The resurgence of piracy marks the periodic declines of civilisation, or of empire when the two words aren’t synonyms.
Even Moamar Khadafy, when he’d achieved the status of threatened elder tyrant, recognised this. Robert F. Worth reported on p. 1 of Sunday’s New York Times:
As the uprising closed in around him, the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi warned that if he fell, chaos and holy war would overtake North Africa. “Bin Laden’s people would come to impose ransoms by land and sea,” he told reporters. “We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.”
At the time of the rebellion in Libya, I wrote about ‘To the shores of Tripoli’ and the US role in ridding the North African coast of pirates in the early 19th century. Khadafy alludes to the time when piracy was the norm, as it was there from the 6th through 18th centuries.
Piracy is not a simple or a standard phenomenon
Redbeard, to whom Khadafy refers, exemplifies piracy’s complexities. Hayreddin Barbarossa lived from the 1470s until 1546. His family were small traders who turned to piracy in response to piratic depredations of the Knights of St. John (the Knights Hospitaller).
With some necessary losses, the family became quite successful, at first independently and then by 1503 in partnership with princes and sultans along the southwestern Mediterranean littoral. They ravaged shipping from Christian states – Spain, England, the Papal States, Venice, Genoa.
By 1516, Redbeard was also taking outposts from the Genoese and then Algiers from Spain. He allied himself with the Ottoman empire (from 1520 onwards under Suleiman the Magnificent) whose naval forces he led – with phenomenal success – in the nearly continuous 16th century war with Spain. In 1545 he retired with honor to Constantinople where he died in 1546.
It would be nearly 300 years before the southern Mediterranean became free of piracy and hostage taking that targeted northern European and American shipping.
I take Khadafy’s prediction – perhaps, curse – very seriously. ‘We will go back to the time of Redbeard, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on boats.’
We associate piracy with freebooting, with chaos but not with state-building. However, it is difficult to see large differences between Hayreddin Barbarossa Pasha and Sir Francis Drake (ca. 1540 – 1596) – even leaving aside their common prey, Spain – in the services of their emerging powers.
What new structures – I hesitate to suggest they will be ‘states’ – will emerge in the Muslim world? I’ve seen no predictions I’d sign onto.
I do think it certain this profound redefinition will take a long time. Equally certain, given the precedent of the 16th century, is that the Muslim world’s neighbors will re-envision themselves in ways only time will reveal.
The new security state in this country is proof the process is well underway.
1. So the Boston Globe (what’s left of it) spells his name. Its owner, the Times, spells it as in the quotation.
2. This summary of Hayreddin Barbarossa’s career is drawn from a fine Wikipedia entry.