"Christians are made Turks and Turks are the sons of devils."
-Newwes from Sea of WARD THE PIRATE (1609)

From about the late 1500's to the 18th century, many thousands of European men-and women-converted to Islam. Most of them lived and worked in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and the Rabat-Sale area of Morocco-the so-called Barbary Coast States. Most of the women became Moslems when they married Moslem men. This much is easy enough to understand, although it would be fascinating if we could trace the lives of some of them in search of some 1 7th century Isabelle Eberhardt. [Isabelle Eberhardt, daughter of Russian anarchists, traveled and lived in Algiers, sometimes dressed and passed as a man, converted to Islam, and supported Algerian independence. She wrote romantically about her bizarre and erotic adventures and died young and tragically. See Bowles (1975) and de Voogd (1987).] But what about the men? What caused them to convert?

Christian Europeans had a special term for these men: Renegadoes, "renegades": apostates, turncoats, traitors. Christians had some reason for these sentiments, since Christian Europe was still at war with Islam. The Crusades had never really ended. The last Moorish kingdom in Spain, Grenada, was added to the Reconquista only in 1492, and the last Moorish uprising in Spain took place in 1610. The Ottoman Empire, vigorous, brilliant, and armed to the teeth (just like its contemporary Elizabethan/Jacobean England), pressed its offensive against Europe on two fronts, by land toward Vienna, and by sea westward through the Mediterranean.

In the vernacular languages of Europe, "Turk" meant any Muslim, including the Moors of North Africa. The Renegadoes were said to have "Turn'd Turke" (the title of a play, "A Christian Turn'd Turke" by Robert Daborne, performed in London in 1612). [Ewen, 1939: 3; Lloyd, 1981: 48. According to Lloyd, the playwright's name was Robert Osbourne.] The Lusty Turk and the Wicked Soldier populated popular literature-and "mussulmano!" is still a deadly insult in Venice. One might understand a tiny bit of this European ignorance and prejudice by thinking of the American media during the recent Gulf War with Iraq. Europe's response to Islam since the l9th century has become far more complex, because l9th century Europe actually conquered and colonized much of Dar al-lslam. But in the 17th century there existed no such point of interpenetration of cultures, however onesided. For the most part, Europe hated and misunderstood Islam. As for Islam, the word jihad, Holy War, sums up its attitude toward Christendom. Tolerance and understanding were almost non-existent on both sides of the cultural divide.

The Renegadoes therefore seemed like creatures of hellish mystery to most Europeans. Not only had they "betrayed Our Lord," they had gone even farther and joined the jihad itself. Almost to a man, the Renegadoes were employed as "Barbary Corsairs". They attacked and looted European ships and ravished Christian captives back to Barbary, to be ransomed or sold as slaves. Of course Christian "Corsairs". including the Knights of Malta, were doing exactly the same thing to the ships and crews of Moslem vessels. But very few of the Moslem captives "turned Christian". The flow of renegades went largely one way.

Europeans assumed that the apostates were human scum, and believed that their motives for conversion were the lowest imaginable: greed, resentment, revenge. Many of them were already "pirates" when they converted-obviously they simply wanted an excuse for more piracy. Of course, some of them were captured and offered a choice of conversion or slavery. But like cowards, they chose apostasy and crime. [Clearly at least some of the Renegadoes were quite eager to convert. An arrogant French Consul to Algiers (1731-2) named Leon Delane, "who had previously served as French consul in Candia (Crete) and had caused much trouble by his haughtiness and scorn for the Turks, interfered with the attempt by a sailor from St. Tropez to turn renegade, although the treaty between the two states specifically stated (Article 19) that if a Frenchman persisted for three consecutive days in his intention to turn Muslim he should be so recognized." Delane was transferred back to Crete by an embarrassed French government [Spencer, 1976: 159]] Renegadoes were slain on sight in all European countries and burnt to death in Spain (at least in theory), even if they wanted to re-convert. In this sense Islam was seen as a kind of moral plague, rather than simply an enemy ideology.

