Review: Pirates of Barbary - Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the 17th Century Mediterranean, by Adrian Tinniswood

The Pirates of Barbary
Corsairs, Conquests and
Captivity in the 17th
Century Mediterranean
by Adrian Tinniswood
Riverhead Books
Sept. 6, 2011
343 pgs
We all have our romanticized ideas about pirates. For some, the foppish villainy of Captain Hook is perfect. For others, a more laid back (but still manages to buy out Sephora's stock of eye-liner) Captain Jack Sparrow is just right. Some picture Sir Francis Drake, a privateer favorite of Elizabeth I's. Some idealize Errol Flynn. Some see present-day Somalian pirates. And still others are stuck on the animatronicly-illustrated Pirates of the Caribbean at Walt Disney World.

We remember names like Hook, Black Beard, Redbeard, Long John Silver and Captain Morgan because they, some real and some not, instill fear... and some because they were turned into brand names. In any case, pirates are a part of our childhood wonderment. They come from a time both dangerous and fantastical. After all - what's more fun? Cops or robbers? Cowboys or Indians? Pan or Hook? Ask any little kid and the answer is likely that which causes the most ruckus.

True, pirates had their heydey and their fun, both in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean, where resources were more plentiful. But the pirates of the Mediterranean, those corsairs of the Barbary Coast, were something more devilish than any Hook or Silver or Sparrow. They were driven not only by their desperation or their passion for the belongings of others, but by an economy built on slavery, and on the emasculation of other nations. And behind that economy was the powerful grip of religion which split the tides of the Mediterranean like a shark on the surface of the water.
Me: Jack, did you buy out Sephora again?
Jack: Um.... oops?

Adrian Tinniswood, author of Barbary Coast, whose paperback edition hits shelves today, stumbled upon the Mediterannean pirates of the 17th Century almsot by accident. He was researching the Verney family for another book, The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War, and Madness in Seventeenth-Century England, when he came across an odd bit of information about a family relation, which he mentions first in the preface:
In 1608 a county squire named Sir Francis Verney fell out with his mother-in-law, walked out on his teenage wife, an went to North Africa, where he became a Muslim an embarked on a brief but spectacular career as a Barbary Coast pirate."
From there, Tinniswood went on to find out why something like that would happen, and he opened up the door to a whole new world.

The book focuses mostly on the period from the privateers of Elizabeth I's age - those who laid the foundation for other English ne'er-do-wells - to the treaties that organized the European-Barbary relations in the 1660s. And while England was not the only nation whose people fell into the lifestyle, that is Tinniswood's focus. Elizabeth I, who enjoyed and even contributed to the privateering of the earlier century, was succeeded by James I who, by all accounts, hated pirates. James I was, in turn, succeeded by Charles I (who was beheaded as a result of the English Civil War) whose son, Charles II (once the monarchy was restored a decade later - England was controlled by Oliver Cromwell in the mean time) ordered the destruction of Tangiers.

That Captain Hook is very
There's certainly still something romantic in the notion of these pirates, and Tinniswood puts his best foot forward when he concentrates on specific people and their narratives from this religious war zone. William Okeley's escape narrative, and the Schindleresque fortitude of Edmund Cason are the proof that all of our romanticizing has a footing. But the xenophobia of the time (i.e. Christians vs. Muslims, Britons vs. Moors, "Franks" vs. "Turks") is a parallel to shock you back into reality.

The corsairs of Barbary may have lost their magic touch when colonialism started booming, but fear of "the other" hasn't gone away. And that's scarier than any Black Beard or Hook. These may not be the swashbuckling, Jolly-Roger-waving, rum-sipping pirates that we've been ingrained with by Disney, but the history is interesting and, considering these are the folks that never quite make it into the staunchly-edited history text-books, it's a worthy read.


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