Everyone who’s upset that Somali pirates captured a Saudi tanker full of $100 million worth of oil, raise your hand. OK, that’s 1, 2 … 31 for the pirates, 0 for Saudi Arabia.
     Everyone who was alarmed when Somali pirates captured that ship full of Russian tanks, bombs, and artillery, raise your hand. OK, that’s 3, 4 … 62 for the pirates, 0 for everybody else.
     The Somali pirates are, quite obviously, murderous bastards, and I didn’t mind a bit when they tried to bully an Indian ship on Tuesday and the INS Tabar turned out to be a guided missile frigate, and it blew the pirates to hell, where they belong.
     But there’s no denying that people all over the world have a thing for pirates.
     Many Somalis today see the pirates as heroes – and no wonder.
     The country hasn’t had a functioning government for 18 years.
     Per capita income for Somalia’s 9 million people is around $500 a year – less than $1.50 a day.
     The pirates, who have seized 36 ships in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, and still hold 17, are expected to earn $50 million this year. That makes piracy the country’s chief source of foreign currency.
     Americans too make heroes out of murderous crooks. In an interview, Elmore Leonard reminded me that during the Depression, a lot of people admired Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde because they robbed banks. And bankers were the guys who foreclosed on farms and houses.
     The Somali pirates did not spring up out of nowhere.
     Western governments used piracy as an instrument of state of hundreds of years. Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh were pirates. Queen Elizabeth asked them, as a special favor, to prey upon Spanish and Dutch ships, and the noble Sirs were glad to do it.
     The famous pirate Harry Morgan was a trusty servant of King Charles II, until Harry absconded with the loot he took from the Spanish off Panama in 1671. Charles had poor Harry arrested – until he needed him again. Then Charles knighted the blighter and turned him loose on the Spanish again.
     E.J. Trelawny told a fine pirate tale in his memoir, Adventures of a Younger Son. Trelawny claims he hooked up two centuries ago with a pirate named De Ruyter, who may have been American. They preyed on British and Dutch ships in the East Indies, and liberated an island from the Dutch East India Company, whereupon the natives treated the pirates as gods, showering them with food and women.
     Trelawny described his life on that island as paradise, though things were a bit rougher at sea. When the pirates spotted prey, they would heat up lead shot, then load it into a cannon and threaten to fire it at the other ship’s sails. If their victims didn’t surrender, the pirates fired, and the other ship burned up.
     For food, pirates caught sea turtles and turned them upside down on deck. The turtles could live that way for months – fresh turtle whenever the pirates wanted.
     I say Trelawny claimed he did all this, because he was a suspicious character. The summer he quit being a pirate, he met Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley and hung out with them. Trelawny taught Shelley how to sail, and Shelley promptly went out and drowned.
     Thanks a lot, EJ.
     Trelawny dined out for years in London on his tales of piracy. And it’s interesting that the English – perhaps the most law-abiding nation of all, except for the Swiss, who are not quite human – the English enjoyed Trelawny’s tales, though he had preyed upon them. That’s how much people like pirates.
     The Somali pirates are living it up now, but it won’t last. They’ll pick on the wrong guided missile frigate again, and no one will shed a tear for them. They’re living on pure pluck and courage and that’s why people admire them, and haven’t killed them all yet.
     That’s pretty much the situation in our country too. Bankers, mortgage lenders, war profiteers and Republicans have looted our country for billions in the past eight years – stealing far more money and wreaking far more destruction than the Somali pirates ever will. But no one is making Angelo Mozilo or Henry Paulson or George W. Bush walk the plank.
     There’s something about theft on a grand scale that appeals to people. Not that the people who do it are not a bunch of bastards who deserve to swing from the nearest yardarm.

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