By Johann Hari
April 12, 2009 “Huffington Post”
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 Somalian waters to take on men we still picture as parrot-on-the-shoulder pantomime villains. They will soon be fighting Somalian 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 great menace 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.
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