Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pirates of Barbary - book

Pirates of Barbary Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean, Adrian Tinniswood (Riverhead Books, N.Y., 2010)

Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.
Sir Winston Churchill

Leave it to Sir Winston to reduce the issue to its essence. It is true that conditions in Her Majesty’s Navy were so bad that many were attracted to piracy where they had more freedom and also a chance to make much more money. But if you, like me, have some idea of semi-romantic, handsome, or even horribly ugly blackbearded men with parrots on their shoulders, burying chests of gold on remote islands for us to find, forget it. Independent pirates roaming the seas in their ships attacking galleons loaded with gold may have existed but if so, they were apparently rare and could not have survived for very long on their own.

This interesting book by Adrian Tinniswood gives a much more realistic view of piracy in the 17th century than most of us (or at least I) imagined. There were some, who for one reason or another, decided to steal ships and turn to a life of piracy. But most of them soon turned to the Barbary Coast where their ships could be provisioned and repaired without fear and they could become part of fleets of such “corsairs.” Piracy was actually either part of ongoing hostilities between nations or a form of business (even big business). That is, nations like England had fleets of corsairs that roamed the oceans with the express purpose of attacking ships of nations with whom they were at war. English corsairs took Spanish, French, Dutch, or other vessels and vice versa, it was all part of a larger enterprise that all participated in. Corsairs were distinguished from pirates in that they were given special papers that made them part of military matters rather than merely ordinary pirates, privileges, that in theory at least, protected them from hanging on the grounds they were legitimate military personnel rather than just ordinary pirates. These predators captured ships of other nations and shared in the wealth they brought back, thus potentially making far more than they could have as ordinary seamen, and often became heroes as well.

It is true that sometimes a person would steal a ship and embark on piracy, using their vessel to capture others, and becoming more successful. But they could not successfully continue their piracy without ports that would allow them to resupply and repair their ships. The Barbary coast was willing and eager to provide such services and most pirate ships sought refuge there. In return for the safety of such safe havens they became part of a fleet of such ships and had license to roam the Mediterranean (and even as far as Newfoundland at times) capturing whatever ships they could. Returning to port they could sell their loot, including slaves, lie in new supplies and go to sea again. I knew there was such a thing as European slavery but I had no idea it was so common and widespread or made up such an important part of this trade (an estimated one million Europeans were enslaved). Cities on the Barbary coast such as Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli, and others, became notorious for having pirate fleets that preyed on merchant ships in the Mediterranean. In some cases local businessmen would buy shares in one of these raiders and share in the profits to be made (profits that were sometimes exorbitant). Captains of these ships often lived in luxury, having huge mansions and living much like kings. Some of them even became Muslims, a fate that Christians regarded as far more serious than their piracy. Huge sums were raised for the express purpose of buying freedom for Christian captives in Africa, and nations like England, France, and Spain sent out large fleets of warships to stop the Barbary pirates who were inflicting serious damage to European business. But as cities like Tunis and Algeria were technically part of the Ottoman Empire, although they had a great deal of autonomy, Europeans had to act with caution. Often in was far cheaper to bribe officials to leave ships alone than it was to attack those responsible. England and other countries entered into treaties with Barbary Coast cities to leave their ships alone, while allowing all other ships to be fair game. Sometimes these treaties were honored and sometimes not. As some of these cities, especially Tripoli, depended almost exclusively upon piracy as their major economic base, they couldn’t afford to make treaties with all other countries. This situation prevailed until the early 19th century when various Navies had become much larger and more able to suppress piracy.

This is a rather pathetic attempt to review this really interesting study. Even though the events recorded in this book occurred 400 years ago, there seems to be a reasonably extensive record available. Tinniswood, a consultant to Britains’s National Trust, has done a fine job of converting it into a readable, detailed, and quite excellent picture of this bygone time.

For him they raise not the recording stone -
His death yet dubious, deeds too widely known;
He left a Corsair's name to other times,
Link'd with one virtue, and a thousand crimes

The ending from The Corsair, by Lord George Gordon Byron. This poem made publishing history by selling out all 10,000 copies in a single day in London, 1814.

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