By Bisi Lawrence
They flitted like dragon-flies across the seas but packed the sting of a wasp. They were colourful, adventurous and ruthless.
Their emblem on their sail was the Skull and Crossbones, the “Jolly Roger”, under which they painted the pages of history with daredevil stories of stirring action and romance. They are the pirates, known from ancient times as outlaws, and are still so with us today.
You may have read about Sir Henry Morgan. He was a pirate or, rather, a buccaneer. But he might have also been a privateer, the way he ended up. A pirate was, and still is, generally someone who commits an act of piracy. Now, that in itself, goes into many directions. Ordinarily, piracy is robbery on the high seas. Armed men launched their ships on the high seas for the sole purpose of criminally depriving other craft of their cargo.
Lives were lost, of course, but mindless carnage was all a part of the vicious crime. It is an age-old, though not exactly a time-honored, pastime.
In the 13th Century, it was carried on in craft hardly more than canoes, but by the time of the First Elizabethan Era, (1558 – 1603) it had acquired massive frigates and other sophisticated craft of the period for its conduct. That was when the likes of Francis Drake was honoured with a knighthood for wreaking havoc on the Spanish galleons of Prince Phillip of Spain. And that was when piracy actually developed the branch of privateering.
A privateer was simply a pirate who had the official support of a government to commit any crime on the high seas, especially against the ships of certain countries towards which the government felt belligerent. There did not have to be a war situation. It was what you may call “hot diplomacy”, just as we were to have “cold war”, centuries later.
There was yet to be another branch of piracy called “buccaneering”. This grew along the West Indian coastal areas. The buccaneers were true adventurers who founded ports from which they even traded openly with merchant vessels, when they were not busy cutting them to pieces. This was where Henry Morgan (1635 – 1688) belonged and performed so well that he too was even knighted, like Sir Francis Drake, and appointed the deputy-governor of Jamaica to boot.
There were also the freebooters, who looted even other pirates’ stores and were a terror to inhabitants of pirates’ outposts like Tortuga and Tripoli. History would have lost a scintillating page of “derring-do” without them.
Now, all that might sound like balderdash to you, if you were not fortunate enough to have read history — that slice of eternity that consistently repeats itself.
The University of Ibadan, especially when it was still the University College of Ibadan, was a citadel of classical learning. (I am not saying it no longer is.) This was mostly because it had a secondary educational structure that formed the take-off board for the tertiary institutions of that period. The undergraduates had a rich background of English literature which, as we daily continue to discover, is sine qua non for a thorough grasp of the English language. Indeed, one would presume that the knowledge of the literature of any language would be a prerequisite for a full understanding of that language. Those who feel that this position is arguable are free to argue it out among themselves — while we proceed.
And so the undergraduates of UCI (and remember that they were the first to be so called in this country) had their heads crammed full of the lore of Western ideals and mores, at a time when our emerging nation did not yet know what direction to face.
But they could, with the advantages of the higher learning to which they were being introduced, discern the pitfalls that were near at hand, even if they weren’t properly clear about the distant ones. And like those adventurers of old, they set out to change their world. They adopted the name too. They called themselves “‘The Pyrate Confraternity”.
It had a certain ring to it, you would appreciate – the distant echo of flashing blades on bloody decks, in that lost era of swashbuckling adventure for high glory and ‘“pieces of eight”’. They were not out for any personal gain. They just wanted to be a part of a movement for a just, egalitarian society amongst a people in the throes of elitist distortions of the good life. They saw it in the politics of the day which, as a matter of fact and alas, was hardly any different from today’s.
They saw it even amongst their own class where :’keeping up with the Jones’s” was strangulating healthy development within the undergraduate community. What they wanted was an open society, a level-playing field for every sector of the society.
They borrowed freely from the language of the pirates of old to create an identity. “Ahoy!”, for instance, became their friendly greeting. They even picked up the names of some of the notorious pirates of old mostly, some people maintain, to remove the ethnic identity of their personal names… Captain Blood, Captain Kidd, Black Dog, etc. But absolute secrecy was not in their book. They had nothing to hide.
Although they held meetings in the night, they were very visible and easily identified at the end of their meetings at dawn. They abhorred violence and that was part of the reason why they ceased to function in the campuses over twenty years ago, to avoid being mistaken for, or confused with, the cult movement. They were real “Jolly Rogers”. The “seadogs” are still in every part of the world – Britain. USA, Japan, France, etc. to say nothing about other countries in Africa.
They probably did not achieve much in changing their world. The legacy of fraternity in institutions of higher learning was bastardized by nasty cultic interpretations of what was meant to be a peaceful idea. But theydemonstrated that young people could make an impact upon their society, for good or for ill, depending on the choice they made, or made for them by circumstances.
I must not forget to mention the names of the founders who were seven in number:
Ralph Opara; Ikpehere Aig-Imoukhuede; Pius Oleghe; Nathaniel Oyelola; Sylvanus Egbuche; Muyiwa Awe; and Wole Soyinka. One or two of them have departed from this earthly scene, but time will proclaim that they are all immortals.
You must have heard of “Baba Sala”, a comedian of note some thirty years ago. His appearance alone’ -as worth the price of admission.
His performances filled the halls to capacity. He sported a bow-tie which would have put an umbrella to shame in size. His jacket “as more like an overcoat and his grin was the stuff scowls were made of Encouraged by his stage success, he ventured into film-making, borrowing a sizeable amount of money to produce what he felt was sure to return some huge profit. It returned a huge nothing.
The film is said to be a real “rib-cracker”. Whilst he was sweating his soul out on locations and at editing table, some crooks were waiting for the finished product. They pounced on it as soon as it was ready, copied it, and distributed it far and wide. It was no longer a laughing matter.
Those who stole it must have made cool millions. The authentic edition made nothing, except a pile of debt- which was quite uncool. The pirates had struck. That is the way they mostly appear these days. They ‘“pirate” “intellectual” materials and items by copying them and selling them off at ridiculous prices that cripple the producers financially.
They take the joy out of creativity. They frustrate honest effort, these modem pirates.
They are spread all over the world, and they make no apologies. Recently, two of them were found guilty and sentenced to a term of one-year imprisonment by a court in Europe. They are notoriously alive in the Far East, and thrive even in North Africa in this age of the Internet where technology has melt down borders.
There is a protection against this nefarious practice known as called copyright. But it is no more than a law and, as we all know, all pirates are outlaws.
There was a swarm of these outlaws around the Mediterranean years ago, along where they called the Barbary Coast. They held sway around the 16th Century, as a matter of fact. Later on, after the American Revolution, they seemed to concentrate on American shipping. After palliative measures failed, the Americans swiftly turned to gunboat diplomacy, and blew the Algerian fleet, which was at the core of the piracy out of the water.
You might have heard that there has also been such carryings-on along the Somali coast of Somalia. Ships are attacked, sailors are held hostage, and ransoms are demanded. An American had to be rescued in a dramatic manner recently after he had offered himself as hostage for the rest of his crew members.
And would you believe that some Americans in important positions are wondering what to do? Didn’t they read history, that slice of eternity that consistently repeats itself? Have they never heard of the name of Stephen Decatur?
He was the US Admiral who dealt with the pirates and made them respect the American ships. We really need a strong arm, to handle the marauders of our intellectual wealth and property. What is happening about our copyright laws? The old enforcement palaver?