Hostis humani generis

Or, “enemy of humankind”. That’s how Marcus Tullius Cicero characterized the pirates of his day. Pirates, buccaneers, corsairs, freebooters, bajak. The so-called “Golden Age” of piracy in American waters and the Caribbean extended from roughly 1690 to 1730. During the Golden Age dozens, scores, or even hundreds of pirate ships were in operation, disrupting mercantile traffic, murdering, raping, kidnapping, robbing and otherwise creating mayhem. Pirates besieged or sacked the cities and towns of

  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • Maracaibo, Venezuela
  • Puerto Principe (now Camagüey), Cuba
  • Portobello, Panama
  • Gibraltar, Venezuela

and many others, in some cases holding whole populations for ransom.

Although the U. S. Coast Guard has largely eliminated piracy in American waters and the Caribbean, it’s by no means extinct: losses due to piracy account for something like $15 billion per year, especially off the Somali coast and in the vicinity of Singapore and the Straits of Malacca. Piracy is the broadest exception to the principle that a ship on the high seas is subject to the protection of, and jurisdiction of, her flag state.

I’ve read libertarian and Marxist apologies for piracy but, frankly, I think these are romantic fancies. Piracy becoming a significant problem seems to follow a pattern.

The imperial powers of the day (England, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands) had already staked their claims to
various parts of the globe but had not extended their power, their law, to their new colonies. While there were contending states there was also an anarchic vacuum.

One of the ways that the contending states extended their powers was by contracting it out: they issued letters of marque and reprisal to private captains to harass the ships and outposts of opposing states, in some cases actually paying such contractors. State support was a critical component in making piracy economically viable.

As with anything else when you subsidize piracy, you get more of it and, when the War of Spanish Succession ended, there was a large pool of privateers who simply continued what they had been doing without official sanction.

That’s the environment in which piracy flourished: absence of the power of the state to oppose it, states supporting non-state actors to promote their own objectives, a pool of people with the required skills and interests.

Although piracy was clearly a matter of law enforcement putting it down was beyond the powers of local constabularies: just as creating the conditions under which piracy flourished required the involvement of central governments so did putting piracy down. There were three key factors which accomplished this.

First, the laws of the sea were changed to make piracy easier to prosecute. Second, armies and navies eliminated pirate bases and actively pursued pirates. Finally, states extended their own power sufficiently that they no longer supported non-state actors.

Comparing piracy and terrorism is not a new idea. See for example this post by Mary Madigan and this article by Douglas Burgess.

We’re going to need to revise our laws to make terrorism easier to prosecute. It may, indeed, be true that the practices of the Bush Administration have made it difficult to prosecute terrorists for their crimes. I simply don’t know. But I do know that it hasn’t only been hard here: it’s been difficult in the United Kingdom and in Germany. There have been very, very few successful prosecutions for terrorism since the attacks of five years ago.

We’re also going to have to eliminate terrorist bases using military force as required. We made a start at this in Afghanistan but it’s only a start (I differ from many in that I’m relatively uninterested in spreading democracy or nation-building). There are lots of other terrorist bases that need to be identified and closed down.

Finally, states must be discouraged from sponsoring terrorism. That includes us. That will require a combination of law, political reform, vigorous prosecution and, yes, military action. Frankly, I’m not sure we’re up to it.

For more on piracy see here. For a timeline of piracy see here.

UPDATE:  Synchronicity.  Mark Thoma of Economist’s View quotes in full an article from the New York Times on Rome’s response to piracy more than 2,000 years ago.

16 comments… add one
  • What a very interesting parallel! It smacks of something that might even be useful. If.

  • Without blogging, there’s no way I would have learned so much about pirates today.

  • Fascinating. I swear I hadn’t read the article you linked to, Mark. Synchronicity.

  • Mate, you should be interested in nation building and spreading democracy. Without those over-arching goals, you’re merely opening a trench with a rusty old fork.

    A losing proposition.

    However, democracy building and nation building are not the just-add-water-instant processes that the current American administration wished, but long term propositions. Nation building especially, and most realistically. Of course, in some places merely creating stability is nation building.

  • lirelou

    The timeline on piracy fails to connect the dots with the European events that sparked the phenomenon, and of course no study of Caribbean piracy is worthwhile without a brief overview of the Atlantic currents and trade winds that governed sea transport in the days of sail. The treaty of Tordesillas, the Protestant Reformation, Europe’s religious wars, the rise of Charles the 5th as Holy Roman Emperor, the perfection of the Spanish Army as the first modern army, the closing of English ports to Spanish shipping in conjunction with the Dutch War of Independence, all contributed to the rise of irregular naval forces waging war against Spanish interests in the Caribbean and further afield in the 15 and 1600s. Cumberland, Henrijk Baudoin, Henry Morgan, and Francis Drake were real admirals of the “ocean sea” and hardly cartoonish (though thoroughly entertaining) Johnny Depp caricatures.

  • One of the areas in which I differ strongly from the present administration, Lounsbury, is that I don’t believe that liberal democracy will spring forth spontaneously when tyranny is removed. I think it’s a lot more complex than that.

    Would I like to see liberal democracy everywhere? Sure. Do I think it can be accomplished in the next four years or even the four years after that? No.

    Things like the rule of law, an independent judiciary, defense of the rights of minorities aren’t byproducts of liberal democracy. They’re the foundations of it.

