Pirates of Barbary – Adrian Tinniswood

Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17-Century Mediterranean, by Adrian Tinniswood, sheds much needed light on who and what pirates actually were, and who and what they did. It debunks the stereotypical notion of Blackbeard with his talking parrot and his pieces of eight, as being a typical pirate. In the real world, piratry was a world of profiteering, slavery, butchery, brinkmanship and religion, with its players being a motley crew of Christians and Muslims from all walks of life. Adrian’s book brilliantly illuminates their world, and this world’s revelation will be a shock to you.

The period of history when pirates reigned was the 17th-century, and geographically they were to be feared from the Mediterranean, up the Western coast of Europe and spanning to Scandinavia and Northern America, and out across the expanse of the Barbary Coast (present-day Morocco, Algeria and Libya). Mostly though, and this is the focus of the book, they had their bases of operations all along the Barbary coast, especially the port city of Algiers, which was pirate-central.

This book plots the course of piratry in the 17th century, from its inception, to its apogee, and finally to its virtual extinction. Its a fascinating tale, extremely well told, very coherent and logical plot, and we get introduced to all the great characters and events of the period. Piratry itself stemmed from the British policy of allowing open-season on Spanish galleons, harassing them over South and North American coasts. It was Britain’s way of getting their “cut” from the ransack of South America by Spain. Once this practice was officially outlawed by Her Majesty’s Government, the profiteer’s and free-booters simply continued of course, except now they were outlaws – pirates, if you will. So piratry as we know it, has its roots firmly planted in official British policy – what a difficult child that policy proved to be! The British pirates moved to the Mediterranean and Barbary Coast, and inspired and/or taught the Islamic Ottoman inhabitants the “trade”, to the extent that it was considered by some of the Islamic corsairs to be a “sea Jihad”.

From here, pirating really took off, with the corsairs, or pirates, operating under the express permission and direction of Ottoman Emperor Sulaiman, and having the protection of ports such as Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli, Benghazi etc. Slavery was huge business for corsairs, and many eventual pirates or corsairs were one-time European Christian slaves who “turned Turk” i.e. accepted Islam, and became a corsair. The book goes into a good amount of detail regarding the conditions and treatments of slaves, with the result you can fully understand how tempting it must have been to “turn Turk”.

Piratry ultimately turned into a struggle between state-sanctioned pirates of the Muslim East, and those in the Christian West (Britain, Holland and France mainly) who opposed them. Echoes of today for sure, with the coast of Somalia for example being the new Barbary Coast, albeit not to the same extent of course. This book captures this history excellently, and its all told in entertaining fashion.

Some of the characters are truly extraordinary also, such as John Ward, the infamous English pirate who sold himself into the service and protection of Uthman Dey, commanded a vast fleet of janissaires and many nationalities of Europeans, lived out his life in Algiers, and accomplished the truly extraordinary feat of living to die of old-age, which for a corsair or pirate was unparalleled. Granted, he did die of the plague aged 70, but still – natural causes for a pirate, amazing stuff. Also the Devil-Captain himself, Simon Danziker, really jumps out from the pages at you. This guy was amazing, but unfortunately met a treacherous and brutal end – I still can’t believe he fell for the ruse that killed him, you can’t help but feel that he didn’t deserve it!

The pirate raid that pillaged and ransacked the Irish town of Baltimore in Co. Cork, and whose entire inhabitants were sold into Barbary slavery, is also particularly memorable. I had no idea that piratical tentacles stretched so far, to be honest.

Overall its a great read, a story well told, a subject well researched and a truly fascinating piece of history.


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