Within Islamdom the attitude toward conversion can be described as more open. The Spanish forced Jews and Moslems to convert, but then expelled them anyway. Islam however still retained an image of itself as a new religion seeking to expand by all possible means, and especially by conversion. "New Muslims" are still considered blessed and even "lucky", especially on the frontiers of Islam. These differing attitudes toward the act of conversion help to explain how more Christians turn'd Turke than vice versa-but the question "why?" remains unanswered. [One Captain Hamilton explained the motive which induced some Renegadoes to stay on in Barbary: "They are tempted to forsake their God for the love of Turkish [i.e., Moslem] women who are generally very beautiful." He forgave the poor wretches their weakness, for these women "are well versed in witchcraft. . .captives never get free." [Wolfe, 1979: 237]] Perhaps we can begin by assuming that neither the Christian nor the "Turkish" interpretation of the Renegadoes can satisfy our curiosity. We may doubt, on the one hand, that these men were all simply demonic, and, on the other, that they were all angels of the jihad. We can assume that our answers-if any prove possible will seem far more complex than either of these 17th century theories.

Curiously enough, it appears that few modern historians have really tried to understand the Renegadoes. Among European historians the effect of the "demon theory" still lingers, although it has been rationalized and elaborated and even inverted into a plausible-sounding hypothesis. The reasoning goes something like this: How did the great European powers fail to eradicate the Barbary corsairs for three schole centuries? It goes without saying that Islamic military and naval technology was inferior to European. Moslems, as everyone knows, make bad sailors. How to explain this apparent conundrum? Obviously-the Renegadoes. They, as Europeans, introduced European technology to the Moslems, and fought for them as well. It appears therefore that Barbary piracy was "une affaire des etrangers", without the Renegadoes it could never have happened [Coindreau, 1948]. They were traitors of the worst sort-but brilliant in their crude and thuggish way. Piracy is despicable-but, after all, a bit romantic!

As for Islamic historians, they naturally resent any suggestions of Islamic inferiority. The l9th and early 20th century local histories of Rabat-Sale, for example, make it quite clear that the Moors, Berbers and Arabs of the country contributed, in the long run, far more to the history of the "holy war at sea" than did a few thousand converts. As for the converts themselves, their descendants still live in Rabat-Sale they became Morrocans, whatever their origins. The history of the corsairs is not "an affair of foreigners", but part of the history of the Maghreb, the Far West of Islam, and of the emerging Moroccan nation [Hesperis, 1971].

None of these "explanations" of the Renegadoes gets us any closer to their possible motives for embracing Islam along with the life of the Barbary corsairs. Brilliant traitors or assimilated heroes-neither stereotype possesses any real depth. Both contain elements of truth. The pirates did introduce certain technical and strategic novelties to Barbary, as we shall see. And they did participate in Islam in more complex ways than simply as hired thugs-or "experts"-as we shall also see. But we still have no inkling of the "why?" of the whole phenomenon. We should note at once that although some of the Renegadoes were literate in numerous languages, none were literati. We have no firsthand accounts, no texts by Renegadoes. Their social origins did not dispose them to selfanalytical writing; that luxury was still a monopoly of the aristocracy and emerging middle class. The pen of history is in the hand of the enemies of the Renegadoes; they themselves are silent.

Thus we may never be able to uncover their motives Perhaps we can do no more than suggest a number of complex and even contradictory impressions and speculations. But we can still do better than the neocolonialist Euro-historians, or the Moroccan nationalists, who both see the Renegadoes only in relation to their own ideological preconceptions. We can try to appreciate the Renegadoes for themselves, as individuals (if possible) and as a group, with their own interests and agendas, their own values, their own selfimage. We can attempt to see (as clearly as the evidence allows) from inviSe the phenomenon, rather than depend on the light of outside interpretations.

