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DEMOCRACY BY ASSASSINATION

“The Algerians are a company of rogues, and I am their captain.”
The Dey of Algiers to a European Consul [Spencer, 1976: 58]

Tunis, Tripoli, and especially Algiers, have been studied much more thoroughly than Sale; the interested reader will easily find an extensive bibliography-so it will not repay our time to devote too much detailed attention here to the Mediterranean coast states. Almost any book on pirate history will tell something about Algiers, and there are many works devoted exclusively to its history. Sale, which was smaller and more distant from the gaze of Europe, interests us not only because it's less well-known, but also because of its political independence. Even so, Sale was part of a “big picture” which we need to know at least in outline. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1953 edition), which doesn't even mention Sale in its entry on “Barbary Pirates”, gives us this:

  • The power of the piratical coast population of northern Africa arose in the 16th century, attained its greatest height in the 17th, declined gradually throughout the 18th, and was extinguished only in the 19th century. From 1659 onwards the coast cities of Algeria and Tunisia, though nominally forming parts of the Turkish empire, were in fact anarchical military republics which chose their own rulers and lived by plunder. The maritime side of this long-lived brigandage was conducted by captains, or reises, who formed a class or even a corporation. Cruisers were fitted out by capitalists and commanded by the reises. The treasury of the pasha or his successors who bore the title of Agha or Dey or Bey, received 10% of the value of the prizes …. Until the 17th century the pirates used galleys, but Simon Danser, a Flemish renegade, taught them the advantages of using sailing ships. In the first half of the 17th century more than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were allowed to redeem themselves, but the poor were condemned to slavery. Their masters would not in many cases allow them to secure freedom by professing Mohammadanism. In the early part of the l9th century, Tripolitania, owing to its piratical practices, was several times involved in war with the United States. After the general pacification of 1815, the British made two vain attempts to suppress Algerian piracy, which was ended only by the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.

Note that Islam is called “Mohammadanism”. Note that these piratical “Mohammadans” refused “in many cases” to permit conversion; the logical conclusion is that in some cases they did permit it-but the author prefers to avoid this conclusion, and to speak only in negative terms about mere “Mohammadans” and pirates.

Two interesting political terms are used here- “anarchical” and “capitalists”-which may not be quite appropriate. “Capitalist” sounds too 18-19th century to describe the merchants and ship-owning captains who fueled the economy of the corsair states. Moreover, I presume the author is not thinking of anarchism when he uses the term “anarchical” but is simply brandishing this word to indicate violent disorder. Algiers was subject to the Ottomars Empire, and thus could not have attained an anarchist form of organization in any strict sense of the word. As for the charge of “violent disorder”, some scholars have asked how Algiers could have survived for centuries as a “corsair state” without some kind of internal continuity and stability. Earlier Eurocentric historians and sensationalist writers on piracy give us an impression of Algiers as a kind of ravening horde in a state of perpetual arousal; while more recent and less chauvinistic scholars like William Spencer (1976) tend to emphasize the stability of Algiers and to seek for possible explanations for its successful duration. The quasi-moralistic horror embedded in a term like “anarchical”, as applied to North Africa, tends to obscure the secret fact that historians are frequently in the business of providing retrospective justifications for the imperialism and colonialism-the truly hideous rapacity-of 18-19th century Europe. If Algiers can be shown as a sinkhole of all decent human values, then we are permitted to go on believing in the “civilizing mission” of Europe's subsequent African and other colonial adventures. Hence the need for a massive revising of history as written by European (and Euro-American) pseudo-rationalist apologists for piracy practiced by White Christian Nation States, as opposed to piracy practiced by mere Moorish “anarchicalists”.[A useful term for the pirate enclaves-perhaps still not quite the mot juste-might be "ordered anarchy", originally applied by E. E. Evans-Pritchard to the tribal organization of the Nuer, and quoted by Richard Drinnon, who re-applies it to the "red-white republic of Fredonia" founded in Texas by the Cherokee chief Richard Fields and the fascinating John Dunn Hunter- a white who'd been captured by Indians as an infant, went to London where he met Robert Owen and other radicals, and returned to America in 1824. Hunter was another kind of Renegado-a convert to "Indianism"- and as such was hated and denounced. Fredonia failed and Hunter was murdered in 1827 [Drinnon, 1972: 208]]

In truth the government of Algiers seems to have been neither anarchical nor anarchist-but rather, in a strange and unexpected way-democratic. Unlike the European nations, gradually succumbing to the Absolutism of the Kings, Algiers exhibited signs of a more “horizontal” and egalitarian structure. In theory, of course, it was at all times subordinate to Turkish imperial policy and direction, but in practice the city-state was run by various “chambers” of Janissary soldiers and corsair notables, who made their own policy-and sometimes sent the Sultan's representatives scurrying back to Istanbul with a blunt refusal to carry out the will of the Sublime Porte.

