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Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum


Go to a fancy-dress party and there’s a fair chance you’ll see someone dressed up as a pirate, complete with earring, eye patch, wooden leg, cutlass, parrot-on-shoulder and skull-and-crossbones flag. The clothes are invariably in cheerful colours – bright blues, reds, greens and yellows are popular. And pirates’ costumes are still common gifts for little boys. I can’t remember if I ever had one (that fact that I can’t suggests I didn’t), but I’m sure some of my friends did. All good clean fun, with a good dose of male social conditioning thrown in.

At least in Western society, the figure of the pirate has acquired a strangely romantic aura, reflected in pubs and restaurants called The Pirate or The Jolly Roger, Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera The Pirates of Penzance, the ‘swashbuckling’ film roles of the American actor Errol Flynn, Robert Louis Stevenson’s book Treasure Island (which I somehow managed never to read) and the abundance of typical ‘pirate expressions’ like the one in the title of this post (some of them apparently invented for the selfsame book).

The prevailing image is of uncouth, none too clean but basically harmless adventurers with an excessive but perhaps understandable fondness for strong drink and other people’s money. Sure, the eye patches and wooden legs point to an equal fondness for violence; but this somehow gets glossed over in the general admiration, not to say envy, of the pirate’s life of freedom and excitement on the high seas – if you like, a wave-tossed equivalent of the American Wild West. ‘Pirate’ radio stations and ‘pirate’ political parties have completed the general picture of freedom – from bureaucracy, vested interests and all things stifling to individual initiative. Pretty good guys, when it comes down to it.

The reality of piracy is, of course, far nastier. When I was a boy, pirates were essentially fictional characters – a colourful reminder of a distant past now (sadly?) erased by modern, urbanised civilisation. I daresay genuine piracy on the high seas existed even then, but I can’t remember ever hearing about it. In fact, the first time I got a sense of what piracy might still mean in the modern age was in the late 1970s, when large numbers of Vietnamese fled their newly reunified but now communist country in often unseaworthy boats. One of the hazards these ‘boat people’ faced (besides drowning, disease, starvation and shark attack) was piracy – and there was nothing the least bit colourful, romantic or admirable about it. Apart from robbing and killing those on board, the pirates routinely abducted and raped the women and girls among them. Of course, that part of it never got a mention in all the books and films, for it didn’t fit the prevailing image of the ‘adventurous’ pirate. Perhaps something to think about when raising a glass of mulled wine (or rum?) at the oak-beamed Jolly Roger, or tucking into a fireside dinner at The Pirate

More recently, as Somalia lapsed into chaos and turned into what is known as a ‘failed state’, Somali pirates began operating off the East African coast – soon becoming such a menace to fishing boats, yachts, freighters and all other shipping that constant international naval patrols are now needed to keep them in check.

All those who claim government is intrinsically bad (from European anarchists to American neo-cons) might want to bear in mind what can happen when government collapses – or is deliberately undermined by self-interest and political apathy. One of the first things that can happen, and has done throughout history, is piracy – the dark and ugly kind, rather than the stuff of Errol Flynn films and fancy-dress parties.

What has set me thinking about all this is a couple of articles I’ve come across about raids by Barbary pirates in the early seventeenth century. In my childhood, the name ‘Barbary Coast’ (like pirates in general) always had a fictional ring to it, again with that exciting hint of adventure in remote exotic climes. But the Barbary Coast quite definitely existed, and was not even all that remote. Until recently I always thought the name had something to do with barbarity; but in fact it turns out to be derived from ‘Berbers’ (the original population of North Africa west of the Nile valley, from present-day Libya to present-day Morocco). The region was an outlying part of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, and pirates, sometimes more ‘romantically’ known as corsairs, operated out of its main ports, including Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers. Perhaps significantly, Corsair has been a common name for various kinds of vehicle, from saloon cars and racing yachts to locomotives.

Barbary pirates or corsairs were dreaded not only throughout the Mediterranean, but as far afield as England, Ireland and Iceland. One of their specialities, apart from wholesale slaughter and plunder, was kidnapping the populations of coastal towns and villages for sale as slaves within the Ottoman Empire (the elderly and infirm, being of little use for this purpose, were often simply killed – in at least one case, locked up in their church which was then set on fire). In 1627 Barbary corsairs attacked three settlements on the south coast of Iceland and carried off several hundred of their inhabitants (at a time when the total population of Iceland was little more than 60,000). A handful were eventually ransomed and returned home, including a Protestant minister who was abducted with his wife and children but lived to publish a book on the subject; but the great majority ended their days as galley slaves or in harems. The minister’s wife remained captive for another ten years, and the couple never saw their children again. This horrifying event is recorded in Icelandic history as Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish Raid.

Turks sailing the oceans nearly four hundred years ago to kidnap Icelanders, or vice versa – can you imagine?

Just four years later, in 1631, another band of Barbary corsairs did much the same to the village of Baltimore on the south-west coast of Ireland, a few miles from where my uncle spent most of his life. Des Ekin’s recently published book on the affair is simply entitled The Stolen Village. Those of Baltimore’s inhabitants that somehow survived the raid not surprisingly fled inland, and the village is said to have remained deserted for many years afterwards. Indeed, Barbary pirates and their fearsome reputation ensured that entire stretches of the Mediterranean coast remained largely uninhabited until well into the nineteenth century. However popular it may be as a tourist destination nowadays, back then the seaside simply wasn’t safe.

And whatever horrors may have been ushered in by the French capture of Algiers in 1830, which laid the foundations for l’Algérie française, it at least helped put an end to Barbary piracy.

Yo ho ho? I don’t think so.


From → Society

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