Transcript

616:

I Am Not A Pirate
Transcript

Originally aired 05.05.2017

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/616

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When I was a kid, I was 100% about astronauts, spaceships, sci-fi, and I was 0% pirates. The fact that pirates were badasses, that they didn't obey rules, that they were rebels, that did not speak to the little nerd boy that I was.

But one of our producers, Elna Baker, she was into pirates. She liked how scary they were. And she told me this amazing story that has been her favorite since she first heard it. It's a true story about a man named Stede Bonnet.

Elna Baker

Who is known as the Gentleman Pirate. And basically, it takes place in the early 1700s. He was from Barbados, so he grew up on a plantation, a sugar plantation, to one of the wealthiest families in Barbados. He had 94 slaves. He was married, had three kids. And he traveled in high society, which is unusual for a pirate.

Mark Hanna

Yeah. The vast majority of people who turned to piracy did so out of desperation, and this man didn't.

Ira Glass

So who's this?

Elna Baker

I've told this story so many times to so many people that I just wanted to make sure I was getting the facts right, so I decided to talk to a pirate historian. That's Mark Hanna. He's also a professor at UC San Diego.

Mark Hanna

The vast majority of pirates start their lives by mutinying, or they gather a crew together and they steal a ship from someone. He actually had a ship built. Thought, I will go down to the local shipyard. I'll have my ship built according to specifications that I think are best.

Elna Baker

And then he hired a crew and he paid them wages, like regular normal-people wages, which was a big no-no.

Mark Hanna

The vast majority of pirates, if you don't capture a ship, you don't make any money. You want your crew to be invested in the outcome of attacking a ship. So if you know, hey, I'm doing OK. I know I'll be paid this week, you're going to be a little less aggressive about capturing a ship. And so I think Bonnet, right off the bat, didn't understand the economic model that is the basis of most pirate attacks.

Ira Glass

Then why did he want to be a pirate? What kind of midlife crisis is just like, I'm a wealthy landowner with a wife and three kids, and I'm going to just go marauding on the seven seas?

Elna Baker

Well, it's explained in a book from 1724 this way.

Mark Hanna

Captain Charles Johnson wrote, quote, "this humor of going a-pirating proceeded from a disorder in his mind which is said to have been occasioned by some discomforts he found in a married state."

Ira Glass

Wait. What is he saying?

Elna Baker

He says-- and other books say the same thing-- that what led him to piracy was that he had a nagging wife.

Ira Glass

No way.

Elna Baker

Mhm.

Ira Glass

They're blaming the wife?

Elna Baker

They blame the nagging wife. So Bonnet has this ship built and he calls it The Revenge. And he makes sure that it has a cabin with a well-stocked library.

Ira Glass

Which doesn't seem that weird, if you're going to be on a boat for months at a time, that you have a lot of books.

Elna Baker

Most pirates are illiterate, Ira.

Mark Hanna

I think he had absolutely no idea what he was getting into. I think he might have heard stories in the local taverns about the excitement of life at sea. Perhaps he heard stories that you could go to other islands and maybe meet other women. But clearly, he had no idea what he was getting into. And it seems like the reality set in very soon after he had started off on his voyage.

Elna Baker

And this is what I love about this story is that, instead of just dreaming of this alternate life where he's a bad guy, he goes for it. And he's the worst pirate. Like, he does everything wrong. Like, for instance, the captain of the pirate ship is supposed to be the most experienced sailor.

Ira Glass

Yeah?

Elna Baker

And Bonnet has no experience sailing.

Mark Hanna

So it looks like, when he was about to attack a ship, he would have to look around and ask advice, which is not something you want to be seen doing as a captain. You want to be seen as decisive, fast, aggressive.

Elna Baker

But they have a few successes. They take a few ships. He even gets a reputation. This is when they start calling him the Gentleman Pirate.

Ira Glass

Does he kill people?

Elna Baker

No, actually. He's kind of a nice pirate. He captures people. He takes their goods. And then he lets them go.

But then he attacks a big ship, a Spanish man-of-war, and over 30 of his men are killed or wounded. And it's a huge disaster. Bonnet is gravely injured. And they have to escape and flee to the Bahamas.

Mark Hanna

And there he met one of the most iconic pirates in world history, Edward Thatch, who's better known as Blackbeard.

Elna Baker

Yeah. This is where the story takes a remarkable turn. So basically, here's this guy who has idolized pirates, and who does he happened upon but basically the most famous pirate in the world.

Mark Hanna

Who is, in fact, Bonnet's polar opposite. He's a successful sailor. He is aggressive. He's decisive. He's cruel. He's sadistic. But he's also charismatic and bold, as opposed to Bonnet, who's indecisive, nervous.

Elna Baker

And Blackbeard was this consummate performer. He was incredibly violent. He was unpredictable. There's a reason he's one of the most famous pirates. Even pirates were like, whoa, this guy is out of control. When he would first appear on your ship, he would have prepared for that moment by tying these pieces of twine called slow matches into his long, big beard, and he would light them on fire just as he appeared so that there was this cloud of smoke. And in the smoke, you would just see the eyes of Blackbeard. So he looked like he was appearing out of hell.

Ira Glass

I don't understand that at all. It just seems like the fire would catch fire to his beard.

Elna Baker

He had a method, I'm sure.

And this was actually a strategy. Their whole thing was to inspire as much terror as possible because, if they made you incredibly afraid, you would give up the ship without a fight.

Ira Glass

Oh, this never occurred to me until this second. So the skull and crossbones and all that, it's all like a brand to make people scared.

Elna Baker

Yeah. Their brand was death. They arrive with a skull and crossbones. If you think death is coming for you, you're going to surrender. But in fact, some pirates, like Blackbeard, they didn't even kill many people. In fact, there's no evidence Blackbird ever killed anyone till the very end. So it was very theatrical. They're putting on a show, and they understood that. And I like imagining these pirates scheming and plotting it out, being like, OK, no, here, I have a really good idea. This is so scary.

Ira Glass

So now basically, the most skilled pirate meets the least skilled.

Elna Baker

And Blackbeard treats Bonnet in a very friendly manner, which is uncharacteristic of Blackbeard. Bonnet is gravely injured. Blackbeard comes on board and says, I'll captain your ship.

Ira Glass

As help to you?

Elna Baker

Yes.

Ira Glass

Extremely rich man.

Elna Baker

Yes.

Ira Glass

Who doesn't know what he's doing.

Elna Baker

Exactly.

Ira Glass

All right.

Elna Baker

And he lets Bonnet hang out and heal in the captain's quarters while he captains the ship.

Ira Glass

So do we know what Blackbeard gets out of this?

