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A Basque encounter with pirates

By Nick Rankin
BBC, Spain

When a Spanish fishing boat, with its cargo and crew, was seized off the Horn of Africa recently, it prompted Madrid to call for the extradition of the hijackers and for international action against piracy.

For centuries, bold Basque sailors have ventured out on the seas that crash on their homeland in the Bay of Biscay.

Spanish fishing boat the Playa de Bakio (Photo:AFP/Getty Images)
The pirates stormed the Playa de Bakio armed with grenade launchers

Basques, chasing whale and cod, were probably the first Europeans to reach North America.

The Portuguese, Ferdinand Magellan, is credited with being the first man to sail around the world, but actually he died in the Philippines and it was a Basque, Juan Elkano from Getaria, who brought his ship home.

So when a Basque-owned tuna fishing boat called Playa de Bakio was seized off Somalia, with five Basque among its crew, the story was a big one in the Basque country. The press were keen to find out all about the kidnapped fishermen and their anxious relatives. Pictures were vital.

"This is gold dust," said my friend Vincent, the Reuters photographer, tapping a good image of the fishing boat in the newspapers, next to personal ones of the crew.

"I wonder where they got those."

Ransom

In the bad old days, foot-in-the-door journalists used to steal framed family photographs off the mantel, but nowadays a second with a digital camera is all a good snapper needs.

Map of Somalia showing Mogadishu

The day before Vincent had been photographing the daughter of one of the kidnapped sailors and he still had her phone number. I called her mobile to offer a crumb of reassurance.

I told her I had made a BBC radio programme about Somali pirates and had learned they did not usually harm foreign captives. All they wanted was the ransom money.

She told me the company was prepared to pay and I said that in that case her dad would soon be back safe. And indeed, after a million or so euros changed hands, the crew were freed.

A Basque newspaper interviewed Andrew Mwangura, the sensitive man who runs a charity that helps distressed African seafarers.

"Hello, Andrew!" I said out loud reading the paper because I had spent time with him in Mombasa.

Andrew Mwangura explained that Somali piracy was a rational economic activity in a lawless country. There was no government to regulate the fishing grounds in the Indian ocean off Somalia.

The hijacked Playa de Bakio may have been licensed to fish for tuna, but scores of other European and Asian fishing boats trawl illicitly in Somali waters, running big risks for high returns.

Mwangura estimated that this pirate fishing off Somalia is worth over 50 million a year. And so the Somali pirates in their turn levy a kind of privatised tax or toll on any foreign vessels they can seize, claiming territorial rights.

Civil War horror

A few days later, in the cemetery at Gernika, I ran into my own personal pirate.

Gernika is a place whose history has been fought over. In 1937, during the Spanish civil war, the town of Gernika was burned down. There were two different stories about what happened.

The crew of the Playa de Bakio at Bilbao airport in northern Spain (Photo: AP/Alvaro Barrientos)
After their release, the crew of the Playa returned to Bilbao airport

The Spanish victors of the civil war claimed that the communist citizens of Gernika blew up and burned their own town. The Basques said their town was fire-bombed by foreign aeroplanes as was indeed the case.

I wrote a book about George Steer, the Times journalist, whose truthful report of the Nazi bombing inspired Pablo Picasso to paint his famous, black and white picture, Guernica.

The Basques have now put up a bust of this reporter, George Steer, in the town - and every year on the anniversary I accompany his son, who lays flowers at the tomb of the dead.

After this year's ceremony, I was told that someone who had written in Basque about George Steer wanted to meet me.

Intellectual pirates

He was my age, with the rough scruffy look that is the badge of authenticity among left-wing, Basque nationalists.

"Your book made me cry," he said, "so I copied it."

He handed me a slim volume for young people. The cover was instantly familiar, because it was the same as my own.

I still did not quite grasp that someone had picked my pocket and was now presenting me with my own wallet as a gift.

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel
Samuel Johnson

Only later did I find all the pictures were lifted, without credit or permission, and realise that the publishers were the same intellectual pirates from Navarra who had also ripped off G L Steer's original Spanish civil war book and copyrighted it themselves.

It is territoriality again, anything about Basques they feel belongs to them.

Although they flout international laws of ownership, the Somali pirate and the Basque publisher both claim their action is somehow in the national interest. As Dr Johnson said: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."

Madrid called for the hijackers of their trawler to be extradited to Spain and for international action against piracy.

I won't hold my breath waiting for law and order to reach Somalia. But the Basque country is in Europe where intellectual property rights are more protected.

I am minded to go fishing for trouble, with a heavyweight copyright lawyer.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 10 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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