Historical Cycles, Pirates and the Shipping Community

[Editor's Note: pirates make up one of the most interesting communities on the planet. They have been around since the beginning of, well, communities - in fact, I would argue that piracy is the oldest trade. The article below was previously posted by Godfrey von Bismarck on the site HR Wire.ca. It is important because the story reflects that history happens in cycles. The annals of British, French, Dutch, Chinese, Arabian, Persian, and Bahamanian histories possess thousands of accounts like the one below - once again, shipping companies are hiring armed security forces to defend against pirates. This is not a new or novel thing. And Kurt Vonnegut would say, "so it goes."]

As pirates continue to prey on ships off the Somali coast, Singapore and the International Chamber of Shipping are calling for “the employment of private armed security service providers onboard ships to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Western Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.” Their proposal will go before the International Maritime Organization in early May 2011.

The ongoing piracy crisis off the Somali coast has been impacting the B.C. shipping business causing disruption to its routes and a sharp rise in costs. “Effectively, the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest and most profitable marine routes, is off limits to us,” said Samuel Tang, vice-president, chartering and operations for Fairmont Shipping (Canada) Ltd. to the Vancouver Sun. “The incidences of piracy are just too great. Piracy has forced us to decline certain charter contracts, it forces us to take longer, less-profitable routes and it’s costing us revenue every day.”

Other members of B.C.’s shipping community agree that the piracy situation is dire and argue governments could be doing more.  “Piracy is claiming innocent lives and threatening global trade every day. I don’t think governments are aware just how bad it has become,” said Stephen Brown , president of the Chamber of Shipping of British Columbia. “Right now, more than 720 sailors are being held hostage on 34 ships in the Indian Ocean. It’s a staggering situation and it’s costing global economies up to $12 billion a year.”

Fairmont Shipping has also joined a campaign putting pressure on governments to take a firmer stance against piracy. SOS Save Our Seafarers is spearheaded by the International Transport Worker’s Federation, the Baltic and International Maritime Council, and the International Chamber of Shipping.

The Fifth Best and Worst Jobs Ever!

As outlined by the Introduction to the History of Work Series, this is Part 1 of 5 of the Best and Worst Jobs in History. Godfrey and I don’t stand on ceremony or words. We get right down to business. Without further ado, here are the selections:

Best. Job. Ever. Number 5!

Being a Pirate has simultaneously transformed and stayed the same since there was water and people had boats. The mediums have changed (ie. the Internet or a Hedge Fund instead of a ship), but the methods (ie. lying, cheating, killing, hacking, stealing) have stayed the same. Historians and popular culture will tell you the a career as a pirate means freedom, adventure and rum, which is true. It also meant democracy, health insurance and possibly getting hanged, drowned or put in jail for the ridiculously greedy ponzi scheme that you pulled on the financial world. This career is a celebration of independence, entrepreneurship and risk taking.

Summary of Academically Sound Findings and Analysis:

PIRATE

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

Lots of risk-reward here. For example, Bernie Madoff, one of the twenty-first century’s more notorious pirates, is facing a lot of hardship now. This being said, many Somali pirates (flush with cash and power after several years of mostly successful hijackings and coastal defending) are living much richer lives than their parents and grandparents ever did. Pirate ships were, as we all know, the first places where democratic principles were written down (100 years before the French Revolution), they saw health-insurance established, and tolerance of ethnicity and gender were also realized here before anywhere else on Earth…or at sea.

All this being said, having your face exploded by a cannon or your arm semi-hacked-off with a rusty cutlass isn’t really “medium” hardship…

3/5
Opportunity for Advancement Why do you think so many merchant sailors and Royal Navy seamen deserted their serf-like existence to become pirates? Because every pirate is only a few votes away from becoming a First Mate or Captain!!!

Women were also able to advance in this profession. In fact, the greatest pirate in history was a woman named Madame Cheng.

3/5

Meaningful Nature of Work For someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, loves a tropical climate, and is known to sip some rum every now and then, this job is for you.Whether today or 400 years ago, pirates have always found meaning by thumbing their noses at the status quo and finding different ways to make the world work. Meaning is what you make it when you’re a pirate!

4/5

Worst. Job. Ever. Number 5!

The First World War Message Runner was responsible for maintaining a battle’s lines of communication before radio existed – in fact, it would not be uncommon to see a message runner carrying a cage of pigeons through the exploding muck of the Western Front because, well, pigeons were more reliable than transmission cables. Not only was the job horribly dangerous, if you think about the daily nine-to-fives (we’ve all had them) where nothing gets accomplished and you feel like crap walking home in the rain, wondering what it’s all for, the life of the Message Runner was just like that…except, instead of data-entry, powerpoint presentations, or hammering nails, you faced imminent death every single day.

No water breaks or smoke breaks, as the glow of a cigarette would be spotted by a sniper a mile away. Oh, and the mud on your boots would invariably cause your feet to rot (it was called “Trench Foot”). And, remember, if you quit, your friends will probably die.

Summary of Academically Sound Findings and Analysis:

FIRST WORLD WAR MESSAGE RUNNER

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

It’s not just the getting shot or shrapneled or bayonetted that makes this job one wracked with hardship. It’s the overwhelming knowledge that, if you fail, the lines of communication break down and there is a really, really good chance that your comrades – and your friends – will die in a hail of gunfire and explosions.

It’s also incredibly hard to run through mud that is waist-deep when you’re tangled in barbed-wire and you can’t see anything through the haze of mustard gas.

0/5
Opportunity for Advancement Hey, if you don’t get horribly wounded by shrapnel or captured by the enemy you could get promoted to, like, Corporal! …awesome…

Fun historical fact: Adolph Hitler actually started his “career” as a message runner in the First World War. Clearly, this is a traumatizing job (see above).

1/5

Meaningful Nature of Work Your work is incredibly meaningful – life-saving, even. But this only makes things worse.

5/5

Reflections on these Jobs

GODFREY: The jobs in this series are not always bound by place and time….Take piracy,  well, it’s alive and well, on the financial trading floors of the world. Sure, they’ve swapped their peg legs for Prada, their hook hands for Blackberries and soiled sea clothes for Armani and white collars, but they’re still pirates. I won’t beat this analogy to death, but if you think of the rolling graphs of the Dow Jones index as the high seas, and derivatives as highly risky booty, well there you have it. The risk that everything could sink – you along with it – just makes it better.

First World War Message Runners is probably the most sadly futile and comically absurd occupation that ever was.

JOHN: Amazing! Our matrix totally works! Hopefully we sucked some of the romanticism out of piracy (ie. Bernie Madoff is a pirate and Johnny Depp will never play him in a movie). Every kind of pirate is all about teamwork, adaptability, innovation, and they’re typically great communicators.

As for Message Runners, well, nothing screams futility like a guy running through mud to deliver a message that might possibly affect minor changes along an immovable stalemate in a totally useless war. Sigh. As it turns out, creativity can’t outmatch exploding shells.

PIRATE

LOW

MEDIUM

HIGH

TOTAL:

Level of Hardship

/5

Opportunity for Advancement

/5

Meaningful Nature of Work

/5