Elna Baker

We don't know. But Bonnet's a novelty. Blackbeard wouldn't have gotten a chance to ever hang out with an aristocrat. They end up being together for almost a year.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Elna Baker

And at some point, Blackbeard gives Bonnet his ship back. And when Bonnet finally goes out on his own again, he fails at pirating so badly his crew begs Blackbeard. They're like, we cannot work for this guy. He is a terrible pirate. Please take over this ship. And so Blackbeard intervenes and he puts his second-in-command in charge of Bonnet's ship and he invites Bonnet over just to stay on his ship for a while. Then he tells him, you know, you're just not cut out for this lifestyle. Just sail with me. So again, it's this ruse of like, hang out with me. Put your feet up. Relax.

Mark Hanna

This was a transformative moment for Bonnet. I think this was a moment when he realized he made a huge mistake. In fact, Captain Charles Johnson recalled that he, at this moment, saw his folly and, quote, "he reflected upon his past course of life and was confounded with shame when he thought upon what he had done." So he clearly fell into a deep, deep depression.

Elna Baker

Because he was like, oh, I had a midlife crisis and I left my wife and three kids, and now I'm a pirate. And I'm horrible at it.

Mark Hanna

Yes, that's exactly right. In fact, he tells the rest of the pirates that he actually really regrets actually becoming a pirate. And the rest of the pirates are embarrassed just to look at him.

Elna Baker

Yeah. And in fact, one of the historical accounts said that, when he ventured out on deck, he wore an elegant morning gown and usually carried the book he was reading in his hands, and then he would sort of sulk with despair.

So he has all this regret about being a pirate. And then something incredible happens, which is that the king issues this decree that there is a pardon available for pirates and you can return to your life without any criminal charges. So when they get to port, he takes the pardon. And Bonnet's plan is to become a privateer.

Ira Glass

What's that?

Elna Baker

It's like a mercenary navy that works for the king.

Ira Glass

OK.

Elna Baker

But when he gets back to his ship, Blackbeard has betrayed him.

Ira Glass

That is so not a surprise at all.

Elna Baker

He's plundered his ship and he's taken his men and marooned them on a deserted island, and he leaves them for dead. Bonnet saves them.

Mark Hanna

He is really furious at Blackbeard and, in fact, decides he wants to go after and capture Blackbeard himself, which is, as you can imagine, an astounding misperception of his own skill sets. Here's this guy who had minor success. His crew never respected him. Goes after probably one of the most successful pirates in world history, who is much more aggressive, and thinks that somehow he's going to enact revenge and he's finally living up to the name of his ship for the first time.

Ira Glass

So he's back in the game.

Elna Baker

Yeah. He never actually catches Blackbeard. But while he's chasing him, he finally becomes a real pirate. He takes 13 ships. He got violent. He flogged his own men. He threatened to burn down a whole town and to shoot his own crew if they surrendered. And in the final battle, where he was captured, he and his men kill 18 people.

Mark Hanna

So you could say that he had some, I guess, personal growth. Learned specific lessons from Blackbeard. Learned that, if you're going to do this, you have to put on the show and you've got to actually appear to be someone who it is worth surrendering to. Yeah, so Bonnet eventually has matured into a murderous pirate.

Ira Glass

Wait. So he had a romantic idea of what it was like to be somebody who murders people and takes their stuff, and then he actually ends up actually murdering people and taking their stuff?

Elna Baker

Yeah.

Ira Glass

That's horrible.

Elna Baker

Yeah. He becomes a bad guy. And they catch him. And they put him on trial.

Ira Glass

So he finally got his wish. The world finally thought he was a pirate. Like, mission accomplished.

Elna Baker

Yeah. And now he can be hanged at 30. And there's actually a transcript of his trial.

Ira Glass

So did he admit being a pirate? Was he proud?

Elna Baker

No. He pled not guilty. He said his crew held him on board against his will and that he wasn't doing any of the piracy. And apparently, this kind of defense is typical. Mark Hanna told me pirates usually deny that they're pirates, or they rationalize it, like there's some good reason that they did this. They were poor sailors or they were badly treated, and it was only fair to start stealing from these big trading companies' ships.

Ira Glass

So did the defense work? Did he get off?

Elna Baker

No. He went to the gallows in Charleston, South Carolina. There's actually a marker in a park there.

Ira Glass

So the guy goes and hangs out with pirates. And even though he does not seem to have the smallest aptitude for pirating, he still ends up becoming a pirate.

Today on our program we hear the story of another guy-- a guy who's alive right now, a guy today-- who gets near to pirates. Did it change him? We try to figure that out. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Arrr you going to stay with us? No, we're not using that!

[LAUGHING]

Act One. Pirate Change Denier.

Ira Glass

Act One, Pirate Change Denier.

You may remember hearing about Rachel and Paul Chandler a few years back. They're a British couple who were spending their retirement sailing around the world. But in October, 2009, in the middle of the night, a band of Somali pirates boarded their boat with guns and kidnapped them for ransom. They were held for months in the Somali bush, where they were threatened and fed a steady diet of goat liver.

Back in England, Rachel's brother, a guy named Stephen Collett was negotiating with the pirates. He spent eight months trying to work out a deal mostly with a pirate called Ali. They finally came to an agreement. $440,000 for Rachel and Paul's freedom. A contract was written up and signed and faxed to Ali's office in Somalia. Some pirates have offices and fax machines.

And then the day before Rachel and Paul were scheduled to be released, the pirates let Stephen talk directly to Paul.

Stephen Collett

We have made arrangements, Paul, to deliver the money to the pirates by plane to a town called Adado tomorrow at 11 o'clock.

Paul Chandler

Yeah? 11 o'clock?

Stephen Collett

Yes. Yes. Now, if the plane cannot land again to collect you, then you will stay with a Mr. Mohamed Aden tomorrow night in Adado.

Paul Chandler

Mohamed Aden?

Stephen Collett

Yes. In Adado. Now, Mohamed Aden is the district governor who lives in Adado, and he's not a pirate. I repeat, he is not a pirate.

Paul Chandler

OK. Yes. That's good.

Stephen Collett

He is working on our side. He is a good man and you can trust him.

Ira Glass

Mohamed Aden, the guy Stephen mentions, who's the governor of a region in Somalia where Rachel and Paul were held, he's actually American. Somali-American. He was born in Mogadishu but spent half his life in Minneapolis. Most people call him by his nickname, Tiiceey. And when Stephen says--

Stephen Collett

He is not a pirate. I repeat, he is not a pirate.

Ira Glass

That's actually the question of this story. Tiiceey took a public stand against piracy, worked to end piracy in his area. But right now, he's locked up in a Belgian prison. He was arrested for piracy and for criminal organization. He denies the charges. Though, of course, as you just heard, denying you're a pirate is an old tradition in pirating.

