- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

All credit is due the Modern Library Classics’ editors for having resurrected a most curious and intriguing novel, Royall Tyler’s “The Algerine Captive: Or, The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill,” in which America’s first encounter with a hostile Muslim nation — Algeria — is depicted. (Algerine was the adjective used to identify an Algerian in those days).

The historical crisis that is background to the book dates back to July of 1796, when American negotiators succeeded in borrowing funds somewhere in the neighborhood of $700,000 from Algiers-based Jewish bankers, and Algiers agreed to release American captives being held, promising not to take any new ones.

The novel was written in 1797 by Tyler, an American lawyer later to serve as chief justice of Vermont. Tyler was also known for having written a couple of successful plays (now lost to posterity). The first 100 pages are devoted to giving the background of Underhill, the protagonist and narrator, and are a bit on the stodgy side. The modern reader can safely leap past them to the point at which the doctor boards a ship ironically named Sympathy. The ship weighs 300 tons, and carries a crew of 38 bound for the coast of Africa, thence to Barbados, and back to South Carolina with a cargo of slaves.

Underhill, a New Englander, is shaken by the notion of human beings being discussed like “so many head of cattle or swine.” When he realizes that as ship’s surgeon it is his responsibility to verify the physical conditions of the slaves — men, women and children — to withstand the lengthy voyage he writes, “I thought of my native land and blushed.”

Just where Tyler gathered his extremely detailed and graphic facts concerning the treatment of the African slaves bound for South Carolina is not known, although the introduction to this Modern Library edition suggests that the author was familiar with Olaudah Equiano’s 1789 narrative of his enslavement “or some other first-hand account.” In any case, Tyler’s descriptions are as vivid as anyone could ask and, given the period in which he wrote, his intense anti-slavery commentary is all the more surprising.

The action of the book begins one evening when Underhill beds down for the night on shore, with the slave ship moored a mile out to sea. He is rudely awakened by being hit on the head by men speaking a language he can’t understand. Soon, he finds himself a prisoner of Algerian pirates and his experience as a slave himself is about to begin.

Underhill’s captivity lasts seven years, during which he endures being sold in a slave market and doing heavy manual labor to being treated reasonably well after his talents as a doctor come to light. But the descriptions of his enslavement are the most riveting. During this time, he is approached by a well groomed young Englishman who recommends a solution to his predicament: “Renounce the Christian, and embrace the Mahometan faith; you are no longer a slave, and the delights of life await you.”

“My body is in slavery, but my mind is free. Your body is at liberty, but your soul is in the most abject slavery,” Underhill retorts to the young Englishman. But the latter convinces him to talk with the mullah who converted him, telling him he’ll get a month of good food and comfort, at least until the mullah discovers he is steadfast in his own Christian beliefs.

In the event, Underhill is so touched by the gentleness of the mullah, he bursts into tears when the mullah leaves. Nevertheless, after five days of discussion, “disgusted with his fables, abashed by his assurance, and almost confounded by his sophistry, I resumed my slave’s attire, and sought safety in my former servitude.”

While a slave, Underhill came to witness the particularly nasty form of punishment inflicted on any slave attempting escape — impalement. He also was able to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Visiting the holy cities allowed Underhill to compare the Muslim faith with Christianity, and he notes “it as extraordinary, that the Mahometan should abominate the christian [sic] on account of his faith and the christian [sic] for his creed; when the koran [sic] of the former acknowledges the divinity of the christian [sic] of Messias, and the bible of the latter commands us to love our enemies. If each would follow the obvious dictates of his own scripture, he would cease to hate, abominate, and destroy the other.”

Eventually, thanks to a helpful Jew — and here we get a vascillating digression on the role of Jews in Muslim society — our hero finds himself free but only briefly. Soon he is taken by other pirates, who in turn are overcome by a Portuguese frigate and at last returned gratefully to his native land where he proclaims that the utmost objective of Americans is “union among ourselves.”

In the end, “The Algerine Captive” is a strange but engaging work that introduces Americans to a culture no less mysterious in many ways than it was 200 years ago.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The WashingtonTimes.

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