Thursday, January 08, 2009

Pirates have a "Golden Age"

Speaking of pirates, today my son got a pirate book and model ship for his 7th birthday (thanks, sis).

It's one of the many kids' themes that just seems to knock around eternally*. Dinosaurs seem to be particularly overdone, but there I can weave into the kids' interest some meaningful narrative around evolution. Pirates, fairies, unicorns,... less useful but mostly harmless as kiddie themes, and our children have a good grip on the line between fact and fiction.

Anyway, the book characterises a "Golden Age of Piracy", from 1690 to 1730. It also distinguishes pirates from privateers, those who were granted licence by their country's rulers to attack ships from nations they were at war with.

In depicting a mythologised era, such books are fostering interest in themes that are harmless when seen from a distance. Yet in this case, we are now noticing that these narratives are not so far removed, and we are not fully innoculated from the effects.

Of course, piracy has never entirely disappeared from the earth - for example, it has long existed around the shipping lanes separating southeast Asian mainland from the archipelagoes (such as the Strait of Malacca). And of course, the Gulf of Aden has currency for the Somali pirates operating there.

Not so far removed. Australia is now considering a request to provide naval resources to patrol the seas around Somalia. And my son has a friend whose father is in the navy, which could bring the issue very close to home indeed.

"Golden Age" pirates in the West Indies sometimes found berth in the more lawless ports where they were less likely to be hounded by authorities. Those ports have their mirror in modern-day Somalia, and however freewheelin' it may sound, they are today places that few can feel safe.

It's a minor point perhaps: my beef is with the sanitisation, the stripping of meaning then in particular the romanticisation of something that is not romantic at core, which still has the potential - however latent - to render the trivialisation hypocritical.

* Is piracy as kiddytheme traceable to Stevenson's Treasure Island?

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