Amid the widespread relief that the captain of the Maersk Alabama, Richard Phillips, was freed from the Somali pirates, there is a growing feeling among the left that those pirates are "misunderstood." The idea of those pirates as really being some sort of seafaring ecologists seems to have begun with Al-Jazeera last October with this article by Najad Abdullahi:
Somali pirates have accused European firms of dumping toxic waste off the Somali coast and are demanding an $8m ransom for the return of a Ukranian ship they captured, saying the money will go towards cleaning up the waste.
The ransom demand is a means of "reacting to the toxic waste that has been continually dumped on the shores of our country for nearly 20 years", Januna Ali Jama, a spokesman for the pirates, based in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, said.
"The Somali coastline has been destroyed, and we believe this money is nothing compared to the devastation that we have seen on the seas."
This portayal of Somali pirates as ecological warriors, not greedy robbers was also picked up by the usual suspects in the leftwing blogosphere. Michael Vazquez today used his Huffington Post blog to reprint an essay on the subject by a Canadian-Somali singer, K'naan:
Can anyone ever really be for piracy? Outside of sea bandits, and young girls fantasizing of Johnny Depp, would anyone with an honest regard for good human conduct really say that they are in support of Sea Robbery?
Well, in Somalia, the answer is: it's complicated.
The news media these days has been covering piracy in the Somali coast with such lop-sided journalism, that it's lucky they're not on a ship themselves. It's true that the constant hijacking of vessels in the Gulf of Aden is a major threat to the vibrant trade route between Asia and Europe. It is also true that for most of the pirates operating in this vast shoreline, money is the primary objective.
But according to so many Somalis, the disruption of Europe's darling of a trade route, is just Karma biting a perpetrator in the butt. And if you don't believe in Karma, maybe you believe in recent history...
...But while Europeans are well in their right to protect their trade interest in the region, our pirates were the only deterrent we had from an externally imposed environmental disaster. No one can say for sure that some of the ships they are now holding for ransom were not involved in illegal activity in our waters. The truth is, if you ask any Somali, if getting rid of the pirates only means the continuous rape of our coast by unmonitored Western Vessels, and the producing of a new cancerous generation, we would all fly our pirate flags high.
Judging from the comments on this blog, many at the Huffington Post agree with the premise about the pirates as misunderstood protectors of the environment:
Thank you very much for this article. I have been aghast at the adolescent, abominable cheering going on over the killing of some of the "pirates" in the recent hostage situation - as if each head shot were nothing more than of a 3-pointer from mid-court.
Dosen't surprise me that this was taking place. SHAME on those doing the dumping they should have to pay for the clean up and restitution to he sick and the Pirates need to agree to stand down on their Pirating
I'm glad someone is telling the truth about this situation. You'll never hear it from CNN and Faux News that's for sure.
The seafaring ecologist theme was also picked up back in January by Johann Hari in an opinion piece in the UK Independent:
Pirates have never been quite who we think they are. In the "golden age of piracy" – from 1650 to 1730 – the idea of the pirate as the senseless, savage Bluebeard that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often saved from the gallows by supportive crowds. Why? What did they see that we can't? In his book Villains Of All Nations, the historian Marcus Rediker pores through the evidence.
Hari then presents the image of pirates as egalitarians:
Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied – and created a different way of working on the seas. Once they had a ship, the pirates elected their captains, and made all their decisions collectively, without torture. They shared their bounty out in what Rediker calls "one of the most egalitarian plans for the disposition of resources to be found anywhere in the eighteenth century".
The defense of piracy then extends to the present day Somali pirates:
...As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.
...At the same time, other European ships have been looting Somalia's seas of their greatest resource: seafood. We have destroyed our own fish stocks by overexploitation – and now we have moved on to theirs. More than $300m-worth of tuna, shrimp, and lobster are being stolen every year by illegal trawlers. The local fishermen are now starving. Mohammed Hussein, a fisherman in the town of Marka 100km south of Mogadishu, told Reuters: "If nothing is done, there soon won't be much fish left in our coastal waters."
This is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged. Somalian fishermen took speedboats to try to dissuade the dumpers and trawlers, or at least levy a "tax" on them. They call themselves the Volunteer Coastguard of Somalia – and ordinary Somalis agree. The independent Somalian news site WardheerNews found 70 per cent "strongly supported the piracy as a form of national defence".
See, the Somali pirates are really just fishermen levying a tax on foreign ships. Of course, this whole idea of Somali pirates as heroes has been picked up in many other parts of the blogosphere including the Daily Kos and Democratic Underground. So if you soon hear a call for ransom to be paid to the pirates in the guise of "compensation," don't be too surprised. And the justification has already been provided by the sources listed here.