Book Review / Non Fiction / Pirate Book

Pirates of Barbary, by Adrian Tinniswood

The full title of this book is Pirates Of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, And Captivity In The 17th Century Mediterranean. I have a strong interest in naval fiction (or, if you prefer, maritime fiction). And while this is a non-fiction book, the topic of pirates and their history is something that interests me as well. And, let me add, while Tinniswood’s book is non-fiction, it in many ways reads like fiction – telling exciting and colorful tales full. Also, it is very intriguing to me that even though we have had industrial revolutions and immense technological development, pirates still exist. And – as a matter of fact – they have been around all the time and didn’t just pop up out of nowhere in Somalia in recent years.

Tinniswood’s book contains historical arguments and to some extent a consistent overview of the history of piracy. However, perhaps even more interesting, it also has lots of profiles of pirates and parties associated with them. The focus is on the Barbary states – Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, parts of Morocco – which offered fortified harbors to pirates and in turn built their economies around the sale of stolen cargoes and captives. Even though the pirates are often spoken of as Muslims, as Tinniswood shows, many of them were actually British, Dutch, or Italian renegades who sometimes bought pardons and obtained naval commands from their native countries.

Among the Europeans who turned Turk was, for example, John Ward, a mariner left unemployed after James I curtailed the privateering raids of the Elizabethan era. In 1604, he seized a bark in Portsmouth harbor and made his way to the corsair haven of Tunis. There, over time, he became the trusted lieutenant of the charismatic Uthman Dey and the scourge of the Mediterranean. Another example was Sir Thomas Mainwaring, who managed to rehabilitate himself to the extent of becoming an MP.

The history of the Barbary pirates comes across as much more complex than I was aware of, and the “complicity” or relations of various Western nations to the states involved in this as what seems to me as in many instances involving dealings that there is little reason to be proud of. Several European governments vacillated between gunboat diplomacy and offering tribute for the release of their enslaved countrymen.

One aspect of the story of slavery that to some extent surprised me was the importance of slavery to the business. A huge number of attacks – even attacks on land – were conducted with the sole purpose of taking slaves. And the “Turks” even raided the coast of Iceland in search of slaves. In 1631 an assault was launched in Baltimore, West Cork where 22 men, 33 women, and 54 children were taken.

If I have a complaint, it is primarily that Adrian Tinniswood mostly views the world from a British perspective.

Overall, Pirates Of Barbary is a book I recommend for lovers of nautical as well as naval fiction – it contains lots of fine salty yarns, and also a lot of facts about piracy that will add to the understanding of the plots in many navy fiction books.