The recent capture and subsequent freeing of Capt. Richard Phillips has, once again, drawn world attention to Somalia. The beleaguered African nation, which has an ineffective central government, has become a regional staging-ground for piracy, and has emerged as a major threat to shipping in and out of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
While contemporary depictions of Caribbean piracy suggest a sort of romantic, water-borne version of Robin Hood's Merry Men, the truth is that it had little to do with personal freedom and everything to do with commerce. After the War of Spanish Succession, many English and Dutch seafarers went to work as privateers for England, which essentially meant that they were authorized by the crown to attack Spain's shipping. Rather than the anarchic free-for-all portrayed by movies, real-life pirates were often little more than government contractors who were paid to undermine Spain's economic base in the New World.
In this context, it's worth noting that Edward Teach (better known as Blackbeard) and Henry Morgan (the famed Captain Morgan) received pardons after their pirate careers were over. While Blackbeard ended up running afoul of the authorities, Morgan was knighted and became Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica before drinking himself to death in 1688.
By comparison, Somali piracy is characterized by anarchy; centralized government in the country is almost nonexistent, and the various warlord groups that actually run the country help facilitate high-seas robbery. Added to this, many Somalis are resentful at what they see as the outside world's abuse of their country and national waters. Fishing, which has the potential to support many Somalis, was developed with the help of the European powers in the 1980s, but poaching by international fishing fleets has undermined the struggling industry. This, combined with an alleged epidemic of illnesses caused by toxic waste dumping off its shores, has left the area's former fishermen with few economic options. According to some analysts, Somalia's lack of a strong government has, essentially, left it wide open for exploitation by more developed countries.
Even if the larger world is partially responsible for Somalia's miseries, however, there is still no clear path toward redemption. Americans still remember the tragic "Black Hawk Down" episode in Mogadishu, and Islamic militias in the country have hailed the pirates as a protecting force. According to some sources, in fact, Somali expatriates in Canada are helping support the brigands, suggesting that the country's piracy epidemic may have destabilizing effects far beyond its borders.
Regardless of Somalia's misery and the developed world's culpability in it, the sad fact is that the larger world is seriously hamstrung in its dealings with the African country. Many of the ships that have been captured in the area, including Capt. Phillips' Maersk Alabama, were carrying food aid to Somalia, which raises serious questions about the advisability of any intervention in the region. Although human compassion would seem to dictate continued humanitarian aid for Somalia, recent history seems to demonstrate that extending a helping hand to a snarling mouth is seriously unwise. For the time being, the best recourse might be for the rest of the world to commit a significant force to blockade Somalia, keeping poachers out and locking pirates in.