    In my view when you remove a tyrannical government what’s likely to happen is that the strongest underlying institutions are probably going to re-assert themselves. Whether that’s good for us or good for the people of the country involved is another story.

    If there’s going to be a spreading of liberal democracy in other than geological time, it will take significantly more spadework than, frankly, I think we have the patience to undertake. Perhaps the synergy between the U. S. and Europe could accomplish that but right now we’re both too damn solipsistic.

    Just my view.

  • lirelou:

    Indeed. Specialization and focus have their benefits but, when examining history, it may have the result in reducing everything to random occurences. Things are connected and happen for reasons.

  • Dave – thanks for the link. I agree – Piracy laws would be most effective if we concentrated on efforts to make terrorism easier to prosecute and to eliminate terrorist bases. By doing that. we would discourage state sponsorship of terrorism. People use terrorism as a weapon because it’s a cheap and easy way to wage war. When it becomes expensive and difficult, they’ll try something else – or hopefully they’ll give up?

  • The point I’m trying to emphasize, mary, is the essential role that states play in creating a milieu in which terrorism may thrive and providing ongoing support for it. I’d like to see more attention paid to the states that promote terrorism.

    And I’d like to see us have a greater commitment to not supporting it ourselves.

  • I’d like to see more attention paid to the states that promote terrorism.
    And I’d like to see us have a greater commitment to not supporting it ourselves.

    I agree, but we should also note that terrorism, state supported or not, does thrive within democracies – mostly because we have shown that we’re completely incapable of effectively fighting it. For the pathologically immoral state, group or individual, terrorism is a pragmatic solution to the problem of trying to wrest power from a well-armed Democracy.

    Our democracy did successfully fight piracy in the past, which is why I have hope for these laws.

  • Eh?

    One of the areas in which I differ strongly from the present administration, Lounsbury, is that I don’t believe that liberal democracy will spring forth spontaneously when tyranny is removed. I think it’s a lot more complex than that.

    Well, of course, and if you mean in writing “nation building” believing in the magical democracy fairy then I agree.

    I am perhaps not fully in contact with the strange circumlocutions in America today.

  • My interpretation of the present administration’s policies and actions is that they believe that all that prevents democracy breaking out everywhere is the presence of oppressive regimes. Remove the oppressive regimes and, voila!

    Or, as you put it “the magical democracy fairy”.

  • Fletcher Christian

    Personally, I don’t give a toss whether the enemy’s countries are democratic, monarchies, theocracies or ruled by six-eyed BEMs from the planet Zog.

    What I do care about is that they don’t try to attack us, or take us over by any other means.

    What ought to be done is to tell the enemy (and we all know who they are) of our future intentions, and carry them out. To tell them what the equation is.

    The equation? One of our buildings equals one of their cities.

  • Jason Young

    Or maybe they used terrorism as a last resort against us because we support oppressive regimes in the region such as the Saudi family (who many Muslims view as illegitimately occupying their holiest cities), the various dictators of Egypt, the Israeli occupation of Palestine (certainly an immensely complicated property dispute), our imposition on the population of Iran with the brutal Shah (the current government is really almost as brutal but most people prefer domestic tyranny to foreign rule which is equally brutal), our support of Saddam throughout the 90’s, followed by the brutal sanctions which many believed killed at least half a million children and when Sec of State Madeline Albright was asked was it worth the deaths of 500,000 children to weaken Saddam she said that it was worth it. The Sec of State of the US which is the highest ranking cabinet position in our country said that it was worth the deaths of 500,000 innocent Muslim children just to send a message to the dictator of an artificially created state. The sanctions against Iraq were one of the reasons given for the attacks of 9/11.

    That’s not to mention the “collateral damage” from our bombing of various countries since WWII. Stop looking at the world through American tinted glasses and empathize with these common people. I assume most of you reading this are Christians which means that you are supposed to see people as people not as nationalities.

    We’ve had a foreign policy of bullying and harassing various peoples of the world for 50 years and of blooding noses and on 9/11 we got our nose blooded back and sadly it wasn’t the elites who made those choices that died it was innocent people going to work or getting ready to fly home or to business meetings or whatever other business they may have had who died for their (the elites and politicians) policies of murder and oppression. Those people weren’t responsible any more than any other average American but there certainly were people who made choices saying that they represented our wishes that were responsible for the things that Bin Laden and his organization (who were trained by us to fight the Soviets back in the 1980’s) said he attacked us for. America is experiencing blowback for our past policies of intervention throughout the world and now that the Soviet menace is passed it is time for us to once again become a neutral country and to adopt a policy of non-intervention in most situations so long as we are not attacked. We can’t undo our past mistakes but we can stop going down the road we are currently on and pull back or armies and reduce their influence across the world and stop playing balance of power politics as much as possible. The various nations of Europe bankrupted themselves doing what we are doing and yet we have not heeded the lessons of the mistakes of the past thinking that somehow we have become immune to the same economic and social forces that brought down past great powers of the world including inflation of the money supply. We have to stop the cycle of violence. Trade and friendship with all nations entangling alliances with none.

    I hope that all of you support the one candidate who can actually start to change this country and that is US Representative Ron Paul who is running under the Republican ticket for President to be a new Goldwater or Reagan. We have to give up our warfare-welfare state and return to living within our means and start repaying the huge amounts of debt we have acquired.

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