PIRACY, MARITIME MERCENARIES, NGOs, REVOLUTIONS OF NATIONAL DETERMINATION AND INDEPENDENCE, THE STATUS OF REVOLUTIONARIES. All OF THESE ISSUES SO DEBATED TODAY WERE DEALT WITH 400 YEARS AGO OFF THE COAST OF PERU. STILL BOTH SIDES DISAGREE WAS THE LEADER OF THE ATTACK THAT SANK TWO SPANISH WAR SHIPS AN "ADMIRAL" OR A "PIRATE"? THIS IS A CASE WORTH EXAMINING.
Small Dutch War ship of the Era
THE MAN WHO SANK THE SANTA ANA AND THE SAN FRANCISCO HAS BEEN CALLED BOTH "PIRATE" AND "ADMIRAL". WE DOUBT HOWEVER THAT ANY OF TODAY'S PIRATES OR TERRORISTS WILL EVER BE CALLED ANYTHING BUT PIRATES, TERRORISTS, OR BRIGANDS BY ANY HISTORIANS OF THE FUTURE
According to recent reports by a variety of Spanish language sources and a report in English carried by Reuters; the Spanish warships SANTA ANA and SAN FRANCISCO which were sunk in a naval action led by the Netherland's Joris Van Spilbergen about 400 years ago have been located off of the coast of Peru about 93 miles south of the capitol, Lima. The two ships were manned by combined crews numbering about 300 men when the action took place. The ships were commissioned Spanish naval warships assigned to the protection of the Spanish colony of Peru when they were attacked in 1615. Van Spilbergen has been called both a "Naval Officer" and a "Pirate" by various historians. The Spanish seem to prefer "pirate". The problem with his classification was in the political nature of the "nation" he served. He served in the 80 year War between Spain and her revolting Dutch colonies. So for much of that war there was no recognized nation that we might call the "Netherlands" in terms of international recognition as a nation state. To the Dutch he is called "Admiral".
Admiral Van Spilbergen as an admiral vice pirate.
Confused? To this day Captain John Paul Jones considered by many to be the "Father" of the American Navy was a commissioned officer of the Revolutionary Navy. He was also considered by Great Britain to be a "pirate", especially after his raids in British home waters and even ashore. Since the "United States" was seriously short on international recognition until after the Revolution had the British Navy caught John Paul Jones and hanged him as a pirate there would have been little diplomatic protest by the rest of the world. Going to war on behalf of a "Non State organization" is always a risky legal proposition. But if the goal is the creation of a nation state and it succeeds, the warriors of the newly independent state are always considered legitimate "combatants" by the historians of the new state. In America we read American history in high school and college written by American historians and Jones is a "Captain" and "Naval Officer", In Britain, even today he is pretty much still referred to as a "pirate".
Reception of Dutch Admiral Joris van Spilbergen at the Counrt of the Maharaja of Candia, Ceylon, July 1602
None of this has any meaning except as historical background to the operating principals applicable to either Somali pirates or Islamic terrorist organizations today. Revolutions and revolts for independence still happen in today's world. The "rebels", if indigenous to the region may have their "belligerency" recognized as Britain did for the Confederate States of America which is far short of recognition as a state but provides some protection to rebel combatants under the international law of armed conflict. It also obliges the "rebels" to adhere to the international law of armed conflict in their combat operations. The recognition of "belligerency" under these circumstances offers some protection of rebel combatants against criminal prosecution at least in the sense that escaping "POWs" accused by the defending regime of crime are less likely to be returned to the regime by other states. The United Nations Charter however limits the definition of "WAR" to armed conflict between recognized nation states only. Not only that, all signatory nations have signed off on a war ban, except for defensive war. Oh, the world is still shooting each other with wanton abandonment, or grace and aplomb, depending on which side you are on, but we always trying to avoid calling the shooting, "war".
So basically the Somali and other pirates plaguing international shipping today are simply "pirates" per the classical definition. They are "assailing bandits" directing their efforts against ships from ships and boats. Most of the "terrorists groups" even when they claim political goals, especially in the Islamic world where the groups tend to have international membership and target more than one nation are simply "terrorists" under most circumstances and "unlawful combatants" in cases like the Taliban where there was more connection to a nation state and some combatants captured on the field believed they were part of a national army instead of the security apparatus of religious/political party. The grave difficulty that confronts the "mistaken soldier" is that there being no state of war between his captor and any other nation state there is no possibility of a peace treaty and exchange of prisoners. If his captors determine that he is not likely to return to the field of battle and are willing to release him, the government of his home state may not accept him. The unwitting, often drafted, unlawful combatant may be in for a very long period of POW like confinement.
Future history will never grant to the "terrorists" or "Pirate" today the mixed review that Admiral Joris Von Spilvergen or Capt. John Paul Jones received. By today's international law modern pirates are simply pirates. The terrorists are simply terrorists by international and western law. In Islamic law the terrorists are "brigands", a capital offense. However because they claim a religious motivation, that is a mitigating circumstance under Islamic law that would allow most to escape capitol punishment, and even to eventually be set free given sufficient proof of a change of heart. Such a recognized change however doesn't change the nature of their offense or remove from the actions the shameful "Brigand" label for historical purposes.
After the successful battle off of Peru Admiral Von Spilbergen launched attacks in Mexico and later the Philippines. Historian Jorge Ortiz is quoted as saying that examination of these wrecks will offer some insight into life under the "Vice Royalty of Peru" which once encompassed much of South America before the era of Simon Bolivar. Many of the other naval vessels of the era were destroyed , literally battered to pulpwood in an earth quake and tsunami in 1746. There is unlikely to be any serious amount of gold on board these naval units, their value is historic, so needless to say their examination will be on a budget. But finding them offers us not only an opportunity to understand the past better, but also an opportunity to review the changes since then in international law in order to better put to the test the all too widely held concept that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" . People need to understand before taking up arms that the "Freedom Fighter" label is a lot harder to come by today when non governmental organizations have the opportunity to petition the international community, sue in international tribunals, and if successful a few mechanisms for getting their award enforced. In the days of Von Spilbergen, Jones, Washington, and the Great liberator of South America, Simon Bolivar the international community of mostly hereditary monarchies simply laughed at them until they had secured military victory. The Polish revolution against the communist government, Gahndi's ouster of the British from India, and quite a few similar events in the last 100 years point to the very real possibility today of real bloodless political revolution and even independence. Tyrants still exist but would be "Freedom Fighters" need to give international lawyers, the international media, and non violent protest a fair chance before starting shooting. It doesn't always work, but it has worked often enough of late that world public opinion is unwilling to support revolutions that haven't given it try.