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 history through a series of informative posts.

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. But what is more important is the historical context in which all of this occurred, and Professor Nichols does a superb job of presenting history from differing and often conflicting sources.

In the introduction to his Barbary Corsairs: The End of a Legend 1800-1830, Daniel Panzac writes:

Few regions in the world have given rise to as much fantasy and as much misunderstanding as the part of North Africa known as the Maghreb.

The Corsairs and Captives Blog represents an exemplary effort to clarify what may be described as a historical canvas obscured by the smoke of cannon fire. For centuries, the Mediterranean of the premodern era was as much a battleground as it was a highway for profitable exchange. The anonymous author of a perceptive Italian monograph titled, Memoria Riguardante il Sistema di Pace e di Guerra che Le Potenze Europee practicano con le Reggenze di Barbaria, stated the obvious, that it was the element of profit, the promise of riches, that cast the Mediterranean into the setting for centuries of conflict. The author’s question to his European readers was this:

On you, O nations of Europe, rests the choice. Are you are saddened by the humiliation of the yoke or moved by the plight of your subjects? While one of your hands is tied in mutual restraint [by constant warring] will the other show the Africans either the point of a sword or an olive branch?

The particular genius of the Corsairs and Captives Blog is how it draws from sources which illuminate the neglected and oftentimes darkened corners of premodern Mediterranean history. The Blog draws notably from the narratives of individuals whose lives have been touched by the conflict that engendered both corsairs and captives. Some of these are tragic and disheartening, while others are uplifting and indicative of the resilience and generosity of the human spirit. All, from the distance of several centuries, are instructive and enlightening.

Prominent among the blog entries are the posts about the raids on Iceland which I have written about in an earlier post of my own, Iceland and Algiers. As Professor Nichols writes:

 …no other corsair expeditions ever travelled so far. It was unique for another reason as well. No other land raid by Barbary corsairs anywhere in the world is chronicled in so much detail.

Together the professor and his colleague Karl Smari Hreinsson have published five books in English about the raids and their aftermath, all of which are mentioned on the blog: Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of these books is that they were made possible by the careful documentation of the captives themselves who, owing to their education on Iceland, were able to preserve in writing what they witnessed during their experiences as captives. This aspect is highlighted in their most recent publication, Turbulent Times: Skálholt and the Barbary Corsair Raids on Iceland in 1627.

Captive narratives constitute an important part of the historical record and I have combed through many of them in search of grist for my fictional mill. Among the more recent and well-edited is Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England by Daniel J. Vitkus and introduced by Nabil Matar. Though many if not all of the selected narratives have formerly appeared in print, the compilation by Vitkus is eminently legible and augmented by notes and appendices. Professor Nichols serialized an abridged Adventures of William Okeley by modernizing the spelling and vocabulary of the original.

Of particular interest to readers in the United States is the story of James Leander Cathcart whose journal didn’t appear until 1899 when his relatives saw to its publication. Recently, the journalist Des Eakin published an exhaustive study of the same in a book entitled: The Lionkeeper of Algiers: How an American Captive Rose to Power in Barbary and Saved His Homeland from War.

The Corsairs and Captives Blog provides detailed and often firsthand information about the fleets of the North African city states throughout the centuries. 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. Of this technological advance, 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.

Readers of the Muhammad Amalfi Mysteries will recall how Caid Jafar, the English renegade sea captain and advisor to the Dey on Mediterranean trade, continually calls for trading over raiding. While the Jihad Lobby within the Corsair Captains’ Guild, Taife Raisi, advocates for more raiding, bringing rich cargoes as the spoils of war to Algiers, Caid Jafar explains the benefits of a sustainable and predictable economy through trade with Europe, especially with the French during their Revolution when food was scarce and prices were high.

In his exemplary blog, 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.

The blog likewise contains much valuable information about the renegados, European converts to Islam who assisted and at times guided or led the raids. But that is a subject for another blog entry.

وسلام على من اتبع الهدى


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