Saturday, June 20, 2009

When academics jump on the piracy bandwagon

A lot of folks have been jumping on the piracy bandwagon in recent months, trying to find some way to align whatever they're doing with the criminals working the seas off East Africa. These include journalists, bloggers, academics, analysts, government officials and military personnel, and at times their perspectives are well thought out and incisive. But at other times...

The AFP's Andrew Beatty posted a piece yesterday about an academic at George Mason University (which is outside Washington) that makes me wonder how well-read some academics really are. Beatty's piece, entitled "Pirates were democrats, says scholar", is about an economics professor at the university - Peter Leeson - who has a new book out that looks at, I gather, elements of historical piracy and tries to place them within a modern socio-economic context.

Beatty says that Leeson has "set himself the unenviable task of salvaging the reputations" of pirates, having "found evidence that some 18th century pirates wrote down rules and principles which foreshadowed the U.S. Constitution by decades."

Now with all due and respect to Prof. Leeson, none of this is anything new. The list of people who've discussed these sorts of historical pirate tenets in recent years includes Marcus Rediker, David Cordingly, Colin Woodward, Stephen Talty - among others - and to have 'found evidence' one needs only to read Captain Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, which was first published in 1724, and outlines pirate employment terms in great detail.

But more to the point, there is absolutely no need to salvage any of these criminals' reputations. One can comment on how they incorporated unique aspects of what amount to labor contracts, or even their fair-minded treatment of minorities (such as freed African slaves, Native Americans or mixed blood individuals), but that doesn't mean they were good guys. And to somehow tie a look at historical piracy with what's going on today is misguided. It implies that the Somali pirates may not be that bad.

A gang that decides to share the proceeds of their criminal activities does not make for an entity whose reputation deserves improving. Especially when some of these gangs - in Somalia - are inflicting great harm on their own kinfolk, to say nothing of the innocent mariners affected.

(Lest anyone think my views seem a tad hypocritical - given I've a book about modern day piracy now on sale - let me reminder readers that I spent three years actively working on it, and touched upon it in my last book, Ocean Titans, which came out in 2006. Trust me when I say that when I began work on my current book, there was little interest in the subject outside a small community of concerned individuals. And, yes, I do discuss many of the historical aspects of pirate activities in my book.)


Ken E Beck said...

Yes, I saw that as well. With regards to pirate's treatment of minorities, at sea, bigots only survive on ships with easy runs where the crews have the luxury of indulging in their prejudices. Aboard ships with a tough run it's merit, not race that counts.

As to the labor contracts, pirates could not rely upon the power of the state to enforce their status as is the case on a Navy ship.

If pirate ships were run in a more enlightened manner it is because that is what worked.

Mark Tempest said...

"More enlightened" certainly is a relative term, isn't it?

Compared to the state of states during the "golden age of piracy" pirate ships may have seemed "more democratic." Not a very high standard to be measured against, though.

Compared to North Korea, Myanmar may be "more democratic."

I eagerly await any evidence from Professor Leeson that clearly links Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Franklin to pirates instead of Locke and other great thinkers. I have serious doubts that "pirate rules" were on their reading lists.

But, in the publish or perish academic world, I guess any thesis will do.

Ken E Beck said...

E1, yes A band of thugs is a band of thugs regardless.