Pirates: That rings an historic bell

Steve Brown's picture

Five of our finest U.S. warships recently pinned a hijacked freighter against the Somali coastline. We had to immobilize some pirates, something the U.S. has been dealing with since 1784.

The Somali pirates aboard the trapped Ukrainian vessel began their strange trek in life as humble fishermen.

Somalia literally imploded in 1991 and has never had a stable government since. The everlasting chaotic war between opposing clans, Islamist insurgents and a weak government force means law and order simply do not exist in Somalia.

The power vacuum on land meant there was no protection for Somalia’s sovereign tuna-laden waters off their coast. Commercial fishing fleets from other countries began illegally harvesting fish in Somali waters.

The lowly Somali fishermen could no longer watch their livelihood being robbed right before their eyes, so they armed themselves and began storming the foreign fishing vessels and demanding the crew pay a “fishing tax.” As fate would have it, the Somalis found they were actually quite good at banditry and began new careers as the pirates of the Gulf of Aden.

Because the Gulf of Aden opens to the Suez Canal, the main shipping route from Asia and the Middle East to Europe, the Somalis quickly became the top ranked pirates in the world. Just this year alone, they have attacked more than 60 ships, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Pirating has been a huge boon to the local economy of the port city of Eyl in Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland. The hijacked vessels, including sailboats, cargo ships, oil tankers and even U.N.-chartered food ships, are stored in the port until the ransom monies are received for each vessel and the crew.

The pirates shop for the latest weapons and hire local accountants and support various merchandise suppliers in Eyl. Restaurants have sprung up serving an international cuisine to meet the tastes of the hostage crews.

It turned out the Ukrainian vessel, the Faina, surrounded by U.S. warships of the 5th Fleet was full of Russian heavy weaponry, including 33 Soviet-designed T-72 tanks. Our fear was the pirates might sell the weapons to Islamist insurgents.

The pirate spokesman (Yes, they have a spokesman) said they had no intention of selling the weapons. They just wanted the ransom so they could protect themselves from hunger. They must have huge appetites because the ransom is $20 million.

Thank God for pirates because they made our country the power it is today.

Go back in time over 225 years, the Arabic-speaking pirates of Morocco and the Ottoman regencies of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, often referred to as “Barbary States,” created havoc for British and Colonial American ships. The ships were stolen, cargoes impounded and crews sold into slavery.

After American independence, the Barbary pirates brutally ravaged American merchant vessels without the safety of British protection. Even worse, the Articles of Confederation ruled out the construction of a national standing peacetime navy and the country was saddled with huge war debts.

Our Revolutionary allies, the French, were unwilling to protect our ships out of fear of competition from our merchant fleet. Likewise, our ambassador to Europe, Thomas Jefferson, tried to build a coalition of American and European powers to fight the pirates, but the response was negative.

Meanwhile, a humiliated Congress offered bribes to pay off Algiers.

Jefferson accompanied John Adams on a mission to establish a treaty with Tripoli. However, the representative of Tripoli, ‘Adb al-Rahman al-Ajar, dismissed the idea and insisted upon a $1 million payoff. He instructed the two Americans that those nations who did not acknowledge Muslim authority would face war and enslavement, and that every Muslim slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise (sounds like the jihadist of today).

No longer able to bare the frustration and embarrassment of losing American merchant ships, 12 of the 13 states sent delegates to Philadelphia in May 1787 to consider replacing the Articles of Confederation with a national charter that would allow them to counter their weaknesses, some of which were exploited by the Barbary states.

George Washington counseled the delegates to refrain from all “talk of chastising the Algerines” until “the wisdom and force of the Union can be concentrated and better applied.”

Even though James Madison had strong reservations about creating a strong standing navy, he agreed it was the only way to protect the country’s economic trade abroad.

The pirates of North Africa crippled American trade, which created the need for a strong national navy, which in turn created the need for a strong centralized government via the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, Historian Thomas Bailey acknowledges, “In an indirect sense, the brutal Dey of Algiers was a Founding Father of the Constitution.”

The Barbary pirates were later subdued and treaties were signed with the Middle Eastern nations.

Think about the irony of the U.S. Constitution pressured into being by pirates and the fact we now face another seismic change in our society today because of a band of rogue terrorists from the same region.

We were humiliated into paying exorbitant bribes to get our ships and crews back in the past until we finally decided to create a unified country.

And now we find ourselves insulted by funding the terrorists who plague us through oil receipts.

Hopefully, we can muster the strength to act like a unified country, gain energy independence and eliminate the latest threat to our freedom.

[Steve Brown is the former mayor of Peachtree City. He can be reached at stevebrownptc@ureach.com.]

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