Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean

Synopsis

Captives and Corsairs uncovers a forgotten story in the history of relations between the West and Islam: three centuries of Muslim corsair raids on French ships and shores and the resulting captivity of tens of thousands of French subjects and citizens in North Africa. Through an analysis of archival materials, writings, and images produced by contemporaries, the book fundamentally revises our picture of France's emergence as a nation and a colonial power, presenting the Mediterranean as an essential vantage point for studying the rise of France. It reveals how efforts to liberate slaves from North Africa shaped France's perceptions of the Muslim world and of their own "Frenchness". From around 1550 to 1830, freeing these captives evolved from an expression of Christian charity to a method of state building and, eventually, to a rationale for imperial expansion. Captives and Corsairs thus advances new arguments about the fluid nature of slavery and firmly links captive redemption to state formation- and in turn to the still vital ideology of liberatory conquest.

Excerpt

The analogies started within twenty-four hours. Given one minute to address his colleagues on 12 September 2001, Representative Nick Smith of Michigan invoked the Barbary pirates. Then, just as Congress had done during the era of Thomas Jefferson, he proclaimed, “We must declare war on these new terrorists.” In the weeks that followed, radio, television, newspaper, and Internet commentators all seized on the apparent historical parallel between the Republic’s first foreign conflict, which occurred from 1801 to 1805 with the polity that became modern Libya, and the battle against Al Qa’ida that now lay before the United States.

To media analysts of various political stripes, the nineteenth-century experience combating sea bandits harbored by the Ottoman regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers and the independent kingdom of Morocco provided a valuable object lesson for fighting Islamic militants in the new millennium, offering a strategic tutorial on the failure of appeasement and showcasing an elemental and enduring clash of civilizations. Ironically, most modern observers credited the French—soon to be shunned for their refusal to join “coalition forces” in Iraq—for striking out alone and obliterating the North African criminals through invasion. Conservative pundit Paul Johnson was notably prescriptive. “It was France that took the logical next step, in 1830, not only of storming Algiers but of conquering the entire country,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “21st-Century Piracy.” His piece was subtitled “The Answer to Terrorism? Colonialism.”

In fact, by the time France’s army disembarked on Algerian soil, the mutual practice of Mediterranean abduction had already ended. For three hundred years before, however, just as French privateers had hunted Muslim quarry, North African corsairs of mixed background had preyed on French ships and shores, stealing away tens of thousands . . .

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