Last month, President Barack Obama gave the command for the Navy Seals to use force to rescue Capt. Richard Phillips from four pirates in the waters off Somalia. They succeeded.
Somalia has been extremely unstable since its last functioning government was defeated in a civil war in 1991. It has the longest coastline in Africa, over 2,000 miles, and the weak central government in Somalia is unable to police its own territorial waters. Foreign fishermen without permits steal much of their fish and put many local fishermen out of work. As a result this particular place has produced a rash of pirates who tend to be young, bold and desperate.
The four pirates involved in the Phillips case were between the ages of 17 to 19, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The pirate who survived was named Abdiwali Abdiqadir Muse. The U.S. has brought the young pirate to New York for trial.
One complication is the Law of the Sea Convention, which the United Nations drafted during three difficult conferences. The last conference produced a treaty on the law of the seas which has been ratified by a majority of the states, but not by the U.S. We object to a provision which we said favored centrally controlled systems and not our free market system.
It will be difficult for us to argue for punishment of a pirate who was a lawbreaker interested in obtaining ransom for release of a hostage when we have not yet ratified the only major United Nations treaty on the law of the seas.
The problem is not ours alone. Reportedly the pirates off Somalia are holding at least 18 cargo ships from many nations with more than 300 sailors hostage. Last year, pirates captured over 800 seamen in the waters off East Africa. Apparently, ship owners often pay these ransoms, and that encourages further piracy.
In past times, Vikings roamed waters off Europe looking for human hostages to be taken and sold into slavery.
In ancient China, pirates were so prolific in the seas off China that the Grand Canal was constructed, more than 1,000 miles long. It may be longest canal in the world stretching from Beijing south to Hangzhou. It was constructed inland, safe from the open seas, from the fifth century BC to the sixth century AD, and was apparently successful in avoiding pirate attacks on barges carrying such cargo as grains as payment of the Emperor's taxes by citizens in the area of the canal.
We here in the southern U.S. did have contact with a real nasty pirate in the 18th century. He was English and was one of the privateers hired by Queen Anne of Britain to plunder French and Spanish ships in the Atlantic and Caribbean. Edward Teach was his name, but he preferred the name Blackbeard.
Blackbeard targeted all shipping. One of his conquests was a large cargo ship from Charleston, S.C., with some wealthy passengers aboard. Blackbeard demanded ransom of a trunk filled with medicines and money. Charleston citizens paid the ransom at the very last minute. He took all the jewelry and all the clothes of the hostages before returning them to the shore.
Later in 1718, he established a headquarters on Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There he threw a huge party complete with drinking, music and dancing. Pirates from all over attended the bash, which lasted several days.
Gov. Spotswood of Virginia heard about the bash and worried about pirates spilling over into waters off his colony. So he sent two sloops to encounter Blackbeard. At first, Blackbeard outmaneuvered the sloops, but ultimately he was captured. His head was cut off and suspended from the bow of the last sloop as a warning to other pirates. No chest of his treasures has ever been discovered.
Piracy may gain temporary rewards, but pirate activities depicted in movies and books do not accurately represent the current real world. We all must decide how to police the high seas and reduce the success of any pirates. Real pirates are outlaws who should be prosecuted by all governments.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.