Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century Mediterranean

Maria Fusaro enjoys an account of the adventurers and renegades who made a living from raiding ships at sea

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Reviewed by: Maria Fusaro
Author: Adrian Tinniswood
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Price (RRP): £20

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The distinction between a pirate and a corsair is aptly defined by Adrian Tinniswood as being “muddy semantic waters”. Still, in the 17th-century Mediterranean it was a crucial one. While piracy was considered a criminal activity, corsairing was instead a legitimate profession, sanctioned by laws and customs.


The main protagonists of Tinniswood’s new book lived their adventurous lives at the borderline of these two categories. They were mostly Englishmen who, after the peace with Spain in 1604 had closed for them the avenue of a career as privateers for the English crown, instead found in Algiers, Tunis and Morocco a world of fresh opportunities where no questions were asked about their shady pasts.

This small world of English adventurers and renegades was populated by larger than life characters. We know quite a lot about them, through court records in several countries, and thanks to the bestselling contemporary narratives that were published, and sometimes even memoirs they themselves wrote.

The latter are especially fascinating but also problematic texts as they were written by individuals who were extremely experienced at manipulating their audience through masterpieces of spin, written to provide a public justification of their outlaw pasts.

A truly cosmopolitan group, the exploits of these Barbary corsairs were fearsome indeed for Christian Europe. Their expeditions by the 1630s had even reached the western coasts of the British Isles, alerting English authorities to the increasing dangers they presented not only to the safety of the English population – these expeditions were really few – but, more importantly for Whitehall, to the growing maritime trade between the Mediterranean and northern Europe.

Fernand Braudel argued 60 years ago that one of the characteristic elements of Mediterranean history was the positive correlation between piracy and the economic health of the area, and concluded that they rose and fell together. Southern Europe might have been experiencing a general economic crisis, but maritime trade flourished and the 17th century was the golden age of Mediterranean piracy.

Tinniswood narrates this story with brio and bravura, displaying an excellent eye for the theatrical detail and the juicy episode and making the topic come alive for a modern audience with frequent reference to the contemporary world.

The book slowly shifts its topic from the tales of individual pirates to the diplomatic and military history of Anglo-Barbary relations, widening its scope to take into account the involvement of France and the newly formed United States. His exclusive reliance on English-language evidence necessarily produces as a final result a very Anglocentric narrative of what was a quintessentially Mediterranean phenomenon, but it still gives the Anglophone readership a vivid portrait of the interaction between politics and the Stuart maritime world at local and national level.

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Dr Maria Fusaro is senior lecturer and director of the Centre for Maritime Historical Studies, University of Exeter