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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P.O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: Lords of the Sea
Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs
Alan G. Jamieson
Reaktion Books, 2012, ISBN 978-1-86189-907-1, £25 / US$39

Lords of the Sea opens with the capture of the Sirius Star in 2008 when Somali pirates capture this Saudi Arabian tanker. Just as these pirates have terrorized shipping today off the Horn of Africa, so did Barbary corsairs stalk Mediterranean shipping from 1492 through 1830. This time it was Muslim against Muslim, but in the past such seizures pitted Muslims against Christians. In the introduction, Jamieson explains his comparison of now with then, while laying the groundwork for the rest of the book. He also points out that the Barbary corsairs were privateers more than they were pirates, and they operated within a legal framework just like Western privateers did. The height of their success and power occurred during the seventeenth century, but they remained a viable threat for more than three centuries. Likewise, the author stresses the differences between the corsairs themselves and the corsairs and their Christian counterparts.

Chapter one, entitled “Vanguard of the Sultan,” focuses on the years 1492 through 1580 when some of the best-known Barbary corsairs waged war against Christendom. This is also when Andrea Doria did his best to thwart and hunt down the corsairs, when the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (better known as the Knights of Malta) became key players in the battles, and when slaves were the principal treasure that both sides sought.

Chapter Subheadings
Algiers 1541
Turgut Reis
Uluj Ali

The second chapter, “Lords of the Sea,” covers 1580 through 1660, when men like Simon Danser, Murad Reis, John Ward, and Henry Mainwaring preyed on ships. During this time, Europeans introduced Western shipbuilding techniques and taught the Barbary corsairs how to sail square-rigged ships. It was also when many of the corsair captains were renegadoes, Christians who converted to Islam and preyed on their own country’s ships. Catholic redemptionist orders did what they could to repatriate Christians who became slaves of Barbary.

Chapter Subheadings
Iceland 1627
Corsair Heyday
Salé: A Pirate Republic?
Stolen Christians
In Infidel Hands

“Facing the Sea Powers” is the next chapter and covers 1660 to 1720, a period in which the rise of European sea powers proved a greater threat to the corsairs.

Chapter Subheadings
Algiers 1683
Battle Fleets and Bases
The Battle with Algiers
Morocco: Ismail’s Corsairs

The final chapter, “Decline, Revival and Extinction,” discusses the waning period of the corsairs from 1720 through 1830. During the latter years, an upstart and fledgling nation decided enough was enough and struck back at the corsairs. Elizabeth Marsh also became their prisoner, and while neither the first nor the last woman to be so, she was the only one who wrote about her captivity. Now, the preponderance of corsair captains hail from the Barbary states, rather than being renegadoes.

Chapter Subheadings
Cape Gate, 1815
Spanish Revival
Treaties, Tribute and Tribulations
Morocco: Corsairs and Diplomacy
Revolution, War and the Corsair Revival
The Conquest of Algiers

In his conclusion, the author asks the question “A New Barbary?” He draws parallels between the US Navy SEAL attack on the Somali pirates who captured the Maersk Alabama and imprisoned her captain, Richard Phillips, and when William Bainbridge and his crew became captives of the Barbary corsairs, after the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli’s harbor. Then Jamieson proceeds to show readers why the corsairs of the past and the pirates today are not the same.

Maps, illustrations, and two appendices – Glossary of Place Name Changes and Chronology – enhance the reading. Reference notes, a bibliography, and an index follow.

In the introduction, the author poses three specific questions.

1. Why did the Barbary corsairs arise when they did?
2. Why did they achieve such power?
3. Why did that power last for so long?

He succinctly and expertly answers these questions, and in doing so, he provides the framework of local events in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco, as well as putting these into context by showing what is transpiring in the world at large. He also shows how as the years changed, so did the nations involved and the adaptations corsairs made to reflect the shifting world. While recent years have seen numerous titles published on the Barbary corsairs, these have focused on a particular Barbary state, a specific time period, or their captives. Jamieson chooses to cover the entire region throughout the corsairs’ history, which makes this an invaluable study.

Review Copyrighted ©2013 Cindy Vallar
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