Is it time to give modern pirates a moral break?

How the swashbuckling archetype of pirates-past became today’s image of oceanic terrorists — a spiritual response

johnny-depp1GUEST COLUMN: AMY LEASK — We’ve been incredibly spoiled by the likes of Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.  Thanks to them we’ve become enamored with knee-high leather boots, gold hoop earrings and shoulder-perched parrots.

Very few of us made it through childhood without donning an eye patch and blackening out a tooth or two at Halloween.

Well into our adult years, it’s still acceptable to sport shoes with skulls and crossbones, or joke about being a swashbuckler while downloading songs and movies from the internet.

There’s very little that isn’t cool about being a pirate at least for those of us who’ve never left shore or had to swing a sword.

Pirates are rock stars.  Pirates are the ultimate rebels.

There are no sales meetings on the high seas, and peg-legged radicals need not cut the grass or get oil changes.  We’re in love with pirates because they embody our most deep-seated desire to flip society the bird, to become completely unencumbered by convention and polite society.

So it’s no wonder that we are a trifle shocked by the harsh reality of present-day Somali oceanic thugs. It wakes one up to the fact that pirates have never been the slick, charming characters of Disney Inc. iconography.  Hearing that pirates weren’t really gold-toothed adventurers is tantamount to being told that the Easter Bunny has worms, or that Santa really hates kids.

The world has a long history of piracy

The ugly truth is that pirates have been around since at least 13th century BC, and not because it was an interesting career move that enabled them to see the world.

Those who can recall their Roman history will remember that Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom.  As promised, he returned not long after his ransom had been paid to crucify his ex-captors.  Talk about holding a grudge!

Even in its infancy, piracy was an act of desperation, a treacherous and difficult way of life taken on by those without many other options.

Amidst the Disney adventures and colorful cartoons, few people realize that even in the “glory days” of high-seas piracy, most involved teetered on the brink of starvation, were prey to all manner of diseases, rarely got to keep anything they acquired and usually died young.  Perhaps they were the first to embody the the mantra, “live fast, die young.”

Add to that the fact that lifesaving devices were in short supply, and that the ocean has a nasty habit of swallowing things up without warning, and suddenly the drudgery of modern urban living starts to sound fairly appealing.

Motivation for piracy today same as historical reasons

Even more shocking is the news that pirates still operate. . .that they really do exist (most recently in the news is the action off the coast of Somalia).   And there are other current “hot spots” for pirating, include Brazil, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Indonesia.

som-pirateWhile it’s difficult to justify or excuse looting and hijacking, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that the motivation for stealing on the open ocean hasn’t radically changed over the last few hundred years.

One of the most legendary of the British pirates, Edward Thatch or Teach (you’ll know him better by his “sea” name Blackbeard) enjoyed a vibrant pirating life, being the most active between 1716-1718, from a home base in the British colony of North Carolina.

Apparently the townspeople didn’t mind having a pirate in their midst, as long as they were able to buy cut (literally) rate goods from him.  In a hilarious twist of fate it was a week long “pirate party” that Blackbeard hosted that finally got under the skin of his neighbors, resulting in his death by Lieutenant Maynard, by order of the Governor of Virginia.

In a curious twist of fate it is now Americans and the British who are the most vehemently opposed to the Somalian pirates, conveniently forgetting that both countries have a history of piracy themselves!  Apparently what goes around, comes around, even if it takes 300 years to do so.

Present day piracy…not so much fun

Modern pirates, like their predecessors, fail to please in the glitz and glamor department.  Visions of peg legs and treasure chests give way to anxious, hungry people in fishing boats, some rocking unusually impressive weapons (you have to wonder where the AK-47s come from) and not a whole lot to lose.

abdul-wali-museMany are teenagers, like Abdul Wali Muse (pictured at right), a Somalian being held in custody in the U.S. who will have the dubious honor of being the first person to be tried for piracy in a hundred years in the U.S.  Quite often modern pirates hail from countries without the resources, money or infrastructure to properly police illegal activities off shore.

In the movies, the good guys (or better guys at least) swoop in and send the scurvy knaves back to Davy’s Jones’ locker, while orchestral music swells in the background.

In real life, there’s concern that swooping in to save the day may actually push pirates to take more drastic action, as was the case when an American, Captain Richard Phillips, was taken hostage on the Maersk Alabama.  In short, pirates aren’t quite the mast-swinging adrenaline junkies we envision.  They’re real human beings, making some morally questionable decisions, and resorting to drastic measures in order to put food on the table.

It’s time to put the myths aside

Like pick pockets, prostitutes and crack dealers, pirates do what they do because it’s sometimes easier than the alternatives.

pirate-costumeWe like the Easter Bunny cute and fluffy, we like Santa to be jolly, and we like our pirates to be charmingly roguish.  The first two stereotypes are fairly innocent.  What is the harm in projecting our hopes and dreams on to fictional characters?  In the case of pirates, however, our overactive sense of romance and adventure has a habit of getting in the way of understanding the root of the problem.

Where does blame get placed?  Do we point the finger squarely at the perpetrators, who not only fail to live up to our fantastic expectations, but choose to make their living robbing fellow seafarers at gun point?

Tempting, but the old adage about their being two sides to every story applies here.  The love-hate sentiments we feel toward pirates seem to be a symptom of a bigger disease our desire to lump people into categories of good and evil, neither of which is a comfortable fit for any human.

This isn’t to say that the rest of the world should turn a blind eye to the crimes being committed, but we do need to look at the larger picture.  It’s important to recognize that given the choice, most human beings would prefer to be snug in their beds with a full belly after an honest day’s work, as opposed to boasting a job description that includes being a target for freakishly accurate Navy Seal snipers.

The decision to step outside of conventional morality is seldom based solely on a desire to do evil, and more often based on extenuating circumstances.  Perhaps it’s time we stop glorifying pirates, and see what we can do to make life on dry land a little more appealing, for all of us.

Amy is a freelance writer and educator, with a particular interest in spirituality and a love for fiction, poetry and children’s literature.  Read more of her work on her blog and her site.   One of her other articles for Soul’s Code is Gross! The great unifier of the human collective.

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9 Responses to “Is it time to give modern pirates a moral break?”

  1. Pippa Bartolotti Reply 17. May, 2009 at 7:54 am

    Excellent piece!

    But I am still beguiled by the sport of crossing all borders with oblivion, taking on the unknown and the general lack of respect for law or authority.

    Maybe this is because my great great uncle Jo was a hearty Cornish smuggler of some repute…

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