Who imagined that in 2009 the world's governments would be declaring a new War on Pirates? As you read this, the British Royal Navy--backed by the ships of more than two dozen nations, from the US to China--is sailing into Somali waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somali ships and even chasing the pirates onto land, into one of the most broken countries on earth.
But behind the arrr-me-hearties oddness of this tale, there is an untold scandal. The people our governments are labeling as "one of the greatest menaces of our times" have an extraordinary story to tell--and some justice on their side.
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 thief that lingers today was created by the British government in a great propaganda heave. Many ordinary people believed it was false: pirates were often rescued 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 to find out. If you became a merchant or navy sailor then--plucked from the docks of London's East End, young and hungry--you ended up in a floating wooden Hell. You worked all hours on a cramped, half-starved ship, and if you slacked off for a second, the all-powerful captain would whip you with the cat o' nine tails. If you slacked consistently, you could be thrown overboard. And at the end of months or years of this, you were often cheated of your wages.
Pirates were the first people to rebel against this world. They mutinied against their tyrannical captains--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.
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." They even took in escaped African slaves and lived with them as equals. The pirates showed "quite clearly--and subversively--that ships did not have to be run in the brutal and oppressive ways of the merchant service and the Royal navy." This is why they were popular, despite being unproductive thieves.
The words of one pirate from that lost age, a young British man called William Scott, should echo into this new age of...