Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX 76244-0425
of Yore vs. Piracy Today
By Cindy Vallar
Piracy predates the pyramids of Egypt. Once merchants began to ship goods to other countries via the sea, others realized the profit to be made by stealing those goods and selling them themselves. The scourge of seafarers and passengers alike, pirates dominated the seas in different places at different times. Pirates captured a young Julius Caesar, and after his escape, he returned to crucify them. During the Ming Dynasty, the imperial government sent 3,100 warships and more than 30,000 men to subdue Chinese pirates. Once Europeans colonized the Americas, pirates plundered coastal towns and attacked Spanish galleons laden with silver and gold. The most well-known of the pirates—Blackbeard, Black Bart, and Stede Bonnet—sailed during the Golden Age of Piracy (1690-1730). The wars of the 18th century gave rise to a legal form of piracy, privateering, but after the War of 1812, governments no longer tolerated sea robbery. As a result piracy ended, or so history leads us to believe.
Earlier this year four pirates boarded a sailboat off the coast of Honduras. After tying up the mother, they began shooting AK-47 rifles in an attempt to get the father and son to return to the boat. One bullet hit thirteen-year-old Willem van Tuijl, paralyzing him from the waist down. This resurgency of pirates isn’t new. In 1979 pirates killed Lydia Tyngvald after she tried to prevent them boarding her yacht. In 1982 three pirates boarded the Halloways’ boat and held the husband captive with a knife to his throat. His wife distracted the pirates with a pistol. He grabbed the gun and shot the one wielding the knife, then killed the other two. Keith Hedley wasn’t so lucky. Four years ago he and three friends were asleep on a yacht anchored off Corfu. Four pirates came alongside in a speedboat. He fired at them, but they overpowered him and his friends and then ransacked the yacht. Greek police, alerted by the shots, came to investigate. In the ensuing gun battle, Hedley was killed and the pirates escaped.
Merchant seamen also find themselves at the mercy of pirates. In November 1998, pirates hijacked the Cheung Son near Hong Kong. After binding and gagging the 23 crew members, the pirates shot them and weighted down their bodies before dumping them overboard. The ship and its cargo of iron ore disappeared. Then last December Chinese police arrested 38 pirates after discovering photographs of the pirates celebrating aboard the Cheung Son. In January, a court found six of the pirates not guilty, and sentenced 13 to death, one to life in prison, and the remainder received sentences of one to twelve years. Four days later, the 13 were executed.
Execution is the time-honored means of dealing with pirates. After Captain William Kidd was hanged, his body was tarred and placed in an iron cage and put on display as a warning to others. Edward Teach’s severed head was hung from the bowsprit while his body was thrown overboard. Punishment, however, was and is a rarity for pirates. More often than not they escape with their plunder.
Pirates of yore and modern pirates share other similarities. Piracy thrives when three requirements are met.
Yet, modern pirates differ from those of old. Cutlasses and muskets are no longer the weapons of choice. Today they wield automatic rifles and modern communications equipment. Wooden sailing ships carried large crews and cannon to fight off pirates. Neither is true today. Today’s ships require far fewer seamen to sail them because of computer technology. While 200 crewed a galleon, a tanker or freighter may only have a crew of 25. Few are trained in the use of firearms, and it is rare to find guns aboard ships today. Pirates of yore attacked any ship that crossed their path. Today’s pirates plan their attacks and select their prey before they leave shore.
- A place to prowl where the rewards are great. During the 14th and 15th centuries, galleons laden with gold and silver proved no match for the swifter pirate barks. Today, small high-speed boats easily overtake ocean-going vessels. The plunder is equally lucrative, but easier to convert into ready cash.
- An area where the risk of detection is slight. In the past, favorite hunting grounds included the Caribbean and Mediterranean. Today, the most notorious areas where piracy thrives are the South China Sea and off the coasts of Africa.
- A safe haven. Port Royal and Madagascar welcomed pirates in the past. Today, Indonesia’s many islands provide an ideal hiding place.
The truth is that modern piracy…is a violent, bloody, ruthless practice…made the more fearsome by the knowledge on the part of the victims that they are on their own and absolutely defenceless and that no help is waiting just round the corner. Captain Jayant Abhyankar, Deputy Director of the International Maritime Bureau, wrote those words in his report to a recent piracy seminar held in Singapore. It is the unquestionable link between pirates of yore and pirates today. The difference is that one of their victims might be someone you know.
© 2000 Cindy Vallar
Read Part 2 of this series on Modern Piracy
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