The Corsairs and Captives Blog


Professor Adam Nichols of the University of Maryland manages a truly informative blog, in which he has poured a lifetime of scholarship on the subject of North African corsairs through a series of informative posts. If you’re inclined to learn more about the backdrop to the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, I suggest you visit Professor Nichols’ blog.

The Corsairs and Captives Blog offers an even-handed presentation of slavery and captivity in the Mediterranean of the premodern world through glimpses into the research of scholars and the archives holding documents produced during the period. Of course, both shores of the inland sea contributed to the burgeoning trade in plunder, including humans, such that the ways in which the participants were characterized differed with their conflicting perspectives.

As Professor Nichols wrote in his blog entitled Of Piracy, Profit, and Prudence:

“Barbary corsairs—like their European counterparts—practiced a violent profession that included armed robbery, abduction, and human trafficking. But they didn’t practice this profession because they were inherently evil people. They did it… for many reasons, some good, some bad. Such men were products of the time and place in which they lived.”

Interestingly, much of the blog focuses on Iceland and the experiences of Icelanders caught in the web of Barbary slavery. Professor Nichols’ efforts have brought to light a great deal of information that might otherwise have not been available to readers of English. I have discussed a book he co-authored, The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson in an earlier entry of my own, Algiers and Iceland and recommend it highly to readers. Books in a similar vein include The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Elkin in which a corsair captain, Morat Rais, stormed ashore at the little harbour village of Baltimore in West Cork, captured almost all the villagers, and bore them away to a life of slavery in North Africa.

By means of reproducing the accounts of captives, the blog affords readers glimpses into the daunting experiences of those unfortunate enough to have fallen victim to the predatory practices of the corsairs. Many of these captive narratives were written in English and later published, though many were similarly circulated in Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Portuguese, Italian, Greek and other European languages.

The blog provides detailed information about the fleets of the North African city states throughout the centuries, and how these incorporated innovation and expertise to become a serious threat to Mediterranean trade and into the Atlantic. Following the age of oared galleys, the corsairs of North Africa turned to square-rigged ships and expanded their reach to the shipping lanes of the Atlantic. Professor Nichols writes:

“Once the corsairs had mastered the use of these new (to them) vessels, they burst out of the confines of the Mediterranean and, with their numbers swelled by the influx of northern European renegados, launched a new era of Atlantic raids.”

Equally important to an understanding of the Barbary fleets is Nichol’s explanation of how Dutch privateers turned their allegiance to the North Africans. Likewise, in his work, English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast, the British Naval Historian Christopher Lloyd documents how English sea captains took the “secrets of maritime supremacy” to the North Africans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

In a blog entry titled: The Way the World Works, Nichols begins by saying:

“Barbary corsairs weren’t just pirates. They were part of a larger enterprise.” As I’ve noted in a previous blog of my own, A Captive Economy, the commoditization of humans was promoted by both Europeans and North Africans and had little or nothing to do with differences in their respective creeds, though, of course, these were convenient means of explaining away the excesses of which both sides were guilty.

So, to return to the subject of Professor Nichols’ Corsairs and Captives blog, I think the feature I enjoy the most is the documentation from archival material of stories of the people who lived in those times and under conditions that differ in so many significant ways from our own. As a writer of historical fiction, I am always conscious of a quote by the great novelist, D. L. Doctorow who said, “Facts are the images of history, just as images are the facts of fiction.” Corsairs and Captives effectively humanizes the shadowy figures of history whose motivations and situations lie somewhere beyond the most distant of our horizons.

Readers of the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries will note scattered references to the redemption of captives. In particular, Book Nine in the series, Murder at Midnight features redemptionist friars of the Mercedarian Order. Otherwise, captives of all figurative sizes and shapes populate the mysteries. Chief among them is Muhammad Amalfi himself, an Italian convert whose origin story is told in Book One of the series, A Captive in Algiers.

Professor Nichols pays special attention to the work of the Trinitarian and Mercedarian redemptionist friars, a little known but important footnote to the history of the period. In researching Murder at Midnight, I benefitted from the work of Daniel J. Vitkus, a professor at Florida State University whose Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption provided valuable information on this obscure subject. In regard to this subject, Professor Nichols again presents a very human portrait of a figure from the period, Father Pierre Dan, a French Trinitarian friar. In a series of blog entries, Nichols translates Dan’s work, titled Histoire de Barbarie, and gives us a view of this encyclopedic compendium of information about Barbary corsairs based on Dan’s own experience.

In future, if I add to the series of Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries, I will be certain to turn to the blog of Professor Nichols for information and, without a doubt, for inspiration as well.

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