Iceland and Algiers

Many have the impression of Algiers before the French made it a colony in the third decade of the nineteenth century and subjected its people to all manner of suffering and humiliation, as a “cesspool of misery” for thousands of people captured and enslaved there. How, many have wondered, would anyone risk travel in the western Mediterranean during those times? Ships, crews and cargos were preyed upon mercilessly for several centuries by corsairs from the North African city states of Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Salé and elsewhere along the coast. Thousands, hundreds of thousands of seagoers were captured and brought to ports to be sold as slaves, as valuable a commodity as the plundered cargoes.

Of course, the matter came down to simple economics. Isn’t it always the promise of profits? The lure of wealth? Although politicians and clergy portrayed the situation in terms of religion, the translators of The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson explain that “The situation was not a simple antithetical “clash of civilizations” — Maghrebi Muslims versus European Christians—acted out on the high seas. Things were more complicated than that on both counts.”

I’ve written about the economic factors in an earlier blog entitled: A Captive Economy. Many of those factors, and others, are expanded upon in the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries in which Caid Jafar, Muhammad’s patron and formerly a British sea captain, is portrayed as an advisor to the Dey of Algiers on trade and commerce. As a principal in the business of exporting grain to Europe, Caid Jafar clashes regularly with the Corsair Captains’ Guild and what he terms the Jihadist Lobby who advocate for raiding over trading. Throughout the series, Caid Jafar’s views and opinions explain much about the position of Algiers in the context of Mediterranean political economy.

But there is no escaping the matter of human bondage, no matter the reasons for its existence, and regardless of how it was sanctioned by law, custom, and religion. In the downloadable bonus feature, A Readers’ Companion, I list several prisoner narratives that recount the horrors of capture and enslavement. However, one of the narratives I failed to mention there is The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corair Raid on Iceland in 1627. The book was translated from the original Icelandic text and edited by
Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols. It is published by The Catholic University Press.

The book in its original form is a classic of Icelandic literature, and its translation into English offers profound insights into a neglected chapter in world history. It also provides a glimpse into Algiers in the seventeenth century. The book inspired contemporary author, Sally Magnusson, to write The Sealwoman’s Gift, about which she wrote, she “appropriated the freedoms of fiction to feel my way into these long-ago lives, and in doing so to explore the role of story itself in helping us all to find ways to survive. While I have done my best to make it historically authentic, this remains emphatically a work of imagination, coloured by the present as well as the past.” I feel much the same way about my own efforts to imagine the people and places in the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries. Moreover, although Egilsson’s experience took place more than a century and a half before the times of Muhammad Amalfi, the city and its people remained much the same. The Sealwoman’s descriptions, too, ring true for both times.

In the book, Magnusson imagines the life of Reverend Olafur’s wife, whom she has managed to identify through records and archives to have been Ásta Þorsteinsdóttir, the niece of the island’s slaughtered poet-priest, Jón Þorsteinsson, and the second wife of Ólafur Egilsson who was captured in the 1627 raid that swept her away with her reverend husband to Algiers. The author’s imagining of Ásta’s ordeal presents a richly textured picture of life in Algiers that incorporates the horrors of captivity with the wonders of an alien culture that fascinates and entices.

Introducing The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson, the translator and editor write: “The Travels is a fascinating work in many ways. It is one of the earliest travel books by a northern, post-Reformation Protestant writer describing both Islamic and Christian civilization in the seventeenth century, and it contains a wealth of detailed observations.”

Of particular interest to readers of the Amalfi Mysteries, the book contains several chapters in description of Algiers, including:
  • What happened to me and my family
  • The remarkable things I saw and about the town (Algiers) itself
  • The dress of the people and how their plates and drinking were in that place
In service to the text, the book includes woodcut drawings from the period, and a series of letters written by Icelandic captives that further describe the conditions of their capture and then their captivity in Algiers. This material is supplemented by a remarkable appendix with detailed descriptions from contemporary sources of the city, its buildings, walls, markets, gates, mosques, palaces, and populace. This is followed by a description of “living there as a slave.”

Both books bolster the summation by the translator and editor of The Travels: “In some ways, for some enslaved captives, like in a city like Algiers might offer more potential opportunities than had life in Europe. Algerian society was ethnically mixed and cosmopolitan, including such varied groups as its Ottoman rulers, Turkish janissaries, displaced Moriscos, Jewish merchants, Christian renegades, immigrants from all over the Islamic world, North African Berbers, and more. It was possible to “get ahead” in such a place through native intelligence, skill, or sheer brute perseverance in ways that were simply not conceivable in the more unyielding stratified societies of Europe.”

For readers of the Amalfi Mysteries, this explains much of what they might find puzzling about the characters in the series, including the Chief Commissioner of the Hinterlands of Algiers himself, Caid al-Fahs, Muhammad Amalfi.

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