Hostis Humani Generis – reflections on the enemies of mankind – or – I don’t like pirates

Still want to be a pirate?  On which end of the plank do you place  yourself?                                                                                                                                             [Walking the Plank, Howard Pyle, 1887]

 All of this talk about pirates has got me on a roll – or a rant – as the case may be.

So, let me be out front with it – I don’t like pirates.

Let’s be honest here, that for all of the “Arghhh!” whooping good-time grog drinking and hearty sea chanty singing, pirates and the act of piracy are still nothing that any modern person should want to share the same planet with.  If I press the point I think you will have to agree with me – so I will.

In my previous post, JamCracker-Punk-Rock-Piracy, I wrote:

To be accurate and honest, pirate culture, real pirate culture, was and is to this day a very slope-browed-retro-troglodyte affair, one that organizes itself around personal enrichment at the expense of others and that produces nothing.  The pirate way of life, its economy and culture being based upon – well, piracy – a kind of kleptoparasitism.  Piracy, you know, sailing your heavily armed warship up along side an unarmed merchantman and forcing the crew of that vessel to give up their cargo and or their ship – or die.  You might also maroon, kidnap and hold for ransom, impress, enslave, or simply murder any member of that crew you saw fit.  Of course some members of pirated ships’ crews did in fact turn around and enthusiastically join the pirate crew themselves, apparently seeing a much greater opportunity for economic advancement, and prospects for a longer life than by joining the officers of their erstwhile vessel in the long boat as they are pushed out to sea.  Everybody wants to be a pirate [sic].

I have to say, being a sometimes yachtsman, I find the whole notion of pirates and piracy intrinsically loathsome, and have a hard time understanding their current appeal in pop-culture.  To me, the fascination with even of the debased, neo-lifestyle-anarchist-Johnny Depp-rock’n’roll-pirate presented to us in mass media is pretty hard to wrap my brain around, its so retro, so tacky.  People want to reenact this?  Why??  Then I remember the [under reported] accounts of four American yachtsmen murdered by Somali pirates aboard their 58ft sloop Quest in 2011 and I get pissed.  There is only one word I would like to use to describe pirates – chum.

Ironically the website of Jean and Scott Adam is still live on the internet at the time of this writing and makes no reference to their deaths.  You can still stumble across the late retired couple’s ’round-the-world multi-cultural adventures and never realize that they met their deaths in the forward cabin of their sloop at the hands of Somali pirates within weeks of their last update.

This is the modern world.

Here are the words, as reported to Reuters, of the commander of the pirate organization, a man known only as Mohamud, that was responsible for the murders of Americans:  Scott Adam, Jean Adam, Phyllis Macay and Robert Riggle four days after seizing the Americans’ sailboat.

“Our colleagues called us this morning, that they were being attacked by a US warship.  We ordered our comrades to kill the four Americans before they got killed.”

In game theory, the study of decision making, there are three general categories of games: positive-sum games [win-win solutions], zero-sum games [I-win-you-lose solutions], and negative-sum games [I win or we-both-lose solutions] the most slope-browed-retro-troglodyte of all possible game solutions is of course the negative-sum game.  Of all three types of games which type of game strategy do you think Mohamud, was playing?  which game playing strategy do you think is most emblematic of Piracy as a meme?  and which game playing strategy would you like to see encouraged in the world?

Historically pirates and the act of piracy was described as, hostis humani generis, a somewhat antique expression from admiralty law, which is glossed as, “enemy of mankind.”  Wikipedia has this to say on the subject:

Hostis humani generis (Latin for “enemy of mankind”) is a legal term of art that originates from admiralty law. Before the adoption of public international law, maritime pirates and slavers were held to be beyond legal protection, and could be dealt with as seen fit by any nation, even if that nation had not been directly attacked. The term is also used in the present to describe the status of torturers.

This term originated at a time when what we now consider to be ‘international law’ was still gestating in the womb, [or had yet to be conceived].  What is interesting is that even at a time that the most ‘slopish’ of behaviors between nations could be rationalized, that certain types of behavior were truly considered to be beyond the pale internationally.  One of the reasons is piracy’s long and close association not just with brigandry, but with slavery and the slave trade.

Most Americans today know pirates and piracy only through the rosy Coke bottle lenses that a romanticized and fictionalized version of the ‘golden age’ of piracy in the Caribbean of the mid 17th to mid 18th centuries afford  – a very limited historical perspective.  From our modern perspective this all happened long ago enough, and is now legendary enough that it is now ‘officially safe’ to spin the history in any direction our minds can imagine – and we do.

Some among us are aware of the wave of attacks upon commercial shipping and loss of life going on in the waters surround the Horn of Africa [and increasingly far out to sea in the Indian Ocean] at the hands of modern RPG, and machinegun wielding Somali pirates.  Pirates who may have identifiable political intentions but are clearly following a path of financial gain and personal enrichment – and who produce nothing.

