Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs. By Alan G. Jamieson. (London, England: Reaktion Books, 2012. Pp. 242. $39.00.)
Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 100–101, Spring 2014
How to Cite
McDonald, K. P. (2014), Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs. By Alan G. Jamieson. (London, England: Reaktion Books, 2012. Pp. 242. $39.00.). Historian, 76: 100–101. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_4
- Issue online: 4 MAR 2014
- Version of Record online: 4 MAR 2014
This is a detailed, synthetic account of the Barbary corsairs who rose from a minor Mediterranean nuisance to become a major maritime menace. After more than three centuries of marauding, the French invasion of Algiers in 1830 sounded the death knell of the Barbary thread. Tracking these corsairs provides a window to the ebb and flow of power in the Mediterranean, eventually drawing in the United States, which fought its first international war against the corsairs in the early 1800s.
The introduction begins not in the Mediterranean but with the attack on a Saudi oil tanker in the Indian Ocean by Somali pirates in 2008. The author informs us that “many of today's Muslims seem to see the Somali pirates as heirs of the earlier Barbary corsairs” and that “even Western commentators are falling into step, with talk of Somalia becoming the ‘new Barbary'” (12). Although this assertion is difficult to quantify, the book is meant to strike a counterbalance to such claims, which is accomplished in a brief conclusion.
The book's four chapters are mercifully disconnected from this rather strained argument, from the opening overview on the “Vanguard of the Sultan, 1492–1580,” followed by the title chapter, “Lords of the Sea, 1580–1660”; “Facing the Sea Powers, 1660–1720”; and the final chapter, “Decline, Revival, and Extinction, 1720–1830.” As semi-independent regencies under the nominal domain of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim rulers of Salé, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli played a pivotal role in the imperial contest for control of the Mediterranean and the slave/captivity complex so prevalent in this time period.
Alan G. Jamieson at times seems to hedge his analysis on the side of the “holy war” analysts, for example, stating that “the Barbary corsairs were different from most European privateers in that they engaged in war which was ‘eternal'” and that “the religious justification … helped to set the corsairs apart from the true pirates” (13). Yet, as the author demonstrates, the reality was far more complex, with economic justifications usually trumping cultural or religious motivations. The near-perpetual assistance of European renegades and the formal and informal alliances made with European powers help dispel any overarching thesis on the Manichean nature of Barbary maritime warfare.
The author states that “the Barbary corsairs [were] a unique phenomenon … for more than three centuries,” but, in fact, institutionalized maritime raiding, in all corners of the Mediterranean, was the norm (28). European kingdoms relied heavily on licensed privateers to perform a similar role as their Barbary counterparts. The North African corsairs were perhaps unique in that their modus operandi over the longue durée was to capture and then ransom European captives—hence, the superficial comparisons to the pirates of Somalia.
Two maps of the region are quite good, and the bibliography provides a suitable reading list on Mediterranean/Barbary history. The glossary of place names and chronology are likewise helpful, although the contemporary prints are a bit flat.
Pirates may not be on everyone's radar, but with a feature film in production starring Tom Hanks as American captain Richard Phillips of the Maersk Alabama, captured and held in 2009 by Somali pirates, that may soon change. Jamieson provides a useful overview in this conversation.