Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pirates: A Historical Perspective

Edith Gelles, Senior Scholar at the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research and author of Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage, contributes an article on piracy in our early national period.

About 250 miles off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, a crippled twenty-four foot lifeboat is afloat with four passengers, a hostage, the American Captain Richard Smith, and three pirates. Surrounding the little boat are U.S. naval vessels dispatched to rescue Captain Smith. The situation is real, but it shocks us.

Piracy is the stuff of adventure films, and pirates are generally heroes. This is a scenario that belongs to a time long past.

But piracy in the twenty-first century hasn't changed greatly since its golden age in the eighteenth. Its method is that of the weak confronting the strong. Its motives are mercenary. And it can be an immensely successful strategy.

In the eighteenth century piracy provoked debate at the highest level of diplomacy, for pirates obstructed traffic and trade on the Mediterranean. No less statesman than John Adams and Thomas Jefferson engaged the dilemma of what to do about the Barbary Pirates.

While both men, then ministers respectfully to England and France, agreed that piracy was noxious, they came to different conclusions about how to deal with the Barbary Pirates. Their debate was typical of the differences in their general political stance.

Adams, ever the realist, believed that his fledgling country was in no position to begin another war in 1783, having just concluded the Revolution. Therefore, the nation should pay tribute (or bribe money) to purchase its freedom on the seas. Jefferson, the idealist, was outraged by the provocation against the integrity of nation's right to navigate the open seas and favored going to war.

In the end, neither man prevailed. The country could neither afford to pay tribute nor to wage war in the 1780s and the latter solution had to await Jefferson's administration in 1801, when he engaged in the first Barbary War.

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