So is he innocent? Is he a pirate? Is he colluding with pirates? And if he is, how does a guy who comes all the way from America with the best of intentions, hoping to do the right things, end up in this situation? One of our producers, Dana Chivvis, looked into it.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey used to be just another boring dad in Minnesota. In 2008, he was finishing a master's degree in public administration at Minnesota State and starting a small health services company. He lived in a three-bedroom condo in the suburbs of Minneapolis with his wife, Shamso, and their five sons. He was a regular Walmart-shopping, football-loving, homework-checking father.

He was also active in the Somali community in Minneapolis, and he did the thing that do-gooder ex-pats do. He raised money from other members of his clan to send back home. He tried to improve things back in Somalia.

Clans run Somalia. There's no powerful central government there. And Tiiceey's clan is made up of hundreds of thousands of people. In 2008, the clan was trying to restore order to the part of the country they're from, a region called Himan and Heeb, a 5,000-square-mile patch of sand that hadn't had a functioning government since the early '90s. A place with no running water, rife with bandits and warlords, where camel herders wandered the desert and pirates plundered the seas. Where you couldn't drive from one town to another because the warring tribes wouldn't allow it.

So members of the clan from all over the world gathered in Dubai to come up with a plan to create a government there. Tiiceey went to that conference. He says he was actually picked to run the meeting. And he did such a good job, the clan elders drafted him to be part of a small team that would actually move to Himan and Heeb for three months, write a constitution, and get a government started. He's the guy who has trouble saying no, so he flew to Africa directly from the conference.

Dana Chivvis

So wait. They didn't let you go back? You couldn't go back to Minneapolis?

Mohamed Aden

No.

Dana Chivvis

You went--

Mohamed Aden

Unfortunately, no.

Dana Chivvis

--straight to Somalia.

Mohamed Aden

Because they were afraid if we go back home we would never come back.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, my god.

Mohamed Aden

Yes. So in a way, it was a setup.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah, it was a setup. You were conscripted.

Mohamed Aden

Yes.

Dana Chivvis

At the end of those three months, he'd done such a good job that the local elders asked him to stay and run the place for a few years. He didn't want to do it, lobbied against it for a week. But his friends finally sat him down and said, you have no choice. If any of us had been asked, we'd do it. So he agreed.

Mohamed Aden

The day they appointed me, that was my scariest day in my entire life.

Dana Chivvis

He's saying it was the scariest day in his entire life. That's Tiiceey talking to me in January. He's calling me from the prison in Belgium, so it's a little hard to hear.

Mohamed Aden

I was scared like a little girl.

Dana Chivvis

Do you remember calling Shamso and telling her this news?

Mohamed Aden

[LAUGHING]

Actually, what I did is-- I could not face-- to be honest with you, she's what's called the boss. She's the one who wears the pants in the house.

Dana Chivvis

He says it was hard to bring himself to tell his wife, so he asked his friends to call her, figuring she couldn't say no to them.

Mohamed Aden

I was a coward. I didn't have the balls.

Dana Chivvis

At first, he told his wife, Shamso, he'd only be gone a few months. But now he had to explain to her-- well, his friends did, actually-- that he was going to stay in Somalia for a few years, leaving her with five boys to manage back in Minneapolis while he lived in a lawless country they'd both fled years ago. When I asked him what his goals were in Somalia, he said he didn't want to die.

Mohamed Aden

First of all, my dream was not to die here. Not to die there. But work wise, my dream was to make the situation the best I can. To make safe, to build a good buildings, you know, roads, like a lot of people working and there's a lot of income. But it was a dream.

Dana Chivvis

I've been talking to Tiiceey since December when I visited him at the prison in Belgium. It's a massive and foreboding place with a moat, for some reason. Tiiceey doesn't look like a pirate. He looks like a professor. He's 6 feet tall and a little chubby. He's 44 years old with a goatee that's starting to grey.

And since we met, he's been calling me from a phone in the lounge area of his cell block. We've spent hours talking about his work in Somalia and his legal case. There's always a TV on in the background so it can get a little tough to hear.

Dana Chivvis

Hello?

Mohamed Aden

Hey, Dana. Good evening.

Dana Chivvis

Hey, Tiiceey. How are you doing?

Mohamed Aden

Good, yes. How you doing?

Dana Chivvis

I like talking to Tiiceey. He's smart and he has a good sense of humor. At one point, we were trying to figure out how much these phone calls cost. He thought they were really expensive.

Mohamed Aden

$5.75.

Dana Chivvis

So $5.75 a minute is the best price?

Mohamed Aden

Oh, my god. It's a rip-off. It's like calling Antarctica or somewhere. No, man, it's not.

Dana Chivvis

And they're accusing you of piracy.

Mohamed Aden

Look at that. Touche. Touche.

Dana Chivvis

Turns out, by the way, Tiiceey overestimated. The calls were much less than that. Only about $1 and change. Overestimating might be a character flaw of his, as you'll hear.

So here's the story he told me about how he went into Somalia full of hope and good intentions and ended up in the clink in Belgium. Tiiceey's first priority as governor of Himan and Heeb was to hire police and set up a court system. He knew he couldn't make any progress unless there was some security in the area. He hired police and paid them $50 a month. He told me he didn't pay his small administrative staff a salary at first because he wanted to save the little money he had for the police and the judges. Make sure they'd stay on his side.

Tiiceey was setting up a government from scratch, so it's not like everyone just accepted the new order. His first month there, the court heard a land dispute. Two men claimed to own the same piece of property, and the guy who lost the case was pretty unhappy about it. So he and a bunch of relatives with guns surrounded the disputed land. Tiiceey's soldiers showed up and the occupiers--

Mohamed Aden

They opened fire. And one of my soldiers died.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey's men ended up killing three of the occupiers.

Mohamed Aden

I'm not proud of killing people, but that was actually the turning point of the respect that we get. That's the day the administration became a real administration.

Dana Chivvis

After that incident, people started to respect Tiiceey's new administration. He had authority now. He was writing laws and he was able to enforce them, but it was still pretty scary.

Mohamed Aden

Every morning when you wake up you're thinking about how I'm going to die today. If I'm going to die, am I going to die with bullets? Am I going to die with [INAUDIBLE]? Am I going to die with suicide? Am I going to die with my staff killing me? Seriously. And that's the environment you're working on.

What I do on a daily basis is to solve the problems for the people, whether it is lack of food or it's water.

Dana Chivvis

That's Tiiceey talking to a New York Times video journalist in 2009, a year after he started the government.

Mohamed Aden

In other work, you can't measure your success, but this is very easy to measure for success. You can see in the people's eyes that you helped them and you feel good. You feel good about that.

Dana Chivvis

That interview happened because a New York Times reporter named Jeffrey Gettleman caught wind of the changes happening in Adado and he decided to go see for himself. To get there, he had to hire one militia for the start of the journey, who handed him off to a second militia who drove him the rest of the way into Adado.

Jeffrey Gettleman

So as we pulled in, we saw lots of new construction, lots of houses with brand new, shiny metal roofs, a relatively new school, new stores, lights. It was like an oasis of development in the middle of a very neglected, remote area.