To focus attention on a specific history (or "microhistory", as C. Ginzberg put it) might help us to refine our perceptions of the Renegadoes more easily than if we attempted a global view of the entire phenomenon. [This essay will not constitute a genuine microhistory because it is based largely on secondary sources. I simply wish to express a methodological debt to Ginzberg and his school, without claiming in any way to match them for rigor and originality.] The methodology used here consists of reading historical/ethnographical texts in the light of "the History of Religions". I prefer to call this framework histories of religion however, for two reasons: First, to avoid the imputation that I adhere to the school of Eliade, which has almost monopolized the label "History of Religions" for itself. I use some of the categories developed by Eliade, also by Henry Corbin, but find them less useful in dealing with concepts such as "resistance" or "insurrectionary desire". Which leads to the second reason for preferring the term histories of religion any academic discipline which calls itself The History of anything whatsoever must be suspected a priori of erecting a false totality based on dubious absolutes which will serve only to mask and reinforce the ideologies of elites. Therefore the third chief methodological ingredient of this essay derives from a Nietzschean history of ideas, images, emotions, aesthetic signs, etc., as developed by G. Bachelard, W. Benjamin, G. Bataille, M. Foucault, etc.-an historical discipline which begins by questioning and criticizing the absoluteness of History as anything other than an idea with a history of its own. And finally, the chief methodological tool here is really piratology, which-as everyone knows-is exclusively the province of enthusiastic amateurs.

So we'll center our study around one community in one brief period (about 50 years): Rabat-Sale, in the first half of the 17th century. Of all the Barbary states, Sale was the only one in which the corsairs achieved independence. Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were all protectorates of the Sublime Porte, but Sale-for a few decades-was governed by a "divan" or Council of Corsair Captains. It was a true "pirate utopia", and thus we can hope to find the Renegado in his most evolved form, his most sophisticated political and spiritual state of development, here in the "Republic of Bou Regreg", the "Moorish" or "Corsair Republic of Sale".

First however, we can also try something which none of the historians (as far as I know) has yet done for the Renegadoes. We can ask if Europe really was monolithically opposed to Islam. We can ask if Islam possessed a positive shadow, so to speak, which might have hidden itself within European culture, and might have influenced the Renegadoes even before their escape to Barbary. We might give them the benefit of the doubt, and not simply assume that their motives for conversion were all base and empty of real significance. We might wonder if Islam itself (and not just the hope of pirate gold) could have attracted them to North Africa -or, if not "Islam itself", then some image or rumor or myth or misconception of Islam. In what way, then, might a 17th century working-class mariner have acquired an interest in or even an attraction toward Islam?

At the time of the Crusades the idea of an "esoteric Islam" began to sift back to Europe along with all the spices and silks-and books-the holy warriors of Christ managed to "liberate" from the Holy Land. Did the Ismaili "Assassins" pass along some secret knowledge to the Templars? And is this why the Templars were proscribed, tortured, executed, extirpated with such seemingly insane hatred? Were alchemy and neoplatonism passed along through Moorish Spain to the rest of Europe, especially Italy and France? Did St. Francis and Roger Bacon and other mystical missionaries to the Saracens bring back with them some elements of Islamic gnosis, hermetic science, and Sufism?

In any case, whether these contacts really occurred or not, by the beginning of the 17th century some European intellectuals believed they had occurred, and that some real transmission of secret wisdom had in fact been carried out. (The reality or irreality of such contacts is a subject for research; here we are concerned only with a history of images, of beliefs and ideas, which profoundly influence human society whether or not they are based in "historical reality".) The late Renaissance Hermeticists began to demonstrate a touch of Islamophilia. Around 1610 (the date of the last Moorish or "Morisco" revolt in Spain), some German occultists released a series of documents outlining the history of a secret order, the Rosicrucians. According to their account, the 14thcentury founder of the Order, the probably-mythical Christian Rosenkreutz, had traveled widely in the Islamic world (Damascus, Arabia, a mythical city called Damcar, and the Moroccan city of Fez) and received there a complete course in Hermetic wisdom. His tomb, which had supposedly been recently re-discovered, contained enough coded illumination to make possible the revival of the Order. The Rosicrucian documents created a great stir among learned and pious Christians who had grown quite disgusted with the wars and quarrels of Catholicism and Protestantism, and yearned for a universal religion based on knowledge rather than faith. Islamic (and Jewish) science and wisdom were now eagerly desired for their contributions to this final Hermetic revelation. Publicly the Rosicrucians taught "tolerance even for Jews and Turks"; secretly they might have admitted that no one religion possessed the monopoly of truth. They remained Christians, but not "sectarians". Islam, for them, appears as simply another sect, in possession of some of the truth (including even certain truths about Jesus), but no more and no less limited than Catholicism or even Lutheranism. Thus, while the Rosicrucians did not convert to Islam, they exhibited far less hatred and intolerance for it than most Christians and even went so far as to praise it for its esoteric and occult traditions.

