Piracy, Bandits, and Civilization

While reading The Pirates Own Book, I was struck by how much of history has been warfare and banditry:

Piracy has been known from the remotest antiquity; for in the early ages every small maritime state was addicted to piracy, and navigation was perilous. This habit was so general, that it was regarded with indifference, and, whether merchant, traveller, or pirate, the stranger was received with the rights of hospitality. Thus Nestor, having given Mentor and Telemachus a plenteous repast, remarks, that the banquet being finished, it was time to ask his guests to their business. “Are you,” demands the aged prince, “merchants destined to any port, or are you merely adventurers and pirates, who roam the seas without any place of destination, and live by rapine and ruin.”

Where men can make a living through violence and predation, they do. The only thing that stops them is other men strong enough to kill them:

The Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes, from their superior knowledge of navigation, gave into it most; and on whatever coast the winds carried them, they made free with all that came in their way. Canute the Fourth endeavored in vain to repress these lawless disorders among his subjects; but they felt so galled by his restrictions, that they assassinated him. On the king of Sweden being taken by the Danes, permission was given to such of his subjects as chose, to arm themselves against the enemy, pillage his possessions, and sell their prizes at Ribnitz and Golnitz. This proved a fertile nursery of pirates, who became so formidable under the name of “Victalien Broders,” that several princes were obliged to arm against them, and hang some of their chiefs. …

Charles the Bald, not having the power to expel him, engaged the freebooter, for 500 pounds of silver, to dislodge his countrymen, who were harassing the vicinity of Paris. In consequence of this subsidy, Wailand, with a fleet of 260 sail, went up the Seine, and attacked the Normans in the isle of Oiselle: after a long and obstinate resistance, they were obliged to capitulate; and having paid 6000 pounds of gold and silver, by way of ransom, had leave to join their victors. The riches thus acquired rendered a predatory life so popular, that the pirates were continually increasing in number, so that under a “sea-king” called Eric, they made a descent in the Elbe and the Weser, pillaged Hamburg, penetrated far into Germany, and after gaining two battles, retreated with immense booty. The pirates, thus reinforced on all sides, long continued to devastate Germany, France, and England; some penetrated into Andalusia and Hetruria, where they destroyed the flourishing town of Luni; whilst others, descending the Dnieper, penetrated even into Russia.

The text goes on in this manner, and it is just striking how, for so many centuries after the fall of Rome, Europeans lived in constant fear of bandits, with no force strong enough to secure the sea lanes and borders. And even the rulers themselves are, in many cases, ex-bandits themselves: barbarian conquerors .

Genghis Khan

Once a group of bandits becomes strong enough to kill all the other bandits in the area, it settles in and starts taxing instead of stealing.

Even Genghis Khan, once finished conquering, began executing bandits, encouraging trade, and securing the safety of his tax-payers. It is said that a woman carrying a bag of gold could walk, alone, from one end to the other of the Mongol Empire without fear or molestation–an exaggeration, I’m sure, but I know I wouldn’t want to incur the Great Khan’s wrath by robbing one of his subjects.

(In Power and Prosperity, economist Mancur Olson argues that, “under anarchy, a “roving bandit” only has the incentive to steal and destroy, whilst a “stationary bandit”—a tyrant—has an incentive to encourage some degree of economic success as he expects to remain in power long enough to benefit from that success. A stationary bandit thereby begins to take on the governmental function of protecting citizens and their property against roving bandits. In the move from roving to stationary bandits, Olson sees the seeds of civilization, paving the way, eventually for democracy, which by giving power to those who align with the wishes of the population, improves incentives for good government.[5]” )

We can even see this process occurring with ISIS (h/t Will @Evolving_Moloch):

From Brookings: Experts Weigh in: Is ISIS good at Governing?

Humans once hunted goats; today we feed them, give them shelter, and kill their other predators. As a result, there are far more goats than there would be otherwise. We still eat them, of course.

A government of sedentary bandits is still bandits, but at least they’re bandits who want the community to thrive. (Yes, taxation IS theft, but you should see the alternative.)
As a result, we take for granted a level of peace and safety that most of the world has never experienced.

Chimps fight wars. Neanderthals were cannibals. Homicide in primitive tribes was sky-high. You have twice as many female as male ancestors because the majority of men never reproduced.

Western society didn’t become peaceful by singing kumbaya, but by 1. top-down banning cousin marriage, which ended tribalism,

and 2. Becoming powerful enough to catch and execute the bandits.

We forget this at our own peril.

Adoption pt 2: when Genghis Khan kills your parent and makes you his little brother

In Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, Jack Weatherford brings us a fascinating adoption account:

In the long history of steppe warfare, a defeated tribe was looted, some members taken prisoner, and the rest left again to their own devices. … In his defeat of the Jurkin, however, Temujin [Genghis Khan] followed a radical new policy that revealed his ambition to fundamentally alter the cycle of attack and counterattack and of making and breaking alliances.

(In short, he executed all of the Jurkin’s leaders.)

He then took the unprecendented step of occupying the Jurkin lands and redistributing ht remaining members of their group among the households of his own clan. … Temujin took them into his tribe not as slaves, but as members of the tribe in good standing. He symbolized this by adopting an orphan boy from the Jurkin camp and presenting him to Hoelun [his mother] to raise in her ger [yurt] not as a slave but as her son. By having his mother adopt the Jurkin boy, as he had her previously adopt one each from the defeated Merkid, Tayichiud, and Tatars, Temujin was accepting the boys as his younger brothers. …

In a final display of his new power, Temujin ended the Jurkin episode with a feast for both the victorious Mongols and their newly adopted relatives.

In Genghis Khan, Conqueror of the World, Leo de Hartog recounts a similar story:

While they were plundering a Tatar camp the Mongols found a small boy. Genghis Khan took the boy and gave him to his mother, Ho’elun, who adopted him as her son. She called the boy Shigi Qutuqu. There is another version of the story. The child was taken by Genghis Khan in 1182-3, after a raid against the Tatars. He and Borte [Genghis Khan’s wife] at that time had no children. He gave the young tatar to Borte, who brought him up as an adopted son. … Some call him a stepbrother of Genghis Khan, others his adopted son. Shigi Qutuqu, who was very intelligent, later became lord chief justice of the Mongol empire.

Genghis Khan
Genghis Khan, famous softie

Genghis Khan’s sympathy for the orphans of war may have been due to his own childhood experiences; when he was nine years old, his father was murdered by the Tatars and he, his mother, and brothers were driven out of their clan, rendered essentially homeless. Later he was captured and enslaved by the Tayichiud. (Obviously he escaped.)

Approximately 1 in 200 people today appears to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, making him the one of the most evolutionarily successful humans in all of history. (If not the most successful.)

If we want to get technical, some of those folk are probably descended from Genghis Khan’s brothers, making Genghis Khan’s dad history’s most successful guy, but Genghis Khan achieved that success by conquering one of history’s biggest empires, and Genghis Khan’s dad achieved his success by siring Genghis Khan.

While I don’t normally advocate “be like Genghis Khan,” simply because I like being alive, if Genghis Khan thought adoption was a good idea, maybe it can be a viable evolutionary strategy.


Tomorrow: A bit of historical and cross-cultural context