Thursday, March 6, 2014

What 'Captain Phillips' tells us about pirates—then and now

The following has been re-posted from

by Greg Flemming
As the Somali pirates drew close to the Maersk Alabama in the film Captain Phillips—nominated for Oscars in six categories last Sunday night—the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), radios the UK Maritime Operations Center for help. On the other end of the line, the dispatcher tells Phillips to ready his fire hoses as a defensive measure, but not to be overly alarmed since the approaching boats are most likely fishermen. Even then, Captain Phillips knew that was wrong. “They’re not here to fish,” he replies.

The capture of the Maersk Alabama is hauntingly similar to another pirate capture nearly 300 years ago, but the events depicted in the Captain Phillips movie (and book) also reveal stark differences between piracy then and now. Back in the summer of 1722, a small crew of six young New England fishermen anchored for the evening in a remote Nova Scotia harbor. Just before sunset, four men from another vessel anchored nearby rowed over in a boat and climbed aboard. At first, the fishermen thought the four men had come over to trade stories -- but in an instant they saw how wrong they were. The four men were pirates, members of one of the worst crews to sail the Atlantic, and they immediately attacked with pistols and guns. These men, too, were not here to fish.

These two pirate attacks—both true stories—also reveal the way piracy has changed over time. The Somali pirates who boarded the Maersk Alabama were primarily looking for money—lots of it. Some pirates in the region who successfully took a ship hostage won millions of dollars in ransom money. In contrast, money was not the only motivation for pirate crews that attacked ships during the age of sail centuries ago. To be sure, a haul of gold or silver aboard was always cause for celebration. But pirates during this era were motivated as much by the lifestyle that piracy offered, a welcome change from the harsh conditions and cruel discipline they faced working on trading vessels or naval warships. Most of the ships pirates captured were not packed with gold, but were loaded with routine trading goods -- lumber, grain, sugar, and molasses. The pirates typically stripped these vessels of food, drinking water, sails, weapons, and equipment, which helped sustain their extended voyages across the Atlantic and Caribbean.

How did victims of pirate attacks defend themselves? In Captain Phillips, the crew—remarkably—was unarmed. There were no guns aboard, and the Maersk Alabama could only try to avoid the attack by spraying its powerful fire hoses and zigzagging through the water. During the golden age of piracy 300 years ago, most vessels did have weapons aboard to defend themselvesbut many crews chose not to fight because pirates so brutally tortured those who resisted their attacks. As I note in my new book, At the Point of a Cutlass, some pirate crews flew not only a black pirate flag, but a sequence of black and red flags. The black flag was flown during an approach as a warning to surrender, but when the black flag was pulled down and the “bloody” red flag was raised in its place, it meant the chance to surrender and for captured sailor to be given safe quarter had passed—all would be killed.

When the infamous pirate Blackbeard approached a merchant vessel in 1718, the sea captain from Boston asked his crew if they would defend their ship. The men said that if the attackers were Spanish they would fight back—but if they were pirates they would not. A few men rowed over to the approaching ships and came back with word that they were pirates—all under the command of Blackbeard. The crew quickly abandoned ship—“all declared they would not fight and quitted the ship, believing they would be murdered by the sloop’s company, and so all went on shore.” Surrender seemed to be the safest option.

Flemming's book, At the Point of Cutlass: The Pirate Capture, Bold Escape, and Lonely Exile of Philip Ashton, the true story of America's real-life Robinson Crusoe, releases from ForeEdge in June 2014. 

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