New York in History and Anecdote
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Category — Past and Present

Piracy Then and Now

Now that the drama of the Somali pirates is passed—for the moment, anyway—it seems worth commenting on an op-ed piece about the incident that appeared in the Sunday, April 12, 2009 edition of The New York Times.

By midday of that day the American merchantman Maersk Alabama was safe in Mombassa, Kenya. Captain Richard Phillips, who’d been held for five days in a 28-foot lifeboat, had been freed.  Three of the four pirates who’d held him captive had been slain—three shots, three kills—by American sniper fire from the destroyer U.S.S. Bainbridge.

The Times piece started out by pointing out that American citizens being held hostage by pirates is nothing new, alluding to the American wars against the Barbary pirates of North Africa at the turn of the 19th century.  It quickly became vague and diffuse, dwelling on no single incident and offering very few specifics about that interlude, save for a brief reference to the destroyer’s namesake, Captain William Bainbridge, who was himself taken by pirates in 1804 when his command, the frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia, grounded on an uncharted reef off the shores of Tripoli and was rendered defenseless.

Instead, the Times piece dwelt at some length on the loss of nineteen American soldiers in the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3-4, 1993, an incident dramatized in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.  There, the Americans had been supporting a United Nations initiative to end yet another in a long series of civil wars in Somalia.  After Somali militia had killed and reportedly mutilated twenty-four Pakistani peacekeepers, the UN Security Council authorized the arrest of those responsible.  A small American force went into Mogadishu to capture the Somali foreign minister and his political adviser and remove them by truck.

We had underestimated the enemy capacity for resistance. The Somali militia were, after all, irregulars, semi-trained guys in colored T-shirts and flip-flops, and no one took them seriously despite their AK-47s,  rocket-propelled grenades, and proven capacity for urban warfare, let alone that we were on their turf in their country.

The mission went south very quickly.  The Somalis barricaded the streets with jalopies and piles of burning tires and shot down two American helicopters.  Thus a one-hour operation became a fifteen hour battle, ending only when a column of American, Malaysian, and Pakistani troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers fought into the city and evacuated the mission.

The bodies of several dead American soldiers were dragged through the streets by Somali mobs.  This was bad for American domestic consumption, and so on this basis alone the Clinton administration stopped all American actions against the Somali militia, withdrew all troops within six months, and thereafter avoided the use of boots on the ground to support its foreign policy.

In focusing on a single mismanaged mission kept alive in public memory by a Hollywood blockbuster, the Times editorialists successfully avoided discussing the success of that earlier mission against the North African pirates, long before air support, radio, or steam power.

Captain Bainbridge’s ship had been swarmed by Tripolitanian gunboats and compelled to surrender.  Once Philadelphia had been refloated and brought into Tripoli, the pirates seem to have found the ship—a late 18th century square rigger—a little sophisticated for them.  Nonetheless, her mere existence was a potential threat to Western shipping.  After all, the Tripolitanians might eventually figure out how to sail and fight her.

The commander of the American squadron in the Mediterranean, Commodore Edward Preble, was an old Revolutionary who apparently understood that threatened or actual violence is as integral to effective foreign policy as negotiation.  He chose to eliminate the threat posed by the captured man-of-war by destroying her.

He ordered a mission that would involve sailing into a heavily-fortified enemy harbor, boarding and burning a warship held by pirates, and then, God willing, returning home.  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, just twenty-five years old, was appointed to lead the operation.  He was given the Mastico, a filthy captured Tripolitanian ketch (a tiny two-masted sailing craft), which was renamed U.S.S. Intrepid (the first of four American warships that have borne that name).

His crew was taken from the schooner U.S.S. Enterprise and Preble’s flagship, U.S.S. Constitution.  With a Maltese pilot who knew the harbor at Tripoli, Decatur sailed from the Sicilian port of Syracuse on February 3, 1804.  Storms delayed him en route, and he did not reach Tripoli until late afternoon on February 16.  Intrepid was disguised as a Maltese trading vessel under British colors, the United Kingdom having maintained good relations with the pirates by paying them tribute, which we might today call protection money.

