Friday, April 17, 2009

History of Piracy

Interesting how much of the analysis of the Somali pirates is history-based. (Interesting also that most of the analysis only starts after Americans are directly impacted.) Historical evidence proves, once again, pretty pliable to anyone with a strong theory.

Neil Reynolds in the Globe goes back to Jefferson on the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s and concludes that while the effete Europeans and President John Adams knuckled under, the heroic American "placed a higher dollar value on national honour" and wiped them out.

Reynolds cites sources, but Fred Kaplan in Slate undermines much of Reynolds's version, emphasizing the international dimensions of that anti-piracy campaign:
In 1815, the great nations of Europe—Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia—assembled the Congress of Vienna to forge a new balance of power in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire. (More than 200 smaller states and principalities attended the session, as well.) One of the initial motives for holding the congress was to condemn, and coordinate a common policy on, the European slave trade along the Barbary Coast. It was after the congress formed that the Europeans and Americans stopped paying ransom and took action.

Joshua Marshall, noted American political blogger but also a Ph.D in American history, takes a historical perspective on piracy and state power on his Talking Points Memo site, observing that controlling piracy is a classic state responsibility, not to be contracted out to vigilantes, as U.S. politician Ron Paul apparently suggests. Then Marshall gets taken down as a big-power liberal and apologist for American hegemony by historian Chris Bray at the history blog Cliopatria.

Makes me want to reread Marcus Rediker's Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea on Caribbean piracy c1720s. The classic pirate era -- Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Bart Roberts, all the names and imagery that inspired Stevenson in Treasure Island -- began with a war, a collapse of authority in the region, and mass unemployment among seamen -- not unlike Somalia? And it ended when the British navy reasserted state authority and the protection of trading interests by recolonizing pirate lairs, and by chasing down every every pirate ship and "topping them in batches" -- a tall order in today's world.
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