Another subset of us may be angered at the gutlessness of international leaders who refuse to pursue pirates to their havens, thus giving them in effect ‘safe haven’ rather than employ the means already at their disposal to destroy pirate: vessels, bases and means of support.

This is how international coalitions used to deal with pirate nations.
                                                                                    [Bombardment Algiers (1816)-Thomas Luny-1820]

The more gutless American response, c. 1800      [Capt Bainbridge pays tribute to the Dey]

In addition to many small scale pirate organizations, modern day piracy is also a wide spread, large scale and well organized business with connections to international organized crime, and that in places like Indonesia in the Strait of Malacca whole cargoes are bought and sold in advance before a vessel is even pirated.†

There is a broader historical perspective of the extent of piracy internationally over the course of history, what devastation it has wrought on many parts of the world and how piracy as an institution has been a significant driver of history and international relations up to this day.  In the Western world, piracy on the high seas, and its particular long standing linkage to the abominable practice of slavery goes back at least as far as ancient Rome and possibly as far back as dynastic Egypt.

The United States itself has been affected by international piracy, and wars against it since its foundation.  The words from the Marine Hymn, “…to the shores of Tripoli,” refer of course the the Battle of Derne during the First Barbary War in 1805.

Throughout history, and up to quite recently the history of the Western Mediterranean was bound closely to the rise and fall of the Barbary Corsairs. The point here is not to attempt to give even a précis of the history of world piracy, but I will give a few illuminating examples of the seriousness of the situation, how persistent it was, how difficult it was to eradicate, and how intimately piracy has been bound up with the slave trade and the ransoming of hostages since its very beginning.

From the Wikipedia entry on the medieval history of the French department of Ardèche:

The area of the Vivarais suffered greatly in the 9th century with raids from MagyarHungary and Saracen slavers operating from the coast of Provence resulting in an overall depopulation of the region.

From the Wikipedia article, Barbary Slave Trade, The Golden Age of Barbary Slavery:

After a revolt in the mid 17th century reduced the ruling Ottoman Pashas to little more than figureheads in the region, the towns of Tripoli, Algiers, Tunis and others became independent in all but name. Without a large central authority and its laws, the pirates themselves started to gain much influence. Pirate raids for the acquisition of slaves occurred in towns and villages on the African Atlantic seaboard, as well as in Europe. Reports of Barbary raids and kidnappings of those in Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, England, Ireland, Scotland as far north as Iceland exist from between the 16th to the 19th centuries. It is estimated that between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves during this time period. Famous accounts of Barbary slave raids include a mention in the Diary of Samuel Pepys and a raid on the coastal village of Baltimore, Ireland, during which pirates left with the entire populace of the settlement. Such raids in the Mediterrean were so frequent and devastating that the coastline between Venice to Malaga suffered widespread depopulation, and settlement there was discouraged. In fact, it was said that this was largely because ‘there was no one left to capture any longer’.[4] The power and influence of these pirates during this time was such that nations including the United States of America paid tribute in order to stave off their attacks.

And from the section on the Decline:

In the first years of the 19th century, the United States of America and some European nations fought and won two Barbary Wars against the pirates. After an Anglo-Dutch raid on Algiers in 1816 immobilized most of the Pirate fleet, the Dey of Algiers was forced to agree to terms which included a cessation of the practice of enslaving Christians, although slave trading in non-Europeans could still continue. After losing in this period of formal hostilities with European and American powers, the Barbary states went into decline. However, the Barbary pirates did not cease their operations, and another British raid on Algiers took place in 1824. Finally, France took control of Algiers and Tunis in 1830 and 1831, respectively. Tripoli returned to Ottoman control in 1835, before finally falling into Italian hands in 1911. As such, the slave traders now found that they had to work in accordance with the laws of their governors, and could no longer look to self-regulation. The slave trade finally ceased on the Barbary coast when European governments passed laws granting emancipation to slaves.

Not to be completely ‘down’ on the North Africans, it is worth mentioning that the Treaty of Friendship of 1786 between Morocco and the United States is the longest, unbroken treaty relationship in United States history and this was brought about by Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdallah’s foresight in recognizing that international trade would lead to rehabilitation of his nation and that recognition of the fledgling United States was instrumental in this policy.  It stands to this day.

Modern people like to dress up pirates in modern mindsets in the same way they like dressing up as pirates.  Why?  –  God only knows.  This is the fallacy of cognative egocentrism, the projection of your own mentality and ethics upon another, a mentality and ethics that may in no way match your own – which can sometimes be a deadly mistake to make.

