- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2010


By Adrian Tinniswood
Riverhead Books, $26.95, 344 pages

If you instinctively object to the fashionable (in some quarters) assertion that modern Islamic terrorism can be laid to Muslim reaction to the West’s racial oppression, this book is a must read.

What this book is not is a collection of ripping yarns about hearty sea dogs bent on plunder under the banner of the Jolly Roger. Rather, it is a thoroughly researched and highly readable account of how and why the tiny, impoverished enclaves that hugged the Mediterranean coast of North Africa turned to piracy in the 1600s and subjected the powerful merchant nations of Europe to robbery of their cargos and enslavement of their sailors for nearly 250 years before anyone had heard of Somali pirates seizing oil tankers or of al Qaeda.

British historian Adrian Tinniswood makes a valid point that one man’s piracy is another nation’s foreign policy. During the Crusades, the religious knights who sought to free the Holy Land did not scruple to grab an errant Ottoman merchant vessel and enslave its crew. And almost from the time the New World was discovered, most of the exploring powers took great joy in seizing one another’s treasure ships; Elizabeth I ennobled some of the more rapacious of her sea dogs. Our own hallowed War of Independence was financed largely by doughty privateers such as John Paul Jones who captured British merchant vessels and took them into French ports so Benjamin Franklin could swap them for vital war materials.

Piracy was thus a well-established fact of seagoing life, and Mr. Tinniswood has made good use of the archives that he trawled through in Britain’s dusty maritime records. There are plenty of sea battles and daring exploits to satisfy the taste of the armchair admiral. But this is a story of timeless politics that has a timely ring to it.

Indeed, in those early days, it is hard to keep track of all the players in the ongoing imperial scrimmage being waged in the Mediterranean. Old fading powers such as Venice and Genoa had to deal not only with the traditional enmity of the Ottoman Empire but also the rising ambitions of Spain and Portugal, not to mention the relatively new kids in the empire sweepstakes, such as the Netherlands, France and England. I do quibble with the author when he argues the annoying view that the Europeans were as much to blame for the violence that followed from the Barbary pirates’ operations.

“When the old pirates of Barbary described themselves as mujahedeen on a sea-jihad against encroaching Christendom, Christendom portrayed them as demons bent on world domination; when modern-day Somali pirate chiefs say that the real sea-bandits are those who steal their fish stocks and pollute their coastal waters, we patronize them and then send a gunboat. An underlying racism and a more open anti-Islamism make it hard to imagine Captain Blood or Jack Sparrow as North African Muslims, and spill over into contemporary popular culture,” he asserts.

Sorry, that just won’t wash. Errol Flynn portrayed fictional buccaneers. The Barbary pirates killed people for money (and the modern Somalis do, too, for that matter). It just ain’t the same thing, me hearty.

That aside, the value of the story the author tells is its application to current events. The point that emerges is that the underlying interest of nations exerts more influence over the responses of governments than the popular emotions those events generate - emotions of greed, horror and revenge. This explains why the Ottoman Turks allowed - indeed encouraged - the tiny duchy-port towns of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and the like to set themselves up as bandit lairs where pirate ships could refit, sell their stolen cargos no questions asked and remit a fixed slice of the profits back to Constantinople.

It also explains why the nations whose ships were routinely robbed and whose nationals were sold into slavery dithered in response. During those episodes when the combined European powers could have snuffed out every one of the pirate havens, their distrust of each other overrode their hatred of the pirates.

Piracy then became a kind of cost of doing business if one wanted to tap into the rich merchandise markets of the Middle East and the fabled trading cities that rimmed the Mediterranean. The Ottomans’ scrupulously signed and honored trading licenses, which provided the Europeans with temporary access to the treasures of the Levant, and even stolen merchandise had a way of finding its way into the storehouses of London, Antwerp and Marseilles.

And so it staggered on. European task forces would blunder when they attacked the Barbary ports, treaties would be signed, ransoms and tributes paid, piracy would ebb, and then, in time, flourish once more. Even the new nation, the United States of America, found it more expedient to pay protection money to the various deys and pashas of these tiny criminal hide-outs. When Washington was at last moved to take action under the Madison administration, the results (while the stuff of legend and song for the young nation) did not contribute much to ending either piracy or the slave trade in the region.

That, the author notes with some asperity, would be left until later in the 19th century, when French and Italian imperial appetites sent them across the waters to lay hands on their various North African colonies, which would reward them at first and then vex them painfully in the century that lay ahead. Some things, it seems, don’t change all that much.

James Srodes is a Washington author. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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