This morning, in Lisbon airport, one of the stores sold a bunch of plastic kiddies figures, in menacing stances, featuring the well-known pirates of the Spanish Main; Blackbeard, Morgan and the like. No Somalis, which I think misses a market opportunity. Somali piracy is fascinating, a true product of the information age. The Somali pirates, mainly destitute teens armed with RPGs, a pretty explosive mix, are not really pirates. The classic pirate which I grew up reading about had a very predictable M.O.: board the vessel, after making it heave to, secure the cargo, and dispose of it for a profit. Or in extreme cases raid targets on land.

These new guys have disproportionate firepower, and in the age of the videobite, or the twittertime, tap into the fact that the shipowners must safeguard cargo and crew. The Somalis don’t want the cargo, only the ransom payment. In the golden age of piracy, it would have taken six months for the shipowner to hear of the seizure, and (maybe) pay the ransom, so it would never have succeeded as a business model. The other aspect of the current spate of pseudo-piracy is that the use of proportional force aboard the merchant vessels is not an option – only non-lethal weapons are aboard; is that pepper spray and tasers against RPGs?

So the navies of the world powers are spending millions (of public money) in defending a shipping route in the Horn of Africa. And no one knows what to do with the pseudo-pirates (Rowdy Pubescent Gunners?) when they’re captured – and if they get sniped, as recently happened, two dozen more come out of the woodwork. Because when you’re hungry, destitute, and see no future, even with the naval might patrolling the Arabian Sea, you are dangerous. And it’s all the modern communications facilities that ensure the pirate success: E-Pirates, cashing in on a totally unexpected use of new technology.

But piracy comes in many forms. Woody Guthrie sang: “I been robbed for cash and I been robbed on credit.” It’s 9pm, I’m sitting on a Air France jet, flying from Paris to Lisbon, in a business class seat which cost me a packet – one way. After an unbelievably poor level of service, being “automatically” bumped off a connecting flight, and refused any form of compensation for damages, including missing a key meeting.

The area around Somalia was well known both to Pero da Covilha, the Spy in The India Road, and to the Portuguese XVth and XVIth century sailors. On January 2nd 1499, Vasco da Gama bombed Mogadouxo (Mogadishu) on his way back from Calicut, not due to any particular piracy, just for good measure. Proportionate force. The North Arabian Sea has been the monsoon route of the spice trade for over 2000 years, so it isn’t surprising that it is legendary for piracy and greed. And now it’s home to a new play, E-Piracy.


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