Around 7:00 pm, navigating by moonlight, Decatur sailed into the harbor and, claiming to have lost his anchors, requested and received permission to tie up alongside Philadelphia.  As Intrepid came alongside, with some of her crew tossing lines to the frigate, Decatur and the others were huddled along the bulwarks, ready for action.  A guard aboard Philadelphia saw something and shouted, “Amerikanos!”  Decatur gave the order to board and, cutlass in hand, led sixty men up the frigate’s side.  The pirates, caught by surprise, did not resist; most dove overboard and swam for shore.  Within twenty minutes, Philadelphia was ablaze.  Decatur got his men back to Intrepid, which, pursued by the fire of 141 guns, escaped the harbor.  None of his men were killed; one was injured; Philadelphia burned to the waterline and sank.

Commodore Preble then blockaded the Barbary ports, bombarded their cities, and sank their ships.  His successor, Samuel Barron, sent the Marines ashore.  They captured the city of Derne and defeated the Tripolitanian armies in two land battles. (The Marines commemorate this victory in the line in the Marines’ Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli,” and their officers’ dress swords, which are patterned after one given to a Marine lieutenant by an Ottoman prince to honor the American’s valor at Derne). In 1805, the treaty of peace between the United States and Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria, “negotiated at the cannon’s mouth,” was signed aboard U.S.S. Constitution.

Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson called the Intrepid mission “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  Perhaps it exemplifies what American audacity and imagination could do when Washington was three months away by sail and an officer had to improvise the execution of his mission on the spot.

Why does the American use of force to suppress pirates – seagoing extortionists, after all – seem to so frighten the Times? One can only speculate. Perhaps there is something virile in controlled violence that makes the editors nervous.

Most peoples get the governments they deserve.  Somalia has nearly no government at all, numberless private armies, police forces, and religious militias, one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates, and little public access to potable water.

Some free market types argue that Somalia is nearly a libertarian paradise, with a highly efficient and competitive service sector (including crystal clear cell phones, privately-owned, managed, and policed airports, and electric power service in most major cities), and a completely free press.  That seems irrelevant in a country where two-thirds of the population doesn’t live in cities and nearly two-thirds of the adults can’t read.

The so-called Transitional Federal Government, which occupies Baidoa, the country’s third largest city, is recognized by some foreign powers as the government of Somalia.  Its authority nominally extends over the country.  Its effective power doesn’t quite make it past the Baidoa city line and its attempts to move into Mogadishu, the national capital, have not yet succeeded.  The TFG hasn’t yet been able to collect taxes or establish any stable revenue and is entirely dependent upon foreign aid.  Outside Baidoa, Somalia is effectively divided into numerous petty states, ruled by clan-based warlords, local chieftains, and Islamists, a condition akin to that prevailing before its colonization by Italy during the late 19th century.  One might say that Somalia, after enjoying the benefits of Western civilization for nearly a century, has simply returned to its former condition.

Now, in the last two years, by turning to piracy, many Somalis have unwittingly exported their violent culture into the mainstream of commerce.  Perhaps they haven’t understood that, once they began preying on Americans, they encountered another culture—of instant news, the sound bite, the blog, and the politicians who live in it.  The result has not been pretty.

Since Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, piracy has been eradicated only by force: the ordered use of violence to eliminate the threat of armed robbers to peaceful commerce. The Americans have shown they are still willing to use it.

If the Somalis understood our history, they would realize that the United States has always been ready to use violence to suppress pirates, bandits, and others who prey upon businessmen going about their business.

In 1913, after the Titanic disaster, the nations of the trading world established the International Ice Patrol to monitor icebergs and report their presence in the sea lanes.  The Patrol is conducted by the United States Coast Guard: its costs are apportioned among the nations whose ships travel the North Atlantic.  Perhaps the trading nations should give similar treatment to the suppression of Somali piracy, as a cost of maintaining the seas as a medium of commerce.

April 13, 2009   No Comments