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When that small, deadly drama unfolded off the coast of Somalia last month, where U.S. Navy snipers killed three pirates holding an American captain hostage, it harked back to an earlier time. It was, in fact, only America's latest brush with piracy in a long and colorful history that began in the Colonial Era. In those days, Americans often sided with the pirates. We're going to spend this week talking about piracy, beginning with NPR's Corey Flintoff and this look back at that swashbuckling era.

COREY FLINTOFF: A warship bears down on a suspicious vessel on a pirate-infested coast. A ship's officer calls out a request. His politeness is underscored by the muzzles of heavy guns.

Unidentified Man: Fishing vessel, fishing vessel, this is European warship on your broadside. I request you to stop, request you to stop.

FLINTOFF: French commandos stand by to board the suspect craft, a trawler off the north coast of Somalia. That scene took place in December, but something like it must have been a familiar event along the coast of America in colonial times, which happened to coincide with what's known as the golden age of piracy, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pirates needed ports to unload their captured ships, and the American colonials were noted for their willingness to cooperate.

Historian Marcus Rediker says it got so bad that colonial governors were ordered to do all they could to eradicate pirates.

Professor MARCUS REDIKER (Historian, University of Pittsburgh): So one of the things that you would see in most any port city would be the bodies of pirates hanging in chains. Public hangings were very big events. There was great drama on the gallows. The pirates would sometimes curse the governor, and the crowds would cheer.

FLINTOFF: Cheer for the pirates, that is. Rediker, who heads the history department at the University of Pittsburgh, says the crowds were generally poor colonials who saw the pirates as folk heroes.

During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress licensed privateers -a kind of officially sanctioned piracy - to harass British shipping. And at one point, privateering vessels are said to have outnumbered U.S. Navy ships by 10 to 1.

But after the revolution, the young republic took a dimmer view of plunder at sea. In fact, the first use of American military power abroad came in response to piracy - a demand for tribute from the so-called Barbary states of North Africa.

One decisive battle of the Barbary War, in 1805, is commemorated with a line in the Marine Corps hymn: (singing) to the shores of Tripoli.

In fact, the New Republic did pay tribute to the rulers of Tripoli, Morocco, Tunis and Algiers for many years because it was cheaper than mounting a naval expedition to confront them.

Dr. ROBERT RITCHIE (Historian, Director of Research, Huntington Library): Until it becomes a matter of national pride, should we be paying payments to these robbers rather than taking care of them? And in the end, the decision will be, we've got to take care of them.

FLINTOFF: That's Robert Ritchie, a historian at the California Institute of Technology, and an authority on pirates.

POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly referred to Robert Ritchie as a historian at the California Institute of Technology. His correct title is historian and director of research at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, Calif.

Ritchie says the Barbary pirates helped settle a debate in the young American republic: the question of whether to build a deep-sea Navy or to concentrate on coastal defense. Because of the need to protect American commerce overseas, the Navy won out.

The Barbary pirates were unusual in that they came from city-states. Most piracy was seen as a stateless crime, and the laws for combating it became a key building block for today's international legal system, according to Kenneth Randall, the dean of the University of Alabama law school.

Professor KENNETH RANDALL (Dean, University of Alabama Law School): Piracy, for about five centuries, really has represented an exception to the lack of consensus on much of international law. The crimes are viewed to be against the whole world order, the entirety of international commerce.

FLINTOFF: Randall says the problem is that even though every nation has the right to arrest and try pirates, very few modern nations want the cost and controversy of doing it. For that reason, he says, the world community should find some collective legal way to deal with piracy.

There are efforts to try captured pirates in various courts. The U.S. is trying the lone survivor of last month's hostage drama off the Somali coast, and the government of Kenya has agreed to try other captured suspects. Randall says there's ample precedent for a United Nations special tribunal to prosecute pirates, and says that would make more sense than dealing with them on an ad-hoc basis.

Captain Muku Mukundan keeps an eye on piracy as the director of the International Chamber of Commerce's commercial crimes division in London. He says that no matter how or where pirates are prosecuted, the international enforcement effort against them must be tough.

Captain MUKU MUKUNDAN (Director, International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crimes Division, London): What the United States did is exactly, in our view, what a flag state should be doing. And if all the flag states took a similarly robust action when their vessels were taken, they would not see the problems of piracy in Somalia at the levels they are today.

FLINTOFF: All the experts say merchant ships need to do more to protect themselves, and some even say that merchant ships should carry weapons. Robert Ritchie says that's not the way things worked historically, and it's unlikely that they'll work that way now. The reason, he says, is simple economics: Ship owners don't want the headaches and the insurance costs, and sailors have no incentive to be fighters.

Dr. RITCHIE: When you're dealing with men with big machine guns and RPGs, you're being paid to do a job. And if you're going to have to fight, you want a whole lot more money. If you really wanted to fight, you would've joined the Navy.

FLINTOFF: Most authorities agree that the ultimate solution in Somalia will take more than enforcement by foreign militaries. It will require mending the failed Somali state, helping to restore stability, and a government strong enough to enforce its own laws and police its own coastline.

Until then, Historian Marcus Rediker says, the pirates are likely to find support along the lawless coast.

Mr. REDIKER: Pirates have almost always been poor people attacking wealthier traders. And this, in fact, is one of the reasons why they have popular support. This was true in 18th century America, and it's true in Somalia today.

FLINTOFF: Public support for piracy in America waned after Americans got a big enough stake in maritime trade to feel that it was worth protecting. The same might one day be true in Somalia.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, efforts to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia, besides just sending in warships.

Unidentified Man: The ultimate solution for piracy is on land.

MONTAGNE: And that would mean confronting Somalia's lawlessness, lack of governance, and economic instability.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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