A Few Thoughts about Space Pirates
“Raise the Jolly Roger, an’ go to FTL, me hearties!”
Yeah, pirates in the movies are campy, stereotyped, and ridiculous. But will real space outlaws be out there some day, laying in wait for fat ships to board?
The word for today: “Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs!”
(Teaching point from retired professor: Nobody spoke like that, except a few dozen Hollywood buccaneers in the 1950s.)
Professional Space Bandits
My introduction to professional space bandits was the low-budget, “comic science fiction” motion picture, The Ice Pirates (1980). The opening scenes were provocative enough to make me eager for the plot to develop. Buccaneers in space ships, attacking ice freighters to steal the most valuable resource in the galaxy, dihydrogen oxide, a.k.a., water. Back in the 80s, most scientists thought water was a rare commodity, and our big blue marble, with three-fifths of its surface covered by oceans, marked a stunning exception to the rule. So, yeah. Steal the ice, It’s rare and hella valuable.
Ice is not rare
Except its not. In our solar system alone, outer planet gas giants have several large, cold moons orbiting them with vast amounts of water under the permanently frozen surface. “It is estimated that Europa has an outer layer of water around 100 km (62 mi) thick; a part frozen as its crust, and a part as a liquid ocean underneath the ice.” That would give Jupiter’s moon three times more water than all the oceans on earth combined.” And Saturn’s moon, Titan, plus even poor, demoted Pluto may have hidden oceans below. Turns out, water is plentiful throughout the Cosmos. There are vast clouds of it in distant galaxies.
Okay…that’s quibbling. The point is, the Ice Pirates concept quickly got shanghaied by terrible screenplay writing, which deteriorated from a potentially good story to a badly plotted farce that Mel Brooks would’ve rejected as neither funny nor adventurous.
Piracy in the Modern Era
The idea of piracy in a modern world resurfaced after the murderous, for-profit attacks on shipping by Somalian gunmen, called pirates by modern media. We say, “No! They are bad guys, not Johnny Depp trying to get drunk and/or laid and keep his captaincy against hordes of un-dead…” But despite its popularity, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise presents another series of farces that might’ve been better as a real buccaneering story with comic overtones but without the botched attempts at fantasy. And it never touches the criminal aspects of piracy and its toll on the innocent.
Pirates—true pirates—were not loveable rogues like Jack Sparrow. They were generally far worse than the thugs who board unarmed merchant ships off the horn of Africa to seize cargo and take prisoners for ransom; and they often acted despicably toward their captives.
I just finished reading Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. The Barbary Coast War in the opening decades of the 19th century happened because European powers were paying off North African privateers sailing under the authority of local rulers and attacking, enslaving, and robbing every nation who was not meeting their demands for annual tribute.
The USA was a new country and couldn’t afford the extortion, and when sailors and civilians were imprisoned in slave labor camps for years while the new democracy figured out what to do, the pirates kept up their reign of terror. Finally, peace-loving Thomas Jefferson was so fed up with the attacks on civilian shipping he bludgeoned the Congress to fund new ships and sent a small flotilla into the Mediterranean. The US Marine Corps Hymn celebrates their achievement in a single line of the opening stanza, “To the shores of Tripoli…”
Actual corsairs, not the Hollywood fantasy creatures, came in two basic types, which had nothing to do with how they treated prisoners.
- Privateers sailed with the blessings of some recognizable government, which chartered their maritime adventures against adversary nations and often allowed them to rape women passengers, pillage and plunder the ships, and enslave anyone on the vessel. They also took the captured ships as prizes of war, to be sold or converted into more attack ships.
- Pirates (a.k.a., buccaneers) were beholden to no one but themselves. They often had complex societies with codes of behavior and ruling councils. Believe it or not, they usually functioned democratically. This was because anybody who didn’t agree with the group decisions could (and did) jump ship and rejoin ordinary life, subject to recognition by non-pirates who promptly tried and hanged them when discovered. They were not happy-go-lucky, Captain Jack Sparrow-types. Nor were they forced to a life of piracy by tyrannous governments. They were rapacious, murdering thieves and were treated accordingly when apprehended by legitimate authorities.1
Piracy in the Future
So, assuming humans discover how to travel Faster Than Light and set up colony worlds and commerce with alien civilizations, will we find pirates or privateers lurking out there, awaiting a good payday by waylaying lightly defended merchant ships?
