First Published: 2010
Pages: 352 including notes & index (paperback)
Form: Non-Fiction, History
From the coast of Southern Europe to Morocco and the Ottoman states of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, Christian and Muslim seafarers met in bustling ports to swap religions, to battle and to trade goods and slaves – raiding as far as Ireland and Iceland in search of their human currency. Studying the origins of these men, their culture and practices, Adrian Tinniswood expertly recreates the twilight world of the corsairs and uncovers a truly remarkable clash of civilisations.
Drawing on a wealth of material. from furious royal proclamations to the private letters of pirates and their victims, as well as recent Islamic accounts, Pirates of Barabary provides a new perspective on the corsairs and a fascinating insight into what it meant to sacrifice all you have for a life so violent. so uncertain and so alien that it sets you apart from the rest of mankind.
The US and other editions of this book are subtitled ‘Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean’ and that probably gives a more accurate impression of the contents because, for a book titled ‘Pirates of Barbary‘, I really didn’t think there was much of a focus on the actual pirates.
It started off well in the foreword, emphasising the disparity in the way that history and popular culture have portrayed European/American and African pirates. ‘The white West regards them as the irreconcilable Other – not rebels against authority but plain criminals, not brave Robin Hoods (that would make us the Sheriff of Nottingham) but cowardly thieves’. Agreed, that’s pretty much why I picked up a book about them. But I thought that, by the midway point, Tinniswood had somehow shifted his focus from African piracy, to the African states that practiced (and sanctioned piracy), to 17th century relations between Africa and Europe – told mostly from a European perspective.
Now I’m being a little unfair perhaps, it’s a very natural progression – African states did sanction piracy and you can’t talk about piracy without some discussion of the state and its position because that position is what piracy relied on to operate. A weak state couldn’t afford to upset other countries, a state at war could prey on foreign ships with impunity, specific treaties would limit what ships pirates could prey on etc. etc. But when it got on to the detail of land battles between armies over coastal African cities I thought the book had strayed a bit far from what the blurb had sold it to me as.
I wanted more of the nitty gritty, of the actual pirates themselves. but, mostly, I found this turned out to be more about how Europeans saw and interacted with them. Of course, most of the sources an English-speaking historian is going to get are going to be European, but considering the title of the book I had hoped for more a Muslim and African slant using those sources rather than predominantly British, Venetian, and American ones. It’s still fascinating stuff of course, but not quite what I was after.
As for writing style, I read it in little bits and pieces so that probably effected my opinion, but it seemed to waver between slightly dull recitation of historical facts and oddly novel-like bits of description. The sieges and barricades and the politics of treaty making were related in minutest detail but then I would get to sections like the barbary raid of Ireland and it would suddenly be
‘The men didn’t like passing through the Straits. It made them nervous.
Maud Watched as one of the janissaries tossed the little bundle of candles over the side, an offering to the long-dead holy man who still promised them protection from the safety of his shoreline tomb.
Once he would have laughed. Now, without thinking, he murmured to himself the ancient form of words, at once a profession of faith and a prayer. There is no other God than God, and Mohammad is his messenger.
The candles vanished in the rolling sea’
Did my book suddenly get replaced with historical fiction or something? Is this how mass market history books are normally written? Most of the reading for my history undergrad was very academic essays and texts (normally fascinating, but sometimes dreadfully written), so I have to say that I feel slightly thrown and vaguely uncomfortable with this approach in a work of non-fiction.
So, although I learnt a lot from this book and really enjoyed certain parts of it, I do have my reservations about both style and content – perfectly demonstrated, in fact in the very last chapter of the book. A fictionalised description of two real pirates being executed. Two English pirates – ‘the last pirates to hang by British law at Wapping‘. Relevance in a book about Barbary pirates? Then a bit about how fear of Europre both stated and ended the age of piracy in Africa and then this concluding paragraph:
‘The . . . pirates of Barbary left a thousand crimes behind them. Their one virtue, whether they were renegade Christian fugitives or devout Moslem warriors for God, was courage. Deplore the crimes, by all means.
But remember the courage.’