of problems from pollution and tsunamis. It seems a case of ‘twin piracies’ in Somalia, one labeled ‘wrong,’ the other buried and forgotten in a sea of bad pirate jokes and fear-amping journalism.
posted by JL Sadstone (6 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Moreover let us not forget that these pirates ... suffer hugely at home from having had their coastal fisheries devastated

From your first-linked article:
Somalia is a long, thin coastal state, but most Somalis are not seafaring people. Even when it was somewhat stable, Somalia never developed much of a fishing industry, despite the fact that the Somali seas are teaming with tuna, shark, lobster, deep-water shrimp, and whitefish. Traditional Somali culture is rooted in pastoralism and goats and camels and the nomadic quest of finding the next green pasture. “Fish eater” in Somali is a derogatory term. ... While Somalis may not have prized their seas, others do.


Boyah, who is known throughout Somalia as a pioneer pirate ... had been relocated to the coast from the hinterland as part of a government program to help drought victims. He dropped out of school when he was around eight and worked as a cook on a fishing boat.


Boyah said that Somalia’s piracy trade began when fishermen like him armed themselves and forcefully boarded illegal trawlers to charge a “fine,” usually no more than a few thousand dollars. But the fishermen soon realized that the fishing fine was more lucrative than the fish.

Bad government reacts badly to an environmental problem. Bad government has no economic policy, forcing children into bad working environments. Bad government has no means to enforce a rule of law, either domestically or on the high seas. Bad government gets replaced by worse government, i.e. no government.

Now, other bad governments just pay ransoms (and at only $100 million in recent years, according to the article, it's kind of a bargain), which only makes the problem worse.

And we're surprised by this ... how?

I predict a return to imperialism in the latter half of the 21st century. Not because anyone's interested in, say, shipping cotton back to Britain. But because it will be seen as the only thing that can "work."

And if that doesn't work ... the Indian Ocean will just stop being a viable travel corridor.

Maybe Egypt will invade and occupy the southern coastline of the Red Sea ... Maybe India, flush with cash and in a safe, military stalemate with Pakistan, will build a true blue-water navy and try to "own" Indian Ocean shipping, starting with violently clearing pirates from the Gulf of Aden.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:04 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't they actually have to be from the Barbary Coast to be called Barbary pirates/corsairs?
posted by Amanojaku at 2:08 PM on October 8, 2010

Now, other bad governments just pay ransoms (and at only $100 million in recent years, according to the article, it's kind of a bargain), which only makes the problem worse.

It's not the goverments who pay the ransoms, it's the shipping companies and perhaps their insurance companies, via "kidnap brokers" in London.

From the FT article:
- The leading ship hijack case law firm in terms of numbers of clients is said to be Holman Fenwick Willan, which has offices north-west of the Tower of London. James Gosling, partner at HFW, said: “Nobody wants to pay ransoms. But when it’s the only option, what the hell else do you do?”
posted by iviken at 3:28 PM on October 8, 2010

The Gettleman piece is a pretty disgusting bit of colonialist crap - which means it's perfect for the New York Times. It reeks of condescension and arrogance. While it's filled with tasty, on-the-ground anecdotes that give it some face validity (in a kind of "I've been there, man, I KNOW Somalia" way), it's all wrapped up in a colonialist narrative which quotes favorably from "classic" racist writings about Somalian "savages" who are just like we were "a million years ago."

He constantly clucks his tongue at the backwards natives, flings pejoratives left and right, and all with the suggestion that there is something inherently bad about the country and its people, and that when you just get down to it, it's all their own damn fault. When he gets around to talking about how the US used Somalia and the region, the worst word he can come up with is "fickleness." He has nothing negative to say about the illegal dumping of radioactive waste by (un-named) companies, and doesn't mention that evidently hundreds have died from this. He also doesn't bother to note what countries they - or the fishing boats that were decimating the Somalian fishing industry for years - come from. And he doesn't mention that the total money paid in ransom is much less than the value of fish that is stolen every year from Somalia coastal waters by European trawlers.

He claims that Somalia "has always been a difficult place to rule," and then goes on to cite the attempts by England and Italy to colonize it, as if this says anything at all about Somalian's ability to govern themselves! He sums up colonialism as just an attempt "to impose Western laws," which was then thwarted by the traditional vengeance mindset of Somalians. It clearly doesn't occur to him that colonialism actually involved destroying long-standing social and political institutions that had centuries of legitimacy behind them, and replacing them with alien institutions in the context of foreign subjugation, brutality and humiliation. Nope, for him, it's basically all just the White Man's Burden, which once again is thwarted by stupid Africans.

Perhaps most egregiously, he suggests a good old imperialist solution (because, hey, "The Pirates Are Winning!": "Yet one lesson from the Barbary days that shouldn’t be dismissed is how the piracy was finally stopped: the young American navy bombarded Tripoli and the French invaded Algiers." Or perhaps, he notes, Blackwater (!!!) should be given the job to finally bring those Somalian thugs with their poisonous politics and backwards "sub-subclans" into the modern world.

It's this kind of journalism which helps to keep people in the US so misinformed, and to create the unique combination of ignorance, arrogance and cynicism which commonly passes for thinking about the world in the US. It doesn't surprise me at all that Gettleman is New York Times East Africa bureau chief. Back in the 90's, there was a great little magazine called Lies of Our Times which critiqued the "newspaper of record." They would have had a field day with this article.

"Because it's cheaper to kill the people in this African nation with their industrial waste than it is to dispose of it properly."

This one sentence from the pollution article has more truth in it than anything Gettleman has to say.

It's also worth checking out this:

"Did we expect starving Somalians to stand passively on their beaches, paddling in our toxic waste, and watch us snatch their fish to eat in restaurants in London and Paris and Rome? … The story of the 2009 war on piracy was best summarised by another pirate, who lived and died in the fourth century BC. He was captured and brought to Alexander the Great, who demanded to know "what he meant by keeping possession of the sea." The pirate smiled, and responded: "What [do] you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you, who do it with a great fleet, are called emperor.""
posted by williampratt at 3:54 PM on October 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sorry, but no amount of "look how bad they have it" is going to make piracy any more palatable, or less evil, to me. Nor am I willing to call theft, kidnapping, and murder on other ships anything but piracy.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:57 PM on October 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

“Taxes are annoying,” explained one olive oil exporter in Mogadishu about why he was buying missiles for insurgents.

Ah, conservatism.
posted by washburn at 1:24 PM on October 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

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