The Times, 14 April 2009


In the cabins of Navy ships across the world, a new sea shanty is being sung. No longer must they worry what to do with a drunken sailor. A captured pirate is now the trickiest problem to resolve, and luckily he scans into the song perfectly. Really, what do you do with an captured pirate? Make him walk the plank? Is that even legal?

Traditionally, English Admiralty law allowed for the summary execution of a captured pirate. Indeed, in medieval times, he could be hanged, drawn and quartered - a tough act to pull off on the high seas, one would imagine, although one where precision was hardly required. Since 2008, however, the Foreign Office has advised the Royal Navy not to detain pirates of some nationalities because, facing the death penalty at home, they could then claim asylum in Britain.

The resurgence of piracy is hardly surprising when you consider the disparity between the average income of a Somali with a boat, and the vast amounts of cargo, and therefore wealth, moving through the seas nearby. Bartholomew Roberts, the celebrated Welsh pirate Black Bart, had the same problem in the early 18th century. He could earn barely £3 a month in the merchant navy. So he eschewed it for the higher standard of living offered by piracy, saying, 'In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour. In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power.' You can see his point.

For most of us, firmly ashore, watching the news, the whole thing seems bizarre. After all, pirates have, for a long time, been cute. They're what little kids dress up as at Halloween. The very word 'pirate' is almost impossible to say, without an accompanying, 'Garrrr.' No matter how frequently pirate stories are reported, it still feels wrong: seeing pirates on a serious news story is like turning on to find someone's been killed in a hit and run, and the prime suspect is a toad in an classic sports car.

And even when you get past the fairy story aspect, the news coverage feels like an action movie. The story of Captain Richard Phillips has played out like pure cinema - a self-sacrificing American hero who used to be a cab-driver, pirates, a hostage situation, and a daring rescue on the high seas. The only thing missing is Bruce Willis. And, of course, the neat finale.

Because one of the pirates has been taken captive. He's reported to be about 16. And even though he was prepared to hold an innocent man at gun point, I can't quite get past the fact that he must have been 10 when the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie came out. Jack Sparrow was an inspirational figure - handsome, charming, and funny. I think we should blame the current pirate crisis on Johnny Depp.