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PIRATES OF BARBARY by Adrian Tinniswood


Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean

by Adrian Tinniswood

Pub Date: Nov. 11th, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59448-774-3
Publisher: Riverhead

Exciting history of 17th-century piracy among African city-states.

Prolific British historian Tinniswood (The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England, 2008, etc.) demonstrates an excellent grasp of obscure sources in crafting a comprehensive synthesis. He argues that the notorious, reviled “Barbary corsairs” have been historically misunderstood: “An underlying racism and a more overt anti-Islamism make it hard to imagine Captain Blood or Jack Sparrow as North African Muslims.” The author theorizes that piracy was state-supported and a key economic requirement for the development of Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli (allied with the Ottoman Empire) and independent Morocco, and further was encouraged as a “sea-jihad,” an Islamic counterweight to European ambitions in the Mediterranean. While the British and other European powers belittled the Turks and Moors as savages, the situation was ethically muddied by their intermittent encouragement of privateering during various wars—these governments routinely issued “letters of marque” that essentially gave captains the right of piracy over ships flying enemy colors. Furthermore, both European and Barbary states routinely enslaved and ransomed captives; the specter of white slaves being held by African Muslims inflamed British society and contributed to numerous campaigns. Some of the European attempts blockade Barbary ports became comedies of error; others turned tragic or brutal, such as the French mortaring of Algiers. The pirates themselves were a diverse lot, especially following a 1612 amnesty. Many were British subjects who “turned Turk” (sometimes claiming coercion later when captured), while others were fearless Islamists who viewed attacking European ships as both good business and a strike against infidel encroachment (Tinniswood emphasizes the parallels with contemporary geopolitics only in the preface, regarding Somali piracy, but they are apparent.) This approach was epitomized by a 1631 raid on the Irish coastal town of Baltimore, which enslaved dozens. Throughout, the writing is precise and mordant but also witty, allowing the reader to feel empathy for the rough and absurd lives of these long-ago mariners, and agree with the author’s conclusion that whatever the corsairs’ faults, a lack of courage was not among them.

Rigorous and sophisticated.