Tuesday, April 28, 2009



April 27, 2009

It's enough to give the 'pirate' trade a bad name.
After an accused Somali piracy suspect made his way tearfully through a court in New York, his worried mother, late last week, pleaded for compassion in his case.

Adar Abdirahman Hassan said her teenage son - a "talented boy" and "a good student" - is no scourge of the sea, but instead, a confused kid who was roped into taking part in the kidnapping of U.S. ship captain, Richard Phillips.

But how does her eldest child, Abdiweli Muse, who may have been the ringleader of the gang which stormed Phillips's U.S.-flagged Maersk Alabama on April 8, compare with those sea-dogs of yore, who once preyed upon slower boats and weaker men off Canada's East Coast?

Do today's pirates hold a stolen candle to their bloodthirsty forefathers? And if they met on open water, how would the legendary likes of Captain Kidd and Black Bart view their modern heirs?

Apparently, says one of Canada's most respected pirate experts, they would be embraced as following -remarkably closely - the age-old pirates' handbook.

"Black Bart would be proud," says Dan Conlin, curator at The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax.

Bart - Bartholomew Roberts - was the most skilled pirate of the golden age of his kind.

During the early part of the 1700s, he captured more than 470 vessels, including in waters around Cape Breton and Newfoundland. It was fairly common for bandits to move up off Canada's shores every spring.

Into the 1800s, their executed bodies were still displayed, decaying inside the clutches of gibbets, hung from posts in the Maritimes.

Conlin, who will publish Piracy on the Atlantic - Robbery, Murder and Mayhem on Canada's East Coast this summer, says the high sea raiders of today and yesteryear are born from the same three ingredients - poverty, a weak local government and rich trade tempting them on the horizon.

"As long as you have those ingredients, you'll have pirates," he explains.

Today's scalawags count on the same kind of classic boarding contraptions ancient pirates would have used, and both largely favour small boats to capture larger vessels.

"And holding ships for random - they often did it with slave ships - has always been a common tactic," says Conlin.

Even the excuses by the two generations of pirates - that they're somehow righting social and economic wrongs - mirror one another.

During the last great days of piracy - from 1680 to 1730 - there was also anxiety over where to hold trials, with many, prior to colonial courts, being shipped to England.

But accused pirate Muse doesn't face the same fate. One public hanging, involving an entire pirate crew, took three days to complete.

But who's more blood-thirsty?

Conlin says it was the old salts, who had a fondness for ritualistic torture.

"I'll give the Somali pirates a little credit, they've killed very few people," he notes, but points out the number of people ancient marauders murdered has likely been exaggerated over time.

"But these (new generation) are nasty people ... no bones about it."

One other similarity, he says: "Neither buries treasure. That's a myth."

But would the pirates who patrolled Canadian waters in our earliest years not wince at their modern version - if guilty - crying, with his mother asking for compassion?

Old pirates could also have a softer side. As well as a few female buccaneers of long ago, a 1997 book, Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Rogers, theorized the dreaded Black Bart was a female disguised as the manliest of sea-dogs.