Muslim Pirates

Pirate Utopias is a strange little book – at once a bit disappointing and a portal to further discovery.  The concept behind it is fabulous enough (about which more below) and the blurbs on the back -by Christopher Hill, Marcus Rediker, and Peter Linebaugh- give one whiplash until you read them closely and they all hold something back.

Let’s get the disappointment out of the way: first, most of the story is predicated on a huge amount of (sometimes totally wild) speculation with very thin evidence.  Second, the author seems to project his own particular predilections unto the story.  So a story about North Africa tends to focus disproportionately on Christians who have converted to Islam (Renegados), which is what he seems to have done at least for a while, and at least to some soft sufi variant.  And a few oddly out-of-place pages on pederasty.

So the author is Peter Lamborn Wilson (1945) also known as Hakim Bey, a New Yorker best-known as the anarchist theorist of Temporary Autonomous Zones.  He seems to be a cantankerous sort and a self-declared Luddite (at least some of the time) and has a utopian vision of places where autonomy and equality and freedom of an individual sort allow for a temporary collective liberty.  And a pirate republic made of Muslims and Christians and Renegados, off the Atlantic coast of Morocco and in thrall to none (including the Ottoman Sultan) seems a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone.

The disappointments aside, the book acts as an introduction to two dozen existing works of history quoted extensively and to a great deal of fascinating and (to me) unknown history.

Did you know that the term “Sally Rovers” came to name the pirates roving the seas, but based at the Salé (today’s Fez) and that these pirates had a self-declared republic?  Or that the Ottoman fleet ruled the Mediterranean under the admiral of the fleet, Hayreddin Barbarossa?  We have heard about the sack of Baltimore in Ireland by the Moors, but did you know that Murad Rais, the corsair captain was actually a Renegado of Dutch origins?  And better still Murad Rais’s son settled in Brooklyn and raised hell there?

But what the book also does is to make you want to know more.  And digging brings out

For example, We all know that the first US military intervention was against Tripolitania and because US-flagged ships but didn’t know that this victory was the seed of which the US Navy grew (to mix metaphors).  A fascinating history of the US Naval Academy (the 2006 doctoral thesis of William Paul Leeman, titled The Long Road to Annapolis: The Naval Academy Debate and Emerging Nationalism in the United States, 1775-1845) recounts how the need for a “naval force, adequate to the protection of the commerce of the United States against the Algerine corsairs” was the basis of the US Congress establishing the US Navy.

When Thomas Jefferson deployed a naval squadron to the Mediterranean in 1801 to deal with the Barbary pirates, one of the purposes of the squadron was “the instruction of our young men so that when their more active services shall hereafter be required, they may be capable o f defending the honor o f their Country.”

Incidentally, this same carefully research historical account also indicates that the establishment of the Corps of Artillerists and Engineers at West Point (to eventually fold into the Military Academy) was also bound up with the necessity for developing engineering skills in order to build fortifications against both native Americans and against potential attacks by the naval forces of Britain and France.

And of course, any database of academic journals reveals the ways in which the discussion of the Barbary Pirates ended up being pulled up in support of intervention or legal innovation in dealing with Muslim or Arab “terrorists” after 2001.   And when Somali piracy came to be constituted as a threat to shipping lanes, the Barbary Pirates were once again invoked in setting up the security apparatus of anti-piracy in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (see for example this US Army Combat Studies Institute monograph [PDF] on historical piracy trends).

But I was really struck by Wilson’s story about the Renegades and the politics of ransom and knowledge production that they were implicated in.  There is a stunning doctoral thesis out there, researched by Daniel Bernardo Herhsenzon and titled Early Modern Spain and the Creation of the Mediterranean: Captivity, Commerce, and Knowledge (University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, 2011) which draws on archives in Spanish, Hebrew and a few other languages to tell us about the role these Renegados and other captives played in the transmission of information and knowledge across and throughout the Mediterranean:

traversing the sea, captives – Muslim and Christian; captured, ransomed, or runaways – played an instrumental role in the production and circulation of strategic information and knowledge (applicable to questions of military defense, offense or conquest). They did so in five forms: (1) a few ex-captives wrote and published systematic treatises on the Maghrib: (2) captives warned their kin of corsairs’ attacks in the letters they sent home; (3) upon arrival at ports, captives were questioned about enemies’ plans and maritime strategic movements: (4) former captives compiled detailed, topographic urban narratives of Maghribi cities, which, often accompanied by plans and maps, pretended to point out the cities’ “Achilles” heels” – the key to conquests; and, (5) captives wrote long, detailed urban diaries during their captivity, chronicling the main political – local and international – events they had experienced.

Hershsenzon tells detailed stories of how the corsairs maintained a particular code of trans-thalassic behaviour.

On December 13th 1603, for instance, “a Turk entered the Divan [in the city of Algiers] with a letter in his hand asking revenge for his brother who was burned in the galleys of Spain; he (the burned brother) was a reis {a pirate captain} and his name was Caravali.” Everyone present became agitated and a consensus was formed – four priests should be burned as revenge for the Turk’s death. The next day, a larger Divan meeting convened. The corsairs, however, forming one of the parties represented at the Divan, unanimously objected to the revenge saying “if they would burn Christian [captives] every day, what would be of the [corsairs] roving the seas and often falling in the enemy’s hand.” The parties did not reach an agreement and left the matter unresolved.

It is a beautiful story and one can see why the pirate republic of Salé is a kind of utopia in which the calculus of safety in piracy trumps sectarian revenge and where decisions are made in council.  I wish a Middle East historian with command of Arabic and Dutch and Ottoman Turkish and Spanish would dig into this as well.  I can imagine there must be treasure troves at the Başbakanlık Osmanlı Arşivleri.