Going On The Account: Blogtober – Pirates Of New York – Epilogue

This is the twenty eighth day of Blogtober; I wonder which of us is more anxious for this to end…


Speaking of endings, we come to the end of the popular history miniseries we’ve run here.  It’s been fun working in nonfiction on this series, and with a little organization consideration, there might well be life for this beyond these blog pages.

Speaking of life beyond…

Epilogue, or Always Something There To Remind Me

There are communities that do a better job of remembering their pirate pasts than New York does.  Salem, Baltimore, Charleston, Key West, all of them have more active remembrances, including pirate themed tours, even pirate festivals, while New York does not bring up that part of its past.  When it comes to pirates, New Yorkers have a case of amnesia regarding their place in the Sweet Trade.

And had it not been for Abdulwali Muse, we might still have been able to claim total ignorance…

The thing about New York, even from before the days when Richard Lonergan was killed by Al Capone, was its tendency to keep looking forward, keep changing, not hold on to the past as it raced towards the future.  It’s this purging of the past that enabled Central Park to obliterate the community of Seneca Village, and that allowed Ebbets Field to be replaced by a housing project.  In fact, the preservation movement to save New York landmarks did not begin until the demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 1963 which helped save Grand Central Station form a similar fate.
Perhaps the most dramatic case of New York putting her face to the future while showing her ass to the past was the fate of Five Points, the most notorious neighborhood in New York.  The center of the Seventh Ward, which abutted the pirate-infested Fourth Ward, it was the center of the major gang activity of the Nineteenth Century, and spawned many a criminal that sailed with the Swamp Angels, the Patsy Conroy Gang, and Sadie the Goat’s crew.

Come the early Twentieth Century, the neighborhood was completely razed; even the streets were re-drawn, obliterating the unique meeting of corners.  In the place of the tenements that had been there, a set of municipal court buildings were placed around what would be re-named Foley Square (named for, of all people, a lieutenant in the Tammany Hall organization).

This act of exorcism by an urban planning commission, removing the nastiest neighborhood in the city and replacing it with the center of all justice dispensation for New York County, southern New York State and the Second Circuit for the United States, was the most deliberate effort to blot out the past.  The effort to remove from our memories all the old gangs, including the river pirates, and by extension the privateers before them, might well have succeeded.

Yes, they would have gotten away with it too, had it not been for that meddling kid…

On April 8th, 2009, the MV Maersk Alabama  was hijacked off the Somali coast.  Four days later, the US Navy recaptured the vessel, with most of the pirates killed.  There was one survivor from the boarding crew, one Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, who was brought to the United States to stand trial for piracy.

What brought his case to the Second Circuit in New York was the feeling that this court had had plenty of experience hearing cases involving Americans being attacked overseas.  With piracy by this point being considered a form of terrorism, and with the New York court having handled such instances as the Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman case in 1994, the 1998 Kenyan and Tanzanian embassy bombing case, and almost becoming the venue for hearing cases against Guantanamo detainees,  the argument made sense, and New York saw its first real pirate in years.

One could argue whether the Halalis and Sudrys video piracy ring busted in 1996 should count as piracy, or whether the content theft being fought by the Mayor’s Office of Film and TV (the municipal office that overseas permission to film in the city) through a public awareness plan to keep people from downloading pirated music and movies should also be considered piracy. Whether you agree with putting these in the same category as actual piracy on the high seas can be debated over a barrel of grog for an entire evening, and the grog will invariably run out before a consensus is reached…

During Muse’s time going through the legal process, having an actual pirate opened a few memories for some.  Reminders that such features on the map as Phillipsburg Manor, Van Cortland Park, Willets Point and Fort Tyron Park owed their existence to shares from pirate voyages came up again and again.  Reminders that landmarks near Foley Square with ties to pirates came to mind; the fact that some pirate voyages were planned at Fraunces Tavern, better known for being where Washington bade goodbye to his troops, and that Trinity Church was built with some of William Kidd’s booty, were not lost on those following Muse’s case and the circumstances of his arrest.  And remembering the pirate gangs who sailed a few blocks to the east of Five Points when they weren’t walking the neighborhood’s streets after searching for booty prevented Foley Square from hiding from its past.

On February 16th, 2011, Muse pled down in a plea deal; he avoided the charge of piracy itself, pleading to hijacking, hostage-taking and kidnapping.  Had he pled to piracy and been found guilty, under 18 USC § 1651, he would have faced life in prison.
All said, he got a much better sentence than the pirates of old; even if convicted of piracy, he would have fared better than those pirates whose bodies were displayed at the harbor mouth after their hanging.  On these reduced charges, Muse received 33 years and nine months, which would make him 56 years old on his release, older than whatever country emerges from the ruins of Somalia for him to return to would be…

There is no reason to believe that Muse will be the last pirate New York ever sees.  We may be a few years between reminders, which is why we need to better remember the past , to never forget what these sea rovers did for us, how they contributed not only to our culture but our physical features as well.  We should never forget that we New Yorkers owe our place on the banks of the rivers leading to the ocean, to those who had gone on the account.

POSTSCRIPT:  As of this writing, Frauncess Tavern and South Street Seaport need help recovering from Sandy.  Anything you can do, even just visit to shop there, would be appreciated.

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