Of course not, some might say, it could never happen. When we go to the stars, people will be more enlightened, better self-disciplined, and disinterested in personal profit.
Unfortunately, humanity has proven to be remarkably resistant to peaceful ways. When inner city youth gangs defend their territory and earn profits through drug sales, armed robbery, and other extra-legal means, are they responding to the ancient drive within our species to “dominate or be dominated” as the motto of the old Parvian Republic says? (Star Lawyers, Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons, work in progress).
Pirates have plagued shipping on Earth since before the days of Julius Caesar. As a boy, Caesar was captured and held for ransom by Mediterranean pirates. The brigands were amused when young Julius told them that, when he was free, he would return and wipe them out to the last man. They weren’t laughing when he came back with a fleet and kept his promise.
While there were solitary corsairs, many organized themselves into groups whose efficiency at plunder fell somewhere between street gangs and the mafia. Their driving force wasn’t cruelty—although they often plied their trade with brutality and utter disregard for the well-being of their captives. It was personal profit. When the well-known bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he infamously replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Won’t the same be true when convoys carrying goods or passengers between star systems present an appealing target for men (or women) with fast ships and few scruples?
I assume the space pirates scenario is at least plausible, because it supports the main storyline in Star Lawyers – Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons. (Work in progress. Release target: Oct-Nov., 2018.) While writing the book, I am trying to create memorable characters with a bit of the “Avast ye scurvy dogs!” attitude without using those silly, stereotypical words. And I’m struggling to understand how organize gangs of thieves—like the Somalian pirates—view the world in which they ply their trade.
They do it because they’re bad people
It’s too easy to say, “They do it because they’re bad people.” Nobody is born a bad person, but some of us choose behaviors which can be objectively described as anti-social, even while participating in a sociopathic subculture (gangs, pirate crews, jihadists, the KKK) which is far from the mainstream and harmful to innocent bystanders. The question of what makes someone do “bad” things has yet to find a satisfactory answer. My books wrestle with the gray areas and even the “good guys” do things which result in harm to others.
I’ve never wanted to harm another person. I specifically volunteered to fly Medical Evacuation helicopters in Vietnam to avoid being the agent of death. Yet, when I was shot down on the Laotian border in 1971, I found myself on the Ho Chi Minh trail with a .38 revolver as my only weapon. There were several moments when I thought the “enemy” was coming and I pulled the pistol and realized, unlike Gandhi, I could kill in the “right” circumstances Fortunately, I never had to fire, and the American soldiers whose wounded I was trying to extract protected my crew and me until we could climb to a landing zone and get picked up by another Medevac helicopter.
The human family is full of heroes and predators
There are people who would never shoot, even to save their lives. And there are people who kill to gain wealth or personal power. The human family is full of heroes and predators. It is this mixed, contradictory consciousness we will one day take to the stars.
I am not certain there will be vast wars among alien races in which humans will find themselves targets and shooters. But I am certain that all the complex factors at play throughout our history on this planet will travel with us into the Cosmos. And I suspect other sentient races share this struggle between the angels and devils in their consciousness. It’s the price of free will.
So, dodge the pirates, touch down upon alien worlds, go forth among new species, and expect to be surprised. And remember to lock your parked starship.
For more about pirates and privateers, I recommend The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates by Peter T. Leeson. (No, it is NOT an economics textbook, just a crummy subtitle.)
Don’t forget your free copy of the Star Lawyers prequel short-story, “Knife-Fight at Olathe-5”, because the hapless asteroid miner, Bertie Winther, will reappear in House of the Silent Moons.
28 August 2018
 The lone exception might be French hunters living on the tiny Caribbean island of Tortuga in the 1630s. The Spanish drove most French forces from the area and tried to evict the French-speaking Tortuga settlers by systematically killing off the island’s game animals. The settlers resorted to piracy to make a living.
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