In a broader context, Islam might have had a sort of vague appeal for some Europeans who were simply anti-religious or at least anti-clerical (along the lines, for instance, of the Elizabethan "School of Night", and Marlowe's quip that "Moses was a juggler"). A general impression of Islam's freedom from any authoritative priesthood or even dogma had percolated into European culture, or would soon do so. A long line of European intellectual Islamophiles began to appear. Rosicrucianism influenced Freemasonry which influenced the Enlightenment which influenced Nietzsche. Some of these tendencies and individuals actually knew something about Islam, but for the most part it was simply a matter of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Priests hate Islam; I hate priests; therefore I like Islam. Even in the 1880's Nietzsche's view of Islam was still rather two-dimensional-he seemed to see it as a sodality of aristocratic warrior monks-but his image of Islam was the culmination of a tradition of free-thinkers who viewed it primarily as a kind of anti-Christianity

Hermeticism in turn influenced certain less intellectual tendencies within Protestantism. Many of the extremists who were to carry out the English Revolution in the 1640's had been influenced by Jacob Boehme and other Hermetic- leaning Christian mystics. Even the working-class Levellers, Diggers, and Ranters had some acquaintance with Hermetic ideas and ideals-such as the esoteric interpretation of Scripture; universal tolerance; "pantheistic monism"; direct contact with the divine, without the intermediation of priest or Church; a tendency to antinomianism; a belief in the sacred quality of material Nature; an inclination to view "God" as "Universal Reason" (or mind); faith in the power of the imagination to change reality; social egalitarianism; the millennium or "World Turn'd Upside Down"; etc.

No evidence suggests that any Ranter ever took an inter- est in Islam. However, there exists some reason to believe in connections between Ranterism and piracy. A "Ranter's Bay" in Madagascar sheltered a pirate utopia later in the 17th century, and a number of Ranters were exiled to the Caribbean during the "Golden Age of Piracy" there. Certain aspects of Islamic thought might well appeal to extremist Protestants- such as anti-trinitarianism, the human but magical nature of Jesus, scriptural hermeneutic, "spiritual democracy", even the concept of Holy War. The Ranters (or other similar sects), who specialized in daring and outrageous spiritual paradox and antinominian extremism, might have had some influence on the kind of marginalized and rebellious men who were destined to end up in Algiers or Sale. [Besides the standard works by Hill (1978) and Cohn (1970), see Friedman (1987); Morton (1970); Smith (1983). For Ranter-Pirate connections see Hill (1985: 161-187).]

A ranter or proto-Ranter, who liked to "blaspheme gloriously" and preach in taverns while drinking and smoking, with a whore perched on his knee, might also have been attracted by the European image of Islam's sensuality. In effect Islam is a more pro-sexual religion than Christianity, and to some extent views pleasure as divine beneficence. The Koranic heavens of houris, cupbearers, gardens, and fountains of wine, have always been notorious among Christians dissatisfied with their own tradition's emphasis on chastity, virginity, and self-mortification. On the popular level the stereotype of the "Lusty Turk" preserved a caricature of this holy sensuality of Islam. The Orient began to be viewed (usually covertly) as a place where forbidden desires might be realized.

Finally, Islam was the Enemy of European Christian civilization. As M. Rediker (1987) has pointed out, by the 17th century the maritime world already revealed certain aspects of the Industrial Age which loomed so closely on the future's horizon. Ships were in some ways like floating factories, and maritime workers constituted a kind of proto-proletariat. Labor conditions in the merchant marines of Europe presented an abysmal picture of emerging capitalism at its worst-and conditions in European navies were even more horrendous. The sailor had every reason to consider himself the lowest and most rejected figure of all European economy and government-powerless, underpaid, brutalized, tortured, lost to scurvy and storms at sea, the virtual slave of wealthy merchants and ship-owners, and of penny-pinching kings and greedy princes. C. Hill and Rediker, basing themselves on earlier work by J. Lemisch, have both pointed out that in such a context, piracy must be studied as a form of aocial reviJtance. The pirate, who (in the words of one of Defoe's interviewees) "warred against all the world", was first and foremost the enemy of his own civilization. And once again, "the enemy of my enemy" just might prove to be my friend. I hate Europe. Europe hates Islam. Therefore...might I perhaps like Islam? What might a literate but not specially learned English reader know about Islam in, say, 1637? In that year an ambassador from the Moorish Corsair Republic of Sale visited London, and some professional journalist churned out a pamphlet on this marvel. He says,

