Britain and Barbary

Article excerpt

Britain and Barbary. By Nabil Matar. Gainesville, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2005. Pp. 172; appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $59.85.

Nabil Matar is professor of English and chair of the Department of Humanities and Communication at the Florida Institute of Technology. This book is the third and final essay in his study of Britain and the Islamic world. In it he turns to the impact of Barbary on the culture and history of Britain-to its role in the "nation formation" of that country. He focuses largely on the impact of North Africa on English drama and literature, on the social consequences of the large numbers of Britons held captive in Barbary, and on the change of Britons' attitudes toward the region and themselves with the growth of the Royal Navy. He is concerned primarily with Morocco. Algeria is mentioned briefly and Tunis and Tripoli in passing. The book is full of details reflecting extensive research in the archives and in the surprisingly rich literature.

The dates 1589 and 1689 are those of the first and last of the "Moor plays" to be performed on the London stage, starting with George Peele's "The Battle of Alcazar," (Wadi al-Makhazin, 1578), which Matar describes as "the only play in the whole Elizabethan repertoire to portray the Christian-Islamic conflict in North Africa with historical accuracy." The battle, in which the Portuguese king, Sebastian, and two contenders for the Moroccan throne were killed, settled a dynastic conflict and left the last of the Saadians, Ahmad al-Mansour, securely on the Moroccan throne. The play presents the Moroccans as evil, anti-Christian, and ruthless-this at a time when Ahmad and Elizabeth are warily talking about joining forces against Philip of Spain. The play could be taken as a warning to Elizabeth against trusting Ahmad, who, it turns out, while stringing Elizabeth along, made a deal with Philip to withhold cooperation with England and the Portuguese in return for the surrender of Asila, a port on the Atlantic coast that the Spanish occupied.

The last of the moor plays was "Don Sebastian," by John Dryden, first performed in 1689. It rewrote the battle of Wadi al Makhazin to make Sebastian the victor because in Dryden's words, the English audience would not "bear a thorough tragedy." Much had happened in the interval. Britain's response to the problem of North African piracy had transformed it from a trading nation to an imperial power. It had occupied Tangier, its first possession in Muslim Africa, for 22 years, its navy now ruled the seas, and it could afford to condescend.

Matar devotes a good deal of space to the issue of captivity, first of Britons in North Africa, and then of North Africans in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. …