US President refuses to pay ransom, attacks pirates

[Note: Normally my blog is 100% focused on boating, and as a rule, I avoid discussing anything controversial. However, given the current media attention on piracy, and the fact that I am leaving the dock next Friday to start a circumnavigation, which may take my boat sooner or later through the Gulf of Aden, I am allowing myself a brief comment. ]

Interestingly, there is some precedent for these modern day events (piracy).

For centuries, pirates, known as the Barbary Pirates, attacked boats in the Mediterranean. Crews of ships were regularly captured and held for ransom. European countries, as standard practice, paid fees, called “tribute”, to the pirates to avoid having their ships attacked.

Initially, US ships were sheltered from attack, thanks to large tributes paid by Britain. However, when the US colonies won their independence, this protection was lost.

Prior to his election as President of the US, Jefferson fought against the payment of tributes, or ransom, to the pirates. He felt the only way to guarantee safety in the region was to fight, and achieve victory, against the pirates. President Adams disagreed. Instead, the US established a treaty with the pirates, paying tribute in cash, gold and jewels. An interesting quote from President Adams: “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.” Jefferson felt differently. In a 1786 letter to Adams, Jefferson wrote: “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace through the medium of war. Paying tribute will merely invite more demands. […] The only solution is a strong navy that can reach the pirates.”

In 1786, the US started paying as much as $1 million per year, a healthy sum in those days, and continued paying for the next 15 years, for the safe passage of American ships, and the return of US hostages. In 1795 alone, the US paid nearly $1 million in cash, and a frigate, to ransom 115 sailors. Payments in ransom and “tribute” amounted to 20 percent of the US Government’s annual revenues in 1800!

When Jefferson became President, in 1801, he refused to pay tribute, leading to war with the pirates. Jefferson moved ships into the Mediterranean, and went to war, making him very unpopular with his political opponents, and even his own cabinet.

In 1806, Jefferson announced: “The states on the coast of Barbary seem generally disposed at the present to respect our peace and friendship.” He was a bit optimistic, in that it took a decade to really calm the region. That said, Piracy may not have ended quickly, but it did end. Today, Piracy incidents in the Med are virtually non-existent. Roberta and I cruised the Med for years, and never felt unsafe, and I can’t remember hearing of any attacks.

I support Jefferson’s idea that paying ransoms and tributes leads to paying even higher ransoms and higher tributes. And, in this case, I worry that the enormous sums being paid will stimulate similar activities in other parts of the world.

That said, unlike Jefferson, I suspect, or at least hope, that there are solutions other than war. My favorite option is heavily armed military escorts for traversing the region. Personally, unless it is part of an escorted convoy, which is prepared, and empowered, to act if needed, I can guarantee that I will not be taking Sans Souci through the Gulf of Aden.

Anyway… enough politics… I’m back to boat-talk….

-Ken Williams

PS Well actually, I have one more comment…. I found on Tanit’s website, an interview with Florent, the Frenchman killed yesterday, where he was asked about pirates. He said: “We have never encountered pirates, but we have not, for the moment, navigated in the zones known for piracy (Venuzuela, Phillipines, Somalia…). To reach Kenya we will need to cross the Gulf of Aden, which is much in the media now, because many boats have been the victims of pirate attacks (sailboats, cargo ships, supertanksers…). We met, in Ismailia, Jean Yves Delanne, who was recently attacked on his sailboat that he sailed from Australia to France. Piracy is a risk, but it is necessary to keep in mind that the Somalian pirates are above all fisherman who live in a lawless country where life is hard. We are going to navigate in this zone, fully aware of all of this [….] But, we also know that real danger exists elsewhere, such as driving a car.”

6 Responses

  1. Just wishing you a very happy and truly enjoyable and safe trip. Keep the news coming in, please. It is most interesting for aspiring boaters like me.

  2. As I predicted in previous post:

    US Navy SEALs killed the 3 remain pirates and rescued, unharmed, Captain Phillips! The 4th pirate had jumped-off the lifeboat before the attack and after some deception rounds were fired by one of the Navy ships.

    I assume that the rounds offered the necessary distraction for the SEALs to board and kill the remaining pirates. Do NOT “F” with US Navy SEALs.

    In admiration for their skill,
    Ron Rogers
    Former Army SF

  3. Sam: Thank you for pointing out that there are always two sides in these things. I suspect if we could see the situation through the pirate’s eyes, our interpretation of events might be very different.

    However… I must disagree. Capturing, and holding hostage innocent persons, is piracy, or to be less politically correct: terrorism. What is going on is not justifiable.

    -Ken W

  4. The pirates started out with reasonable complaints and goals, it has simply morphed into what it is now. There fisheries were being raped by reckless Europeans and they acted–in the absence of a capable government–to protect their livelihoods. This crisis highlights our own self-interest in preventing failed states and solving the problem of global poverty.

    The Western Sahara and the protection of its fisheries are worth reading about (The Italian Mafia has also been reporter (by reputable sources) to be dumping radioactive hospital waste in coastal waters for huge profits.

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