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"The Golden Age of Piracy" or Long John Silver in a Tank

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This morning I was struck by the odd juxtaposition of an announcement for a festival and a news item. Not long after reading about the upcoming Saint Augustine Pirate Gathering, (November 14th -16th), I also read in the New York Times about a band of Somali pirates who have seized a ship carrying $30 million worth of grenade launchers, tons of ammunition, and yes, even 33 refurbished T-72 battle tanks. The ship was taken over 200 miles offshore. Naval ships from both the US and Russia subsequently intercepted the pirates and a week-long standoff has ensued.

But first, back to St Augustine. The Pirate Gathering website states: "We welcomed all pyrates be they paper, plastic and authentic, so come dressed in your best pirantical pirattitude and help us celebrate the 'Golden Age of Piracy'. "

I am not sure if by the "Golden Age of Piracy" they are referring to the period from the 1650s to the 1720s when swashbucklers roamed the Spanish Main or to 1973 when Disney opened its "Pirates of the Caribbean" amusement ride. I suspect the goings-on in St. Augustine will owe as much to the latter as the former.

I happen to loathe the Disneyfication of Piracy.

I do understand why folks have always had a fascination with pirates. It is in many respects comparable with our modern fondness for the mafia. Pirates are sort of the "Sopranos at Sea". Both groups were and are brutal and often murderous. The difference is that the television shows and movies about the mafia generally do not sugar coat their activities. The problem with Disney and other mass marketers is that they have attempted to make pirates cute and cuddly. So far, at least we have not seen Tony Soprano merchandised as a plushie doll.

In Salon, commenting on Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Andrew Leonard captures nicely the rather bizarre contradiction in Disney's portrayal of pirates and piracy.

"In Pirates we're expected to root for the anarchic lawbreakers against the forces of repressive order. That's why the third film starts with a bunch of pitiful about-to-be-hanged islanders being told they no longer have any constitutional rights. But it's always been kind of a nifty trick for a supposedly squeaky clean, family-friendly corporation like Disney to market pirates, famous for raping, pillaging and murdering their way across the seven seas, as not only PG-13 entertainment but also as freedom fighters against totalitarian rule. This is an effort laden with gross contradictions, leading to such hysterical high points as the shock expressed by Disney when Keith Richards, who makes a cameo as the keeper of the Pirate Codex in At World's End, claimed to have snorted his own father's cremated ashes. Whether joking or not, what could possibly have been be more piratical in spirit then that!? But Disney frowns on true piracy -- and for understandable reasons. In a global marketplace, there are bound to be some cultures where potential ticket-buyers would look askance at nasal consumption of one's progenitors."

As Leonard notes, Disney (and indeed virtually everyone for that matter) frowns on true piracy. I worked in the shipping industry for two decades and I knew ship's captains and mates who risked their lives sailing through waters infested by real pirates; not the "Aargh, Avast ye matie" shouting buffoons with funny hats, but desperate young men in high speed boats wielding AK47s and RPGs.

Stephan Eklof, in Pirates in Paradise which examines piracy in South East Asia, notes that in the so called "Golden Age of Piracy", pirates attacked an estimated 218 vessels a year. In South East Asia alone, an average of 368 pirate attacks at sea or in port are reported to the authorities yearly. It is estimated that the actual number of pirate attacks may be twice as high as the reported figures. Measured in human terms the outcome is grim. In 2000 in South East Asia, pirates murdered 73 sailors, wounded 99 more. Twenty six others are missing and presumed dead. We may now be in the real "Golden Age of Piracy" whether we like it or not.

Which brings us back to Somalia. The consensus is that the Somali pirates in control of the ship full of grenade launchers and tanks may not have hit the piratical jackpot after all. They have done the one thing that all criminals, including pirates, prefer to avoid. They have drawn attention to themselves. They are now demanding $20 million in ransom to release the ship, which is currently at anchor, completely surrounded by US warships.

And now back to St. Augustine, where with funny hats, toy swords and lots of "aarhging" and timber-shivering, they will celebrate the rape, murder and plundering for profit that is piracy. Be sure to bring the kids.