Dana Chivvis

Did you feel safer there than you did in your other trips around Somalia?

Jeffrey Gettleman

I felt pretty safe there. And maybe that was totally ridiculous, but I felt safe there because I trusted Tiiceey. And he had control. I had been in Somalia enough I could tell who was the real deal and who was a pretender, and he seemed like the real deal.

Dana Chivvis

But Tiiceey still had one major problem to tackle: pirates.

Mohamed Aden

They were more powerful than anyone else at that time.

Dana Chivvis

The years that Tiiceey was governor, 2008 until 2013, that's when the piracy epidemic was raging in Somalia. In fact, piracy was so pervasive that it was basically its own industry-- one that cost the world economy billions each year. In 2010, more than 1,000 people were taken hostage at sea. Nobody, not the Somali federal government or rich Western nations, had been able to roust them. Tiiceey's region was home to one of the most notorious pirate towns in Somalia, a place called Harardhere.

Tiiceey set up local governments in other towns in the region, but when he went to Harardhere, the elders there told him not to bother. The pirates controlled everything. They'd even set up a pirate stock exchange there in the building where anyone could go and buy shares in a pirate venture. They had more guns and more men and more money than Tiiceey did, and they weren't going to listen to him.

In April of 2009, Tiiceey says he met with the president of Somalia and told him he needed help fighting the pirates. Luckily, the president had worked to eradicate piracy himself in the same area in 2006 and it had worked for a little while. The president knew someone who could help Tiiceey-- a guy called Mohamed Abdi Hassan. He goes by the nickname Afweyne, which means "big mouth."

He was a Somali businessman and also the godfather of modern Somali piracy. Afweyne is the guy who figured out that you could run a piracy business like any other legitimate business-- by raising capital from investors and then funding piracy ventures on the high seas.

Dana Chivvis

Did you have the thought of, like, why would I hire a guy who's a big pirate to run my anti-piracy campaign?

Mohamed Aden

To be honest with you-- I'm not hiding anything-- but at that time, he was a businessman.

Dana Chivvis

So he wasn't hijacking ships?

Mohamed Aden

No, no. He was [INAUDIBLE]. He had an office in Harardhere at that time. He was bringing khat. Khat.

Dana Chivvis

Khat. Oh, that was his business.

Khat is a leaf that gives you a little buzz when you chew it. It's legal in Somalia, and pirates apparently chew the stuff all day long.

Dana Chivvis

What was Afweyne-- as a member of the committee, what was he actually doing?

Mohamed Aden

He knew most of those guys, especially the middlemen. He knows a lot.

Dana Chivvis

Most of the middleman pirates.

Mohamed Aden

Yes, yes, even the kingpins. He knows a lot because most of them used to work for him.

Dana Chivvis

If this doesn't seem like the greatest idea, to hire one of the most notorious pirates to help you end piracy, Tiiceey said he didn't have much of a choice. And actually, Afweyne turned out to be really helpful. This was their plan.

Step one, pirate shaming. Convince the local imams to start teaching people that piracy is forbidden in the Koran so the pirates become ostracized.

Step two, create an economic incentive. Give the pirates other job opportunities that don't require hijacking and kidnapping-- like maybe create a market for fish.

Step three, pirate rehabilitation. When they caught the lower-level pirates, the foot soldiers, Tiiceey sent them to a rehabilitation camp. Taught them new job skills, including how to read and write. And with the pirate bosses, the kingpins, Tiiceey had one especially attractive incentive to offer them to get them to quit the business. Immunity. Which, Tiiceey points out, only applies to the Somali government. It doesn't mean the US or Britain or Belgium, for instance, couldn't capture them later. But he doesn't mention that part to them.

Mohamed Aden

You think I never lied to them? I lied. I lied. I tell them many lies.

Dana Chivvis

You told the pirates many lies, the kingpins many lies?

Mohamed Aden

Of course, yes. I tell them many lies to get them.

Dana Chivvis

To get them out of hiding.

Mohamed Aden

Exactly. You have to lie because this is your livelihood. You want this to finish. You want this to be your legacy.

Dana Chivvis

By 2012, pirate attacks on big ships had effectively stopped in all of Somalia. A lot of that had to do with stuff that was happening on the water. Foreign navies were patrolling the ocean. And maritime companies started putting armed security on their boats and sailing faster and further from the coast.

And in Himan and Heeb in December, 2012, Tiiceey held a press conference, where he sat onstage as a bunch of local pirates publicly retired in front of cameras and reporters in return for immunity. It was a huge moment for him.

Mohamed Aden

It was a good legacy. It was the biggest thing I'd ever done, other than I introduced the region to peace, order, and good governance. So that's something.

Dana Chivvis

A few months after the press conference, Tiiceey got an email out of the blue from a guy called Yunus Collier, who was with a film company in Europe. He said they wanted to make a documentary about piracy and they wanted to talk to Tiiceey about how he dealt with the pirates in Himan and Heeb. Tiiceey agreed to meet in New York for a few days to talk about the project. The filmmakers put him up at the Trump International Hotel and Tower right on Central Park.

The first morning there, Yunus shows up. Ti noticed he was a little hyper and his clothes weren't as nice as he was expecting. So Tiiceey teases him.

Mohamed Aden

You don't dress like you are in a film company.

Dana Chivvis

Right. It wasn't fancy.

Mohamed Aden

Because usually, it wasn't fancy. I can't see that. So I joked about, you don't dress like you are working in--

Dana Chivvis

In film.

Mohamed Aden

I've got to go.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, OK.

Mohamed Aden

Monday I will call you.

Dana Chivvis

OK.

Mohamed Aden

Have a good trip, OK?

Dana Chivvis

Thanks so much, Tiiceey. Have a good w-- have a nice-- I don't know. I guess have a nice weekend. You're in prison, but.

Mohamed Aden

You can say that.

Dana Chivvis

OK.

Sometimes I forget he's in prison. Anyway, we got back to the story a few days later. Tiiceey says Yunus's boss was there also. They spent three days together. Took Tiiceey on a helicopter ride around Manhattan and out for nice meals. Eventually, Yunus got down to business. He wanted Tiiceey and Afweyne to be consultants on the film.

Mohamed Aden

He said, that is what we want. We've got to show you a script. And he says that we're going to pay you your time.

Dana Chivvis

How much were they going to pay you?

Mohamed Aden

They said, we're going to pay, if the project had finished and everything finished, $200,000 each.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, my god. That's so much money.

Mohamed Aden

Yes. Yeah, $200,000 each, going to pay that.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey agreed. They had one last meal at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. The filmmakers asked Tiiceey to convince Afweyne to help, too. And once Afweyne was on board, they'd all meet in Europe for a week, where they'd get to work. Seven days in Europe, $200,000 each to consult on a film about pirates. Pirates. Who could refuse?

