The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With eyes on global shipping, fears of pirates abound — but they are misguided

A long history of swashbuckling, romanticized stories has fueled a misunderstanding of piracy

The Ever Given, one of the world's largest container ships, after it was fully floated in the Suez Canal on Monday. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Since last Tuesday, the world has watched a very large ship, towering with containers, stuck in the Suez Canal. How could a ship block one of the major arteries of global trade, costing billions of dollars, for days? First the wind was blamed, then “other forces,” and then amorphous “human error” began to appear in accounts. The total disproportionality of the situation provoked shocked disbelief and then laughter and memes. As it became clear how very large and very stuck the ship was, concern mounted: What was this going to mean for trade?

On Monday, the ship, the Ever Given, was finally freed. But it left a backlog of at least 367 ships queued up, ensuring that trade will be snarled in the days to come.

As global shipping companies looked to reroute their vessels around southern Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, questions arose about the dangers of piracy in the region made famous by the 2013 film “Captain Phillips” and the so-called Somali piracy crisis from 2007 to 2012. There may be a racialized misunderstanding that piracy is only a problem near sub-Saharan Africa. But piracy also thrives on narrow trade routes like the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, the area near the canal that is also vulnerable.

In short, conversations and concerns about piracy are simplified and sensationalized. And they always have been. For centuries, the public has had an insatiable appetite for pirate stories. But the ones that sell are often full of lies about pirates and what they do. As a result, we end up being frightened by the wrong things — in this case, the worry that the blocked Suez Canal will make container ships more vulnerable to piracy if they head south or that pirates are the main problem here at all.

Piracy is active today in various locations: in the Gulf of Guinea, near Venezuela and in the South China Sea. But it was actually European pirates who made the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden a sea of terror and predation. Men of the “Golden Age of Piracy” (circa 1650 to 1730), like Thomas Tew and Henry Every (a.k.a. John Avery), supported by the networks opened by the transatlantic slave trade, provoked international crises and fear by preying on ships in the Red Sea belonging to Mughal India and headed for Surat.

Indeed, across most of history and throughout the world, the story of piracy has been linked to histories of captivity and slavery and shaped by imperial forces driving mariners out of legitimate employment and into work in which theft, hostage-taking and outright enslavement became potential routes to economic prosperity.

Every is an especially instructive case of how piracy worked. Born near Devon and bred to the sea, he cut his teeth in the British Royal Navy, and then in the trade of enslaved people, before signing on as a privateer against the French. Privateers are legal pirates with papers from the government authorizing their attacks.

But in Every’s mission, that paperwork was held up, and months went by with his ships trapped in the harbor at A Coruña, Spain, with food supplies low and the men unpaid. Every led a mutiny; he and his men abandoned the plan to raid French ships in the Caribbean and instead headed toward the Cape of Good Hope and, via Madagascar, the Red Sea beyond. On the way, he accrued more European recruits and, posing sometimes as an English trader, kidnapped a number of African merchants.

In 1695, the pirates he led captured the well-armed Fateh Muhammed and the massive Ganj-i-Sawai, an armed ship carrying pilgrims, belonging to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. The amount of loot the pirates took is disputed, but it was certainly a stupendous sum, in the hundreds of thousands of gold and silver coins. Every and his pirates also tortured, raped and murdered the people they’d captured. Most of the pirates were never caught or tried.

Every may have calculated that because he was attacking ships attached to a Muslim head of state, the English government would have no reason to give him much trouble. If so, he was wrong. The East India Company (EIC) had only a tenuous foothold in the region, and Every’s unforgivable attack was horrendous public relations; it nearly resulted in the expulsion of the entire company from the subcontinent. In the end, the EIC was forced to pay restitution for Every’s piracy, while the British government offered a bounty for Every’s head and promised he would never be pardoned if they could find him.

What little record survives suggests that he ran off with the wife of one of his men and hid for the rest of his life under an assumed name. But a legend sprang up around him, carried in ballads and taken up in periodicals, pamphlets, histories, novels and even musical theater. Skipping past his illegal enslavement of African captives and the brutalities he enabled his men to commit against a pilgrim ship, English popular culture instead made him a figure of romance.

For example, stories emerged about a princess onboard the Ganj-i-Sawai — the daughter or granddaughter of the emperor — whom in some versions Every allegedly married to found a dynastic pirate empire in Madagascar. Daniel Defoe, writing a quarter-century later, complained that it was “ill laid together of those who publish’d, that he first ravish’d her, then murder’d her, and then marry’d her.”

Eventually, Every’s name started to fade from memory. Men like Bartholomew Roberts and Edward Teach (Blackbeard) replaced him. But the fictional idea of pirates winning princesses hung on, most notably via Blackbeard. One of the most popular theatrical entertainments of the 19th century attached him to the beautiful Mughal princess from Every’s tale. The princess and the pirate is now almost as familiar as a peg leg and an eye patch, but the story is rooted in the whitewashing of racialized violence.

Descended from Every’s legend, the popular story of piracy we tell today in movies like “Pirates of the Caribbean” preserves the wrong elements. It downplays the desperate condition of unpaid, essentially captive sailors and the market conditions and bureaucracies that made them that way. In stories where the pirate is White, narratives play up his charisma and hurry past his victims to focus on the treasure. These stories transform incidents of rape into tales of seduction. Pirates’ inseparable relationship to the enslaving trade is hardly mentioned at all.

There are many problems with these stories. But today, as the world’s container ships are pushed to take new routes, potentially exposing them to new threats of piracy as well as of crashing into the shore, the biggest problem is what these stories obscure.

The existence of pirates is most often the symptom of a bigger labor problem, a dispossession problem. Instead of focusing on piracy as a threat to commerce, we should recognize how global trade has left people behind. The very market forces that encourage companies to send a ship the size of the Empire State Building through the Suez Canal instead of around the roomier cape have made piracy a viable path to economic survival for some. The lie that pirates are the illness itself may not end up troubling the Ever Given or the victims of its backlog, but it’s no sign of good health in our labor and trade networks.