Magazine article The Spectator

The Devil and the Deep Sea

Magazine article The Spectator

The Devil and the Deep Sea

Article excerpt


by Adrian Tinniswood

Cape, £20, pp. 352,

ISBN 9780224085267

The sea, the sea. Land-lubbers who write or read England's history omit it from its heart. At least, we have done so since the aeroplane and electric communications reduced the maritime components of warfare and wealth and travel. The popular imagination banishes piracy, Adrian Tinniswood's subject, to romance and comic-strips. So we are startled by its modern re-emergence as a major hazard and impediment on the African and Indonesian coasts.

That development is much closer to the 17th-century predicaments recounted by Tinninswood than is the swashbuckling glamour of Captain Kidd or Errol Flynn.

Then as now, great powers were taunted by seaborne flouters of international law and by their surreptitious political accomplices. The mightiest state of the 16th century, Habsburg Spain, was harried by the privateering at which Elizabeth I connived.

England was itself targeted from Ireland, that 'nursery and storehouse of pirates'.

The phrase was Henry Mainwaring's, an expirate who had slipped across the thin line between piracy and naval service, between crimes that led to the gallows and honoured national duty. He acquired a knighthood, became vice-admiral of a royal fleet that guarded the Narrow Seas against his former associates, and joined Charles I's court in the civil war.

Then there were the pirates who found shelter in and near the ports of Dunkirk and Ostend and Brest. At peaks of piratical activity, merchant ships would not put out to sea without government convoys. After the execution of Charles I, privateers fought a proxy war between England and France.

Tinniswood takes us to a larger theatre of piratical enterprise, the coast of Barbary, the 2,000-mile stretch that reached from the Atlantic shores of Morocco, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and along the southern Mediterranean to the Libyan desert. It took in the bases of Sale in Morocco and, east of the Straits, Algiers and Tunis and Tripoli, client states of the Ottoman Empire. Vying for Mediterranean supremacy with Spain and Venice, Istanbul silently welcomed the spoiling of Christian trade and the harrying of Christian coastal settlements. By the early 17th century, commercial expansion had produced giant ships whose rich cargoes offered spectacular prizes. England's Levant Company, and the officials who taxed it, demanded protection, as its trade and the attacks on it grew. Hatred between Christianity - especially Protestantism - and Islam prompted hideous reprisals. So did the ethnic characterisations attached by the northerners to their 'Barbarian' adversaries and by the southerners to the 'Franks'. …

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