Tiiceey and Afweyne landed in Brussels a month later. When they showed their passports, there was something wrong with Afweyne's visa. They were escorted to airport police.

Mohamed Aden

My gut feeling tells me that I'm in trouble.

Dana Chivvis

Really?

Mohamed Aden

Whatever it is. Yes. So after one hour, federal police came and he introduced himself. He says, my name is Van Osselaer. I'm the federal police. And I am here to take your freedom away.

Dana Chivvis

It was all a ruse. All of it was fake. Yunus Collier, the meetings in New York, the documentary film about eradicating piracy. It was the Belgian federal police the whole time. An elaborate plan to lure Afweyne to Belgium, where they could arrest him and prosecute him for the hijacking of a Belgian ship called The Pompeii.

The Pompeii was taken in April, 2009, which was actually just a few months before Afweyne joined up with Tiiceey to fight piracy. The Belgians found Afweyne's DNA on a coffee cup in the captain's cabin of The Pompeii. They'd used Tiiceey to get to Afweyne. Tiiceey's lawyer says the Belgians weren't after Tiiceey at all. But in their excitement over catching Afweyne, they got carried away and locked Tiiceey up, too.

Dana Chivvis

Did you feel a little like the world's worst prank had just been played on you?

Mohamed Aden

I feel like a cheap.

Dana Chivvis

You feel like a what?

Mohamed Aden

Cheap. Cheap. Very cheap.

Dana Chivvis

Very cheap.

Mohamed Aden

Humiliated and very cheap.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey and Afweyne, the guys who say they put the pirates out of business in Himan and Heeb, were both charged with piracy.

There's pretty strong evidence against Tiiceey. The Belgians are saying that, when Tiiceey started working with Afweyne, Afweyne was still hijacking ships and Tiiceey got wrapped up in Afweyne's criminal organization, would insert himself into the negotiations for hostage releases, and used it to run a little side hustle. He'd demand additional money from the hostages' families-- tens of thousands of dollars-- for use of the airport at Adado. That's extortion.

The Belgians claim he extorted money from the families of hostages in four specific piracy cases. One of them is the kidnapping of Rachel and Paul Chandler. That's the recording you heard at the beginning of this story. Rachel's brother, Stephen, is on the phone with Paul, telling him to trust Tiiceey.

Stephen Collett

He is a good man and you can trust him. He is not a pirate. I repeat, he is not a pirate.

Dana Chivvis

But Stephen told me that wasn't how he actually felt about Tiiceey in that moment. In reality--

Stephen Collett

I was very skeptical of him and thought he was just a greedy little thief, to be honest.

Ira Glass

Coming up, more of Dana Chivvis' story. We hear what actually happened between Stephen and Tiiceey-- the actual recordings of theirs conversations as they're trying to get the hostages to safety. It isn't pretty. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, I Am Not a Pirate-- stories where people make that claim. Apparently it's something people say when they aren't a pirate and also when they are a pirate. We're in the middle of Dana Chivvis' story about Tiiceey, a man who returned to Somalia to try to help out and ended up accused of criminal conspiracy with pirates.

And we pick up the story in the middle of a negotiation that Tiiceey was involved in with Stephen Collett. He was trying to arrange for safe passage for his sister and his brother-in-law, Rachel and Paul, who were being held by pirates. Again, here's Dana.

Dana Chivvis

At this point in the negotiation, Stephen had agreed to pay the Pirates $440,000 for Rachel and Paul's release. Tiiceey wasn't involved in that part of things, but he had offered to help Stephen with the logistics of getting Rachel and Paul out of Somalia.

Tiiceey wrote an email saying his administration, quote, "are not part of the pirates and don't deal or/and share money, and we are not expecting ANY--" this word is capitalized-- "ANY payment from the pirates or Paul and Rachel family. The only support we are offering was humanitarian support and to facilitate Paul and Rachel's safe passage."

Stephen needed permission to use the airport in Adado, which, as far as I can tell, is just a dusty landing strip a few miles outside town. As governor, Tiiceey was the only person who could give planes permission to land there, so Stephen called Tiiceey to get that permission.

Stephen Collett

Thank you for ringing back.

Mohamed Aden

How are you doing, sir?

Stephen Collett

I'm fine. Did you--

Dana Chivvis

They talk about logistics, and then Stephen asks--

Stephen Collett

How much is this going to cost us? Because we've got nothing left.

Mohamed Aden

Listen, I'm not going to charge you anything.

Stephen Collett

That's very kind.

Mohamed Aden

I'm not going to charge you, personally, anything-- money or anything. I'm doing this out of [INAUDIBLE]. I found out [INAUDIBLE]--

Dana Chivvis

It's kind of hard to hear. Tiiceey says, "I'm not going to charge you anything as long as you pay the expenses." Four days later, when Stephen calls Tiiceey back, there's been a slight hitch in the plan.

They were going to get the money to the pirates through a guy in Nairobi, but that fell through. So now they need to deliver the ransom money to the pirates at the Adado airport. Tiiceey doesn't like this.

Before, the plane was just coming to pick up Rachel and Paul, but now it's also bringing a huge sack of cash, and he says that creates a big security risk. He's worried people might get violent and steal the money. He'll allow it, but he needs extra security.

Mohamed Aden

So yes, you can go ahead and bring the money to here, and we're secure almost. I arranged about 70 to 100 people-- soldiers-- in the airport area to secure the parameter and everything. And in that case, so including the fee and everything, it's going to be $21,750.

Stephen Collett

Sorry, can you repeat that, please?

Mohamed Aden

OK. This is what I said.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey's telling Stephen that he'll arrange for about 70 to 100 soldiers to secure the airport, which will cost Stephen $21,750. Stephen wasn't expecting that.

Stephen Collett

I-- I-- I don't know. I'm-- I'm confused about this big cost, Mohamed. You told me many times that you would not take any money. I-- I-- I know it's difficult. The family doesn't have this amount of money to spend.

Mohamed Aden

No.

Stephen Collett

Because we've given everything to--

Mohamed Aden

Listen, I'm not taking money when you want-- if you find out-- OK, this is what I'm doing. Business landing fee, the extra police, as they put it, the expenses. We are not rich like the United States or many other countries. We are a small administration. It's beyond our capacity. We have to put a lot of effort in that case.

Stephen Collett

I fully appreciate, but we just do not have that amount. We just do not have $20,000.

Mohamed Aden

So what you're telling me is you don't have it. I understand that. But how can I solve-- this is what you need, the security you need. So what should I do? Tell me. It's your call.

Dana Chivvis

Depending on how you hear this call, they're either in the midst of a bureaucratic stalemate or a small-time extortion.

