368 pages, Riverhead, ISBN-13: 978-1594487743
What do the names John Nutt, Richard Bishop, Peter Eston and Sir Henry Mainwaring have in common? All were Barbary pirates that were offered pardons by King James I, if they promised to come home to England and behave (oh, and they were also allowed to keep all of their ill-gotten booty). Probably the most famous and successful was Sir Henry Mainwaring, who not only was pardoned but was also appointed to Vice-Admiral of the Royal Navy by King James (actually, it makes sense when you realize what a problem piracy was, and the knowledge Sir Henry possessed of other pirates and piracy, in general; it was such a problem that King James ended up offering a blanket pardon to approximately 3,000 British subjects who had participated in piracy at that time.
In his slim tome Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean, Adrian Tinniswood explores the world of Mediterranean piracy when a small group of men in a small boat with scaling ladders, few weapons and sheer nerve would commandeer much larger vessels for ransom. These men were part of a sophisticated system of a state sanctioned, state regulated, public-private partnership used to grow the coffers of the pirates and the government. Lest one think that this is a problem of a different age only read about in history books, let me remind you that in 2009 the United States Navy established a task force to take care of piracy once and for all (again) – and, oh yeah, Thomas Jefferson established a United States Navy task force in 1801 to do the same thing (which also happened to be the beginning of the United States Navy). Both had successes; neither not cured the problem. One problem was just how diffuse piracy was. In the 17th Century, the Ottoman fleet competed for dominance in the Mediterranean with navies of European powers, and while the petty rulers of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and other North African (Barbary) city-states paid lip service to the Ottoman Sultan, they in fact pursued their own power agendas. In this setting, Barbary pirates forged shifting alliances and captured vessels of many nations, seizing treasure and slaves. The British and others tried to put a stop to the piracy, and their efforts make for fascinating reading.
What Mr. Tinniswood makes abundantly clear is that the solution to piracy was – and remains – onshore. As long as there are governments and pseudo-governments that support and profit from piracy, it’s going to be prosper and thrive. The ocean is just too darn big to police (even today) and we have to deal with the people and organizations that back these efforts in diplomatic and other ways. There have been major successes in the distant past that have been the result of aggressive onshore efforts that are well documented in this book. Recently, FBI agents captured Mohammad Shibi, who negotiated the ransom for four American captives who were recently killed by Somali pirates; the agents had the help of Somalian authorities and, actually did this in Somaliland. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction to resolve our piracy problem – of the last 500 years.