The African pirates wanted ransom – lots of it – if they going to release their Western captive, whose country was considered wealthy and willing to pay. In the case of Captain Richard Phillips, the United States faced a demand for $2 million – made moot by Phillips’ rescue and the U.S. Navy’s dramatic killing of his Somali captors. The great Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes wasn’t so lucky. In 1575, Cervantes was on a Spanish ship taken by Algerian pirates, and for five years, he languished in Algerian prisons – humiliated, shackled at times, and confined behind bars with other captives, some of whom had their ears cut off or were brutally killed.
Like Captain Phillips, Cervantes tried escaping, and like Phillips, he failed. Only when Cervantes’ family finally organized the ransom money did Spain get back its native son, who would go on to write “Don Quixote” and other literature that references the piracy Spain faced in the late 1500s. The day before Phillips’ rescue, the New York Times had a thoughtful analysis on the piracy that plagued the United States in the early 1800s, when “Barbary pirates” – those from territory that’s now Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya – commandeered American ships and took hundreds of hostages to ransom. Piracy has existed off Africa’s coasts for more than 400 years, but outlaws from France, Spain and other Western nations also practiced piracy for centuries, as noted by Maria Antonia Garces, author of “Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive’s Tale”:
In the Mediterranean, the ponentini – as Western corsairs were called in the waters of the Levant in the early modern times – robbed Turks and Christians alike, seizing Venetian or French vessels or whatever came their way. French and Venetian corsairs not only attacked and looted Christian ships but also assaulted the coasts of Naples, Genoa, and Sicily, as well as other islands. In 1593, Prince Doria, the commander of Philip II’s navy, seized and captured a French ship, the Jehan Baptiste, carrying all the necessary certificates and passes issued by the Spanish representative in Nantes, only to sell her cargo and clap her crew in irons.”
Western pirates have disappeared from history, while those from modern-day Somalia – a failed state with no central government to speak of – appear on the high seas like anachronistic bogeymen. History is always repeating itself – and is always just below the surface. (To read my 2007 article, which argued that the United States needed to pay more attention to Somalia, click here.) America’s dealings with the old Barbary pirates are celebrated in the U.S. Marines’ official hymn, which famously begins, “From the Halls of Montezuma, To the shores of Tripoli.” “Tripoli” refers to the Libyan city that Marines stormed in 1804, during a wartime action connected to Tripoli piracy. Even the Marines’ uniform weapon, the so-called Mameluke Sword, takes its heritage from the days of piracy in the Mediterranean – water once teeming with the kind of corsairs now roaming the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, where Captain Phillips floated in a lifeboat until his five-day nightmare came to a relatively quick end.