Mohamed Aden

I'm not negotiating. This is the minimum that we'll need. This is not something goes to the pocket of one person. Believe me you, I'm not-- [INAUDIBLE], I'm not getting payment whatsoever for that.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey is saying that the number he gave Stephen, the $21,750, that's the minimum amount needed to cover the expenses for securing the airport. He's not personally getting any of that money. They do some more haggling and then Tiiceey says, let me see what I can do. A few minutes later, he calls Stephen back. He's managed to secure a discount.

Mohamed Aden

OK. This is what it is. I talked to them. The price was $21,750. And then we take 15% discount. So in that case, it's going to be $18,487.50.

Stephen Collett

Yeah. You know, we don't have this money. That's the problem. I don't have the money, and it's going to take me a long, long time to get hold of it.

Mohamed Aden

OK. So this is what you want, Stephen? You want that airplane come with the money, no security, and then they hand out everything. That's what you want?

And then the fights start in my people, and then almost 57 people die because of these small money and difficult people? Is that what you want?

Stephen Collett

Of course I don't want anyone hurt, Mohamed. Of course I don't.

Dana Chivvis

But Stephen didn't believe that Tiiceey was worried about security. He thought it was a scam.

Stephen Collett

He knew he'd got us. He was in control. It was his airfield and he could do what he liked. We'd spoken to the local pilots, the bush pilots who do sometimes run into these places, and they said the normal fee was about $100.

Dana Chivvis

$100 would be a normal landing fee?

Stephen Collett

Yes.

Dana Chivvis

And he's asking for $21,750?

Stephen Collett

That's right. Then he gave us a discount for cash.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah, he did.

The UN released a report that has a lengthy section on Tiiceey and Afweyne and their alleged criminal activity. It mirrors the Belgian case closely. And in it, there's a sheet from the Himan and Heeb Regional Administration. It's signed by Tiiceey, and it outlines fees for airlines using the Adado airport.

The costs are $5 per ticket, $1 per sack of outgoing goods, $50 security fee for a 50-seat flight. Of course, those prices were for normal flights in and out of Adado carrying regular passengers and bags of khat, not two British hostages and nearly half a million dollars. But still, given those prices, $21,750 seems a bit extravagant, even with the extra security.

I went around and around with Tiiceey about this fee and what it was spent on, and it never added up. Maybe he was pocketing part of the cash. Maybe he wasn't. Maybe the people he had to pay for the use of the airport and security were inflating their price. There's no way to know for sure.

Finally, Stephen gave in. They agreed on a price of $20,000. The money was transferred to a Himan and Heeb Administration account. Tiiceey assures Stephen it's not his personal account. He's not a dictator.

The ransom and rescue operation is set for June 17. The pilot will take off from Nairobi at dawn with a leather bag containing five bundles of $100 bills-- $440,000 in total. There's one last glitch, which is that the pilot refuses to actually touch down in Adado because--

Stephen Collett

Well, he didn't want to be caught by pirates.

Dana Chivvis

So instead, he'll fly very low to the ground and two security guys on board will chuck the ransom out the window into the pirate's hands-- a guy called Ali. He's the pirate Stephen has been negotiating with for months. The pilot will know where Ali is because-- and I'm not joking here-- he will mark the spot with an X on the roof of his car.

Now, Tiiceey had told Stephen he would supply 100 policemen to provide security at the airport. But when the pilot got into Adado's airspace, all he saw was one lonely car with an X on its roof, parked off the end of the runway. The pilot was already on the phone with Stephen, so Stephen called Tiiceey and said--

Stephen Collett

Where are your men? And suddenly, another vehicle appeared from the town. The pilot said, oh yes, I can see a pickup coming from the town now with a couple of men in the back.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, my god. So his 100 security men and five armored cars turned out to be a pickup truck and two guys.

Stephen Collett

Well, a pickup truck driver and two guys in the back.

Dana Chivvis

Who were late.

Stephen Collett

Who were late.

Dana Chivvis

The pilot did one low pass and then on the second, they threw the ransom out the window. Ali called Stephen a few minutes later to confirm he had the money. The pirates were supposed to spend the next few hours counting it, and then once they confirmed it was all there, they would hand Rachel and Paul over.

Dana Chivvis

So what happened?

Stephen Collett

It all went quiet. And that worried us a little. We did have suspicions. Even that night we thought, this doesn't sound good. And we did try ringing Ali, but his phone was turned off that night.

Dana Chivvis

He didn't hear from Ali again for two days. And then Stephen got a text demanding another $1 million in ransom. Eventually, Stephen got Ali on the phone. Ali's gone full Blackbeard and Stephen's stiff upper lip is gone. He tries threats. Ali mocks him. Here's that call.

Stephen Collett

We will tell all the ship bosses that the Somali pirates cannot be trusted. That you-- you, Ali-- cannot be trusted. I will talk to them now and I--

Ali

Don't you know that pirates, we are all thieves? All of us are all thieves. We are all dirty people.

Dana Chivvis

Ali says, don't you know that pirates are all thieves? We're all dirty people. Like, come on, Stephen. What did you expect? Ali laughs at him.

Stephen Collett

You're lying, cheating scum, Ali. The shipowners will never, ever trust you again. When you're ready to talk of the release of Rachel and Paul--

Ali

[INAUDIBLE], Stephen--

Stephen Collett

--call me. You have my number. You can call me this time, between 11:00 and 12 o'clock your time. I will only talk about the release of Rachel and Paul. Bye.

Ali

No, but I will talk about the money.

Dana Chivvis

The pirates didn't release Rachel and Paul for another five months.

Fast forward to now. The UN and the Belgians and Stephen Collett say that those phone calls, where Tiiceey is demanding money of Stephen, that's extortion. He's refusing to let Stephen use the Adado airport unless Stephen pays him an amount that far exceeds the normal cost for use of the airport. And they say this is part of a pattern with Tiiceey, that he did this in at least three other hostage cases. Up to $120,000 in one case.

Tiiceey says he's innocent of all charges of wrongdoing. But two months after we started talking, I heard all those recordings of his phone calls and I realized that some of the things he told me weren't true. For instance, we were talking about the plan for Rachel and Paul's release and he told me--

Mohamed Aden

No. No, there's no cost whatsoever.

Dana Chivvis

He says. "There's no cost whatsoever." That's not what I heard on that phone call with Stephen.

Dana Chivvis

You're saying you didn't ask him for any money.

Mohamed Aden

No, I never asked him for money.

Dana Chivvis

OK. I think-- I think we can clear this up. I want to play something for you.

Mohamed Aden

(ON TAPE) So all the fees and everything with the fee, it's going to come to $21,750.

Dana Chivvis

I played him that phone call you heard. At first, he sounded confused. He stuck with his denial.

Mohamed Aden

Stephen Collett, he called me, but I never asked him for money.

Dana Chivvis

Well, you just-- I mean, you just heard yourself, right? Ask him for money in that tape I just played you.