  • For their religion, they are strict observers of the law of Mahomet; they say Christ was a great Prophet, borne to bee a Saviour of the world (but not incarnate), that hee was the Breath of God, that hee was borne of a Vlrgin, and that the Jewes should have beleev'd in him, but would not; and therefore, because they went about to murder and crucifie him, he left them, and ascended from them into Heaven, and that then they put another man to death instead of him, whom they tormented and cruelly crucified. Therefore these Mahometans doe hold and esteeme the Jewes as the worst of men, and very slaves to all nations of the world.

    The one and onely booke of their religion is called their Alcaron, devised by their false prophet Mahomet who was of their nation, a Larbee Arab. They may not use any other booke for devotion, nor, on paine of losse of life, no part of it doe they dare to examine or question; but if any be diffident, or any point or sentence be intricate and hard to be understood by any of them, then it is lawful to aske the meaning of the talby which is a poore weake-learned priest. They are all circumciz'd, and they use a kind of baptisme, but not in their churches, but at home in their houses.

    Their Lent is much about the time as it is with us, which they doe hold but 30 dayes; but they neither eate nor drinke all the time on any of those dayes betwixt the dawning and the twilight, but when once the starres doe shew themselves, then, for their day fast, they feed fast all night. That priest or talby that cannot read over the booke of the Alcaron (or Mahomets Law) all over on their Good Friday at night is held unworthy of his place and function. They say their prayers six times every day and night, and they doe wash themselves all over very often. They have no bells to toll them to church, but he that is the clarke or sexton hath a deepe base great voyce, and goes to the top of the steeple, and there roares out a warning for the people to come to their devotions. No man doth enter their churches with his shoes on. Their talbies or priests each one of them are allowed a wife or wives if they will. The lay-men may have captive women, but they must not Iye with them in the night-time, for that belongs to the wives by turne, and, if any wife be beguiled of her turne, she may complaine for satisfaction to the magistrate. He that hath foure wives must be a rich man; a poore man is allowed as many, but his meanes are too short to keepe them; therefore one or two must serve his turne. The bride and bridegroome doe not see each other before the wedding-night that they are going to bed, where, if he finde her a maid, all is well; if otherwise, hee may turne her away and give her no part of the portion she brought him.

    Their churchmen are not covetous or lovers of money or riches, for which cause they doe dayly in every towne and citty sit every day to heare and decide causes, which must be prooved by such witnesses as are not detected or knowne to be defamed for being drunkards, adulterers, prophaners, scandaliz'd persons, (for if they be knowne to be such, their testimony will not be taken). Likewise if the defendant can prove that the witnesse, which hath beene against him, hath not said his prayers six times duely in 24 houres, he or they shall utterly be disabled to beare witnesse, or give testimony in any cause whatsoever; but upon just and honest proofes the most tedious suite is ended in a weeke or eight daies at the most.

    They are just in their words and promises; for the which cause there is small use of bills, bonds, or obligations amongst them (which is the cause that there is scarce one rich scrivener either in Morocco, Fesse or Sus), for the breach of promise is held an unrecoverable disgrace amongst them. He that is taken with false weights or measures doth lose all his ware in his house to the use of the poore, and is a defamed person, and cruelly whipt. Their execution for life and death is that commonly the person adjudged to die hath his throat cut by the executioner.

Altogether an interesting mix of fact and fancy, and on the whole quite positive [Sources Inedites: 381-384]. We shall return to all these speculative themes and try to focus them more clearly in the specific context of the Corsair Republic of Sale. But before we can carry out such an operation we need to know more about the historical context of the Republic, and its chief economic resource-piracy. Specifically, we need to know more about the history of the whole Barbary Coast, and the Ottoman Protectorates of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.


Pirate and Mermaid | A Christian Turn’d Turke | Democracy by Assassination | A Company of Rogues | An Alabaster Palace in Tunisia | The Moorish Republic of Sale | Murad Reis and the Sack of Baltimore | The Corsair’s Calendar | Pirate Utopias