April 17, 2014

The wrong history

History is usually written by the victors of human conflicts. On rare occasions it is written by the victims instead. With stories of piracy, some rule somewhere seems to say that the victims have to be of the right colour or nationality, though.

American Capt. Wren Thomas seems to be trying to go the Capt. Phillips way. Ransomed after 18 days of being held by Nigerian pirates in October last year, he has given an account of his ordeal back home in the US. Maybe the idea is, as in Phillips case, to graduate to a book, then the talk show circuit and a movie that is nominated for the Oscar- and to make a bucketful of money.

I don’t know if that conjecture is true and I don’t really care if Capt. Thomas skews the truth, like Phillips’ crew claims he did. What I care about is that the history of modern day piracy is being written inaccurately, because it is being written by victims who do not represent the typical seafarer hostage. It is therefore a false history.

While fully sympathising with Capt Thomas and his trying experience, I must point out that a typical modern day pirate story invariably involves Captains and crews from the third world. The typical hostage is not North American. A representative piracy story from Africa’s East coast includes seamen spending months- sometimes years- in captivity wondering whether the owners are going to break off ransom negotiations and abandon them, something that has been done often enough. It means daily torture and occasional death. It means seamen’s families running around from pillar to post back home, traumatised and effectively abandoned themselves by their governments, shipmanagers or owners. It means reconciling to the fact that nobody is going to pay a ransom in a hurry, and that nobody is going to come to rescue you.

The Phillips story- the Maersk Alabama hijack and rescue was all over in four days- is hardly representative of what Masters and crews suffer from piracy. And neither is Thomas.’

So far it isn't, anyway. Remember the Phillips story was embellished as time passed, when the book came out and the movie followed- and the crew took Maersk and Waterman (the owners and charterers) to court, claiming, amongst other things that Phillips was a villain of sorts and not the hero portrayed.

Will Thomas go the same way? The language coming out of US based media suggests so; some build up and dramatisation has already started, and a book deal or a Hollywood producer may soon emerge from the woodwork. Listen to this (out of Thomas’ article)- 

“Soon, 7.62-mm bullets from an AK-47 were spraying in, ricocheting off the walls, and sending the crew scrambling for cover. The jig was up, and Thomas knew it. He surrendered, and opened the door”.
And, “They treated us like animals. “It’s about as close as a person could get to being a POW.”
And, “I found my training as a Marine kicked in and provided me with survival skills,” Thomas said. “I knew not to piss off a Nigerian. Or worse, a Nigerian pirate, or even worse, a Nigerian pirate on drugs.”

Lots of drama. I wonder if Tom Hanks is free. 

Like I said, I sympathise with Capt Thomas; more, I feel solidarity with him. The pressures on him and his crew must have been tremendous. I also do not believe that his story- or that of Phillips- should be downplayed just because they are US citizens or because they cashed in- or may be planning to cash in- on the horror they must have gone through. I also do not believe their stories are less valid just because the US rescues- or ransoms- its pirate-hostage citizens quickly (I must point out that although the US State Department has not confirmed that a ransom was paid in Thomas’ case, and neither have Edison Chouset, the owners of his supply boat, it probably was).  Finally, it is hardly Thomas’ fault- or Phillips’- that other countries, owners and administrations treat their seafarers abysmally. (Note that I do not even waste my breath appealing that the industry in these countries ensures that a typical hostage seafarer story is heard, at least). It is not the United States of America’s fault that other countries abandon their citizens to torture and worse.

But the connection I feel with Capt Thomas is drowned out by the angst I feel at the fact that the overwhelming majority of pirate victims have no voice even after their horrific trauma. And that, with maritime piracy, the stories the world will hear today and the histories the world will read tomorrow will be, simply, the wrong ones. And that even the tragedies of most seamen will be forever discounted in a warped atmosphere of make believe.


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