Mohamed Aden

No, I understand. I understand very clearly.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey told me the $21,750 was money the airport owners were demanding, not him.

Dana Chivvis

But Tiiceey, I mean, you can see how this would look like extortion.

Mohamed Aden

In a way, yes, I can understand. It looks like extortion, but it wasn't extortion in reality.

Dana Chivvis

How is it not extortion?

Mohamed Aden

We don't have that much money to pay.

Dana Chivvis

But explain how it's not extortion.

Mohamed Aden

OK. I didn't have-- yes, to him, it's extortion. I understand. That's what I'm saying. But to me, at that time, I didn't have that much money to cover.

Dana Chivvis

Meaning his administration couldn't cover the expenses. And the fact that no security was on duty when the pilot dropped the ransom? Tiiceey explained that when he learned the pilot wasn't going to land the plane, he decided there was no reason to send police that day. But he says he used Stephen's money five months later, when Rachel and Paul were finally released. And in a book Rachel and Paul wrote about their ordeal, they do describe driving to the airport with Tiiceey in a convoy of 15 Toyotas and three or four trucks mounted with guns.

We had to hang up before we were done talking about this. The next time I reached him was two days later.

Mohamed Aden

Let me go back a little bit. And this, I've never discussed with anyone before what I'm saying now, except to you. First, I call the airport committee and I told them that this is what's going on. This is what's going to happen.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey tells me he asked the owners of the airport to let Rachel and Paul use it for free as a humanitarian gesture, but they said no. They said, we built an airport. We get to charge people to use it. So then Tiiceey says he went to the regional parliament and asked them to step in. I wasn't able to confirm any of this, by the way.

He says they also said no. His hands were tied. He had to ask for the $21,750. He said, actually, the airport owners weren't making much profit for themselves at that price. Regardless, $21,750 is the number he now admits he demanded from Stephen.

Mohamed Aden

Actually, he didn't like it.

Dana Chivvis

No.

Mohamed Aden

And Stephen, to be honest with you, I knew that, because if I were in his shoes, it's going to be saying we're all pissed off and feel betrayed, lied to me or something.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah.

Mohamed Aden

But I explained to him. I explained to him again and again and then--

Dana Chivvis

But the way you explain it to him, it sounds very much as though you're telling him, I'm in charge of the airport and I talked to my committee, and we assessed that it's going to cost you this much. You don't explain it to him the way that you just explained it to me. In the way you just explained it to me, you're not responsible for any of the cost.

Mohamed Aden

But Dana, I didn't want to explain it the way I explained to you.

Dana Chivvis

How come?

Mohamed Aden

I didn't want to show him that I was kind of weak in a way. It shows me that I was weak, and I didn't want to show that. And I'm telling you that I never discussed it with anyone before, except you now, the details.

Dana Chivvis

What were you worried about? Why were you worried about looking weak to Stephen?

Mohamed Aden

Because, what I'm saying is, if Stephen finds out that I don't have control of anything, then he will find out that I don't have control of what I'm saying. And I'm the man who says, hey, I control Himan and Heeb. In a way, yes, I controlled Himan and Heeb. I didn't lie about that. But I don't control certain areas, and there are certain elements that I have no authority whatsoever.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey told me he was worried that if Stephen or the pirates realized he didn't have as much control over the airport as they thought he did that the deal would fall apart and Rachel and Paul would remain in captivity. So he swallowed a bitter pill and demanded the money from Stephen.

Mohamed Aden

I was pissed off. Yes, of course. I lost that war. But I knew I am going to win another war. I was feeling very complicated. And I was feeling very, in a way, yes, I'm doing something positive and, in a way, I was doing something horrible. And I'm the one who's delivering the message on both sides.

Dana Chivvis

He was doing something positive, helping to free Rachel and Paul. And he was doing something horrible, demanding money from Rachel's desperate brother.

Mohamed Aden

There is a lot of things I regret-- I should do differently. But my intention was very good. I'd never be a pirate in my life. And if I did something stupid or something that some other person doesn't like, I'm sorry. But my intention was good. That's what I'm saying. And I don't know how to explain it other than that.

Dana Chivvis

Somali pirates were once just Somali fishermen. But then in the '90s, during the Civil War, when there was no longer government, they watched foreign boats sail into their waters, scoop up their fish, and leave unpunished. So they decided to do something about it. Initially, the fishermen just wanted to scare the illegal boats away, but then some of them started charging those boats a fine. Fines turned into ransoms, and Somali piracy was born.

In a semi-lawless state like Somalia, without a functioning government, everything is up for rationalization. One man's fine is another man's ransom. Or in Tiiceey's case, one man's airport fee is another man's extortion. I think it's possible that Tiiceey sincerely believes he was doing the right thing.

I ran all this past a former US diplomat who worked in Somalia and has followed it closely for years. She didn't want me to use her name, but she dealt with Tiiceey when he was in Adado. And she's worked with lots of people in Somalia like Tiiceey-- people who've spent years in the US and then returned to work in Somalia. She says people like Tiiceey, who have lived outside Somalia for years, they often have a hard time when they return. She called them in-between people.

They come of age living in the US, learn how the country runs here, and then they go back. And they can't play the US game 100%, but they also can't play the Somali game 100%, and they get in trouble. She said Tiiceey probably went to Himan and Heeb with the best of intentions, but she said, quote, "with no finances to support government functions in one of the most dangerous security situations anywhere in the world, Tiiceey and others have been drawn into that murky place, where they believe that they have no choice but to find accommodations with those who are engaged in corrupt or criminal practices. With their Western backgrounds, they can't claim that they don't understand what constitutes criminal behavior."

She told me Tiiceey meddled in too many things he should have stayed out of. And he wasn't savvy enough to protect himself, to add layers of deniability, have someone else handle those phone negotiations, put some distance between himself and the criminals. Not that she was advocating these things for him or anyone else. And she wanted me to make clear that she does not condone piracy. But that was her theory.

I put this to Tiiceey. He agreed that he should have protected himself better.

Mohamed Aden

That is what, basically, the moral of what happened to me. So I learned my lesson, which is you have to protect yourself, whatever it takes.

Dana Chivvis

Do you think you were a little naive?

Mohamed Aden

Yes, I was. That's what I said, right? I said I was naive. I got carried away because I didn't think about the consequences. I thought we are in perfect world-- that everybody was helping. So that's why, yeah, I was naive.

Dana Chivvis

Tiiceey's case is on appeal right now. The piracy charges were dropped for lack of evidence, but he was convicted of being involved in a criminal organization of pirates. If he loses the appeal, he could spend the next six years in prison. If he wins, he could get out in June. Once he's out, he says he'll go back to Minneapolis, take a pause, be with his kids. But after that, he might return to Somalia and run for president.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis. She works on our program and on the Serial podcast.

Act Two. C.E.Yo-Ho-Ho.