We seem to have lost as a culture is the notion of what a threat to the institutions of civil society piracy actually is, and what a regressive social structure pirates and pirate culture represents.  There is a recent form of apology for the institution of piracy [or piracy and its institutions] that appears in the modern anarchist literature that I find particularly odious, which is the so-called ‘pirate utopia’ idea of Peter L Wilson [aka. Hakim Bey] which he outlines in this book, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes. Wilson envisioned these, so called, ‘pirate utopias’ as autonomous proto-anarchist societies that operated beyond the reach of governments [beyond their own crude Diwan] embracing unrestricted freedom [freedom from any normal morality or ethics].

I find his endearment towards pirate societies intellectually inexplicable.  Apparently, however, what-ever the axe he as a person might have to grind with the culture of his birth which necessitates his running off to distant parts of the world to conduct his critique, it can also caused him to lose completely his moral and ethical compass en route.  What-ever the innovations of places like Salé might have produced for refugees of Spanish Reconquista oppression, somehow you have to manage to suppress the realization that:

The republic [Salé] became very prosperous and wealthy because of their main sources of income—piracy and shipping. Plundered gold, silver, spices, silks, fabrics, slaves, and many other items of value were brought back to the city-state by the pirates after raids on European shipping vessels and towns.  [Wikipedia, Republic of Salé]

Intellectuals fall in love with their ideas, it is true, but I have to ask [Hakim Bey at least], what high qualities can you find in a People who subsist in the plundering of: gold, silver, spices, silks fabrics, and slaves that leads you to believe that their adoption of the custom that permits this behavior can be thought of as a “Praxis of social resistance?”‡  as opposed to simple avarice?  If you think that some idea about “diversity” or “insurrectionary community” counts higher that brigandry or slave trading, then there is something wrong with your intellectual and ethical compass.  It baffles me that someone with the basic intellectual equipment as Wilson/Bey can be in this much denial of reality.  If at this point in human history we cannot agree that piracy and human trafficking are intellectually off-limits and non-negotiable, and that societies that revert to piracy, and create and sustain piracy and pirate culture as an economic or political system are not to be tolerated then where the heck are we as a global civilization?

If you need some kind of a model, some kind of exemplar to conceptualize resisting ‘The Man’, fine, just please try to find one that doesn’t revolve around: brigandry, plundering, murder, torture, hostage taking or slave trafficking.  Is this really too much to ask intellectually?  Such models do exist, it just that adopting such models requires abandoning the resort to lower level sub-human impulses to gain power or wealth, and subordinating your ego to a more virtuous set of ethics.

If we can at this point in the arguement finally agree that piracy is indeed an intrinsically ‘bad thing,’ that it is essentially both slope-browed and retro-troglodyte in nature and an institution worth fighting to eliminate, even at the cost of some civilian casualties I will leave you with this final thought to ponder.  I would like to, cautiously, advance the idea of ‘Piracy’ as a lens with which to critique society as a whole, and society’s activities in general.  We should ask, at what level of game playing does society operate, are we positive-sum people, zero-sum people or negative sum people – on which side of the ‘prime dive’ do we fall?  Are we pirates?  Are we being piratical?

I would further add the ‘sieve’ in using the tutelary ‘lens’ of ‘The Pirate’ that one distinct quality that is emblematic of ‘The Pirate’ is the quality of, ‘and produces nothing in return’, that is that the activity is essentially parasitic in nature.  Thus fair credit should be given to societies and institutions that despite their ‘slopish’ behavior produce great works, found great institutions, and in some fashion advance the project of being Human rather than drag it back into a darker age.  For instance the Atheanian Greeks of the classical period, renowned slave-state, probably some pirates as well, managed to lay the foundations for much of what we call the Modern World, many of the best aspects of Western civilization started here.

Also, keep in mind as you think the quality of Hostis Humani Generis, that despite the fact that as a human society there is still much that is less than is fully human in the conduct of our affairs, that there may still be some things that go beyond the work-a-week ‘slopishness’ of human affairs and descends into the category of the truly useless ‘enemy of mankind’ – and how do we tell the difference?


†  [Federation of American Scientists, Intelligence Resource Program; International Crime Threat Assessment, Chapt 2, Piracy; by John Pike]

‡ Peter L. Wilson, Pirate Utopias: Moorish Corsairs & European Renegadoes, “anti-copyright” 1995, 2003

2 thoughts on “Hostis Humani Generis – reflections on the enemies of mankind – or – I don’t like pirates

  1. Pingback: The Shores of Barbary – A republic that will not defend its citizens will not last long « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL

  2. Pingback: Landes, Landes, Taleb and the Meme Merchants Consortium – congruence on the culture of generativity vs the culture of piracy | The Coraline Meme

Please leave a comment - It's all more interesting in the Q&A

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s