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There is a bay on the northern shore of Madagascar in whose thick forests, legend has it, lie the ruins of Libertalia. Some 300 years ago, the Indian Ocean was a favorite for European brigands who made their living on the high seas. But as Captain Charles Johnson recounts in his 1724 General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, piracy wasn't all rum and yo-ho-ho. Johnson portrays Libertalia's founders James Misson, a former French navy officer, and Signor Caraccioli, a lapsed Italian priest who sailed with him as revolutionaries. Caraccioli was something of a radical, and he convinced Misson and his crew "that every Man was born free, and had as much Right to what would support him as to the Air he respired ... The vast Difference betwixt Man and Man, the one wallowing in Luxury, and the other in the most pinching Necessity, was owing only to Avarice and Ambition on the one Hand, and a pusillanimous Subjection on the other." Caraccioli persuaded the men to use robbery to punish the wealthy and buy their freedom. With their takings, they built a utopia on Madagascar in which a rotating leadership replaced kings and captains, religion had no hierarchy and private wealth was banned. Misson's crewmen, Caraccioli declared, "were no Pyrates, but Men who were resolved to assert that Liberty which God and Nature gave them [and] were Barriers against the Rich and Powerful."
Libertalia is most likely a myth. Its ruins have never been found, Misson himself may not have existed, and Charles Johnson is a pseudonym, perhaps Daniel Defoe's. But the legend contains elements of truth. In the 17th century, a band of English dissidents did establish a settlement in Ranter's Bay, on Madagascar, where they rejected organized religion and lived off piracy. Libertalia's founding ideals would also have been familiar to any 17th century rebel.
Libertalia holds lessons for those trying to end piracy today. To Misson's men, piracy was a means to an end fighting oppression and building a future of fairness and prosperity. Likewise, Somali pirates will often claim, as Fingers does, to be former fishermen who first attacked Asian fishing trawlers that were devastating Somali fish stocks. If that was once true, it isn't now: kidnapped crewmen report that many pirates can't swim, let alone sail, while the recovery in fish stocks engendered by piracy's deterrent effect has not been accompanied by a revival in the Somali fishing industry. Nevertheless, the notion that the world has dealt Somalis a cruel hand and that piracy will never be fixed unless some genuine Somali grievances are addressed is widely supported. "The only real solution is on land," says Graham Westgarth, chairman of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, a trade body.
It wouldn't take utopia. A more modest vision a little less lawlessness, a little more development has brought Omar Mohamoud Omarsuuri, a onetime IT teacher in Birmingham, in the U.K., back to the land of his birth. "The root cause of piracy is lack of strong authority onshore," says Omar. Despairing of a functioning national government, he and a selection of clan leaders have formed a regional one in a new state they have founded in central Somalia, Galmudug, at whose core is a new police force of 400 men. Omar hopes they will be the foundation of a state-level normalization that will lead eventually to legitimate businesses and legal jobs. Their initiative finds strong support from Somalis, even those linked to piracy. Adar Abdirahman, 40, is mother of Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, who was sentenced to 33 years in jail in New York City in February for piracy. Adar says her son was just 15 "a child soldier" when he became a pirate and 16 when he was arrested by a U.S. Special Operations team. "If you're going to tackle piracy, do it properly," she says, "not by arresting children but attacking the root cause: a failed state with no government, schools or jobs."
It's a brave project. But standing in its way, I can't help but feel, is Fingers. When I ask him if he's happy, he replies, "I am. I don't depend on anyone. When I want a woman, I give her money and she becomes my mistress. When I need a ship, I go out and take one. No one can stop me. The sea is as big as Somalia. No one can control Somalia. And no one controls the sea." Ending piracy will require building a better Somalia for tomorrow. Trouble is, Fingers and thousands like him are already living their Libertalia today.