Ira Glass

Act Two, C.E.Yo-Ho-Ho.

So today, we've heard two stories about how, when you get close to pirates, people start thinking that you're one of them. That you're living by pirate rules. And so we thought we would close today's program with this story of somebody who got involved with pirates and then went on to remake the rules. Remake the rules of piracy. Here's Stephanie Foo.

Stephanie Foo

So here's a fact I learned recently that I love. The most powerful pirate of all time was a woman. Her name was Cheng I Sao

Laura Sook Duncombe

She makes the other pirates look like amateurs.

Stephanie Foo

She makes Blackbeard look like an amateur?

Laura Sook Duncombe

Absolutely. She had way more money. She had a bigger fleet. She pirated for longer. And she was more successful.

Stephanie Foo

That's Laura Sook Duncombe, who wrote about Cheng I Sao in her book, Pirate Women, the Princesses, Prostitutes and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas.

Cheng I Sao was Chinese. She was working on a floating brothel in the early 1800s when a pirate, Cheng I, proposed marriage to her. We don't know much about their love story, so this is a bit of legend. But supposedly, at first Cheng I Sao turned him down and tried to claw his eyes out. Then after some thought, she agreed that she would marry him but only if he would give her half of his fleet and his treasure. And he went along with it.

Cheng I Sao's husband was a pretty big deal already. But once they got married, the two of them got to work uniting warring pirate factions into one pirate monopoly. When her husband died, Cheng I Sao took over as leader of the pirate empire and grew it to the largest pirate fleet in history, which some members of our staff have insisted I mention is, apparently, a very Khaleesi move. I don't know. I don't watch Game of Thrones.

Anyway, Blackbeard had maybe four ships worth of pirates. But Cheng I Sao?

Laura Sook Duncombe

Anywhere from 50,000 to 70,000 pirates with around 2,000 ships, all told.

Stephanie Foo

Wow.

Laura Sook Duncombe

So this is larger than many legitimate navies of the time period, certainly the Chinese Navy.

Stephanie Foo

In just one year-- 1808-- they destroyed half of the Chinese Navy's entire fleet, 63 out of 135 ships. Having 70,000 employees, that's as big as Exxon-Mobil. So Cheng I Sao ran it like a corporation. She had offices onshore, where she managed her accounts.

And she came up with a whole new way of making tons of money-- a protection racket, where salt ships and rich coastal cities paid regular taxes to the pirates. If you didn't pay, you got pillaged. It was like the seafaring mafia.

Stephanie Foo

And were other pirates not doing that?

Laura Sook Duncombe

That was really kind of a Cheng I Sao innovation. One of her many.

Stephanie Foo

How old was she when she was doing all of this?

Laura Sook Duncombe

So she was 32 when she took command.

Stephanie Foo

I don't know what I'm doing with my life.

Another innovation of Cheng I Sao-- the rules on her ships. We know about these from a book written at the time, in 1830. Most captains had rules on their ships, of course, but her punishments were particularly extreme. For instance, rule number one, don't go AWOL.

Laura Sook Duncombe

So if anyone goes onshore without Cheng I Sao's permission, they get their ears slit. If they do it again, they're suffered death. They're killed.

Stephanie Foo

Rule number two, don't steal company treasure. Each crew could keep 20% of the booty it plundered. The rest went into the company treasure hold. And the punishment for taking more? Again, death.

Laura Sook Duncombe

There's a pretty consistent theme here. Lots of death. You disobey Cheng I Sao, death is in your future.

Stephanie Foo

But the most famous rule in her employee handbook is the one Laura thinks no other pirate had. They could not rape their female captives. The punishment?

Laura Sook Duncombe

You guessed it-- death. Immediate death.

Stephanie Foo

Cheng I Sao ran this operation solo for three years. She evaded Chinese authorities until finally China had lost so much money and so much control of its waters that they resorted to something they really hated doing. They asked other countries for help. England and Portugal loaned the Chinese government ships. And with these ships, they come after her and trap her in a bay.

Laura Sook Duncombe

They finally have her where they want her. So they have her surrounded. People from all over China-- government officials are coming to witness the end of this great pirate. There's no way she's getting out of this, and they're, you know, setting up lawn chairs on the deck, basically, to watch her defeat.

Stephanie Foo

They fire on her for eight days, but they can't sink her. Finally, they send out fireboats-- flaming boats full of explosives-- to her fleet. But then the wind changes. The fireboats come right back towards the government ships and damage them instead. Cheng I Sao gets away.

But she decided she couldn't keep this up forever, so she went to Chinese leaders to negotiate a surrender. She docked her ship and walked directly into the governor general's headquarters onshore.

Laura Sook Duncombe

They're expecting pirate queen armed to the teeth with a full complement of burly bodyguards. She's this terrifying figure. And in walks this 35-year-old woman with some wives and some children, and it must have taken them completely by surprise. And I think it gave her the upper hand in the negotiations.

Stephanie Foo

And she got an incredible deal that amounted to basically a retirement package for her and her employees. She got to keep her plunder. She secured pardons for almost all of her pirates. But she also secured government payouts for her and her pirates to transition into civilian life and spots for some of them in the Chinese Navy. As part of this, Cheng I Sao wrote a letter of surrender to the Chinese government. Laura read part of it for me.

Laura Sook Duncombe

"Originally, we were good people, but we became pirates for a variety of reasons. Because some of us were not careful in making friends, we fell into a bad situation and became robbers. Others of us were unable to secure a livelihood or were captured and forced into piracy. Therefore, we violated the laws of the empire and destroyed the merchants. This was unavoidable."

Stephanie Foo

I love how the-- I love, "this was unavoidable."

Laura Sook Duncombe

Yeah. I would say it's almost sarcastic because it's clear she holds all the power and she does not need to do this.

Stephanie Foo

Laura says wherever there was piracy, there were women pirates. They span hundreds of years, across the globe. It was an unusually progressive workplace, you know, for the time.

Laura Sook Duncombe

That's a funny thing about piracy. You're not going to see-- a woman could not expect to rise to the ranks where they were competing with men and commanding men in most legitimate societies. And yet we see it over and over again in piracy that these women just excelled.

I like to think that the stakes were a little bit higher, if they had to go back on land, to be gentle ladies, sitting in parlors or doing whatever work was available to women of these time periods. They knew what was in store for them if they were unsuccessful, and so I think it just made them fight harder, work harder.

Stephanie Foo

That sounds very familiar.

[LAUGHING]

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "THE PIRATE SHANTY" BY WORLDWIDE ADVENTURERS]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo. Our staff includes Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Seth Lind, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Senior producer for our show is Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Mark Hanna, the historian that you heard at the top of the program, is the author of Pirate Nests and the Rise of the British Empire, 1570 to 1740. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he tells me all the time producers from the radio show keep calling him, calling him, always with the same message.

Elna Baker

We cannot work for this guy.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.