To a certain extent the protectorates or “Regencies” of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli really were “affairs of foreigners”, and perhaps might even be called quasi-colonies. In Algiers the Ocak or ruling body of Janissaries was made up-by law-not by natives of the regions (Moors, Arabs, Berbers) but rather by “Turks”. But of course, as a further complication, the Janissary corps were originally not native Anatolians or even born Moslems, but slaves of the Sultan, recruited as children under the Ottoman “boy tax” which operated in such outlying areas of the imperium as Christian Albania; they were trained, converted to Islam, and at first were used as the Ottoman equivalent of the Praetorian Guard. The Barbarosa brothers, who founded the Regency of Algiers, were Albanians or perhaps Greek Islanders by birth. They however received permission to begin recruiting native Anatolians into the Algerian branch of the corps, and eventually even European Renegadoes were admitted. The Ocak, like the knights of Saint John of Malta, comprised a military order in a holy war, and an occupying army, and a government, all in one. It seems that not one of the Ocak was ever born in North Africa-and in fact if a Janissary married a native woman and had children, these children were refused membership in the Ocak (a situation which led to several unsuccessful rebellions by such “half-breeds”). Native Algerians could and did rise to eminence and power- as corsairs-but never as military administrators. Hamida Reis, the last great l9th-century Algerian captain (Ar. ra'is), was a pure Kayble Berber. But in Algiers he was something of an exception. In any case, the “democracy” of the Ocak excluded native Algerians- and yet it also tended toward greater and greater independence from Turkey. If it was a “colony” of sorts, it was nevertheless only loosely connected to the homeland, unlike the later “departments” of the French. And the “Turks” always remained closer to the natives than any l9th century European colonists by virtue of a shared religion. However much the Moors and Berbers may have hated the Turks, they joined forces with them when Spanish or French fleets loomed over the horizon.

We want to compare the government of Algiers with that of Sale, which was perhaps in part modeled on it. But the comparison of Algiers and Sale will have only a limited usefulness for us precisely because of the former's Ottoman ties. Over the centuries Algiers absorbed a great deal of Turkish culture. The Janissaries were largely devoted to the Bektashi Sufi Order, a rather heterodox confraternity which sometimes used wine ritually, and exhibited many Turkic-shamanic features [Birge, 1937]. The famous Janissary marching music was originally a Sufi invention. Pere Dan, a priest who came to Algiers in the 1630's to ransom captives and stayed on to produce an important history of the Regency, describes the investiture of Abd al-Hassan Ali in 1634 upon his arrival from Constantinople as the new triennial pasha:

  • The city sent out two well-equipped galleys to do him honor. The officer corps of the Divan assembled in the number of five hundred to receive him at the port, where as he disembarked from his galley he was received with a salute of some fifteen hundred guns from the city forts and the corsair ships some forty of which came out under sail. There then marched the Agha of the Janissaries accompanied by two drummers (Cavus), followed by the Principal Secretary with the 24 Ayabashis who are the chief Counselors of State. There followed two by two the Bulukbashis with their huge plumed turbans, then the ranks of the Odabashis; there marched after them six Turkish oboists with Moors among them some playing flutes and other cymbals, the whole ensemble a very strange noise which aroused in us more fear than pleasure. Last came the new Pasha, enveloped as a mark of peace in a vast white robe. He rode a fine Barbary steed richly harnessed with a silver bridle studded with gems, spurs and stirrups, reins of silk all laden with turquoises and an embroidered saddle-cloth elaborately worked. In this order the procession entered the city and the Pasha was taken to the residence designated for him.

[Spencer, 1976] It's interesting that Pere Dan mentions the terror roused in “our” European hearts by the music. The Janissaries appear to have been the very first in history to use military marching music, and when their bands appeared blaring and booming before the gates of Vienna, it's said that Christian soldiers threw down their weapons and fled at the mere sound. It would be interesting to know if the Ocak ever shipped a band aboard a corsair vessel (the Algerian Janissaries accompanied the pirates as men-at-arms, used only when a prize ship was boarded and subdued by force). The European pirates who operated in the Caribbean and Indian oceans in the 17-18th century are reputed to have been very fond of music, and to have hired on full-time professionals when they could afford to, but apparently the music was for their own pleasure rather than a form of psychological warfare! [Spencer has this note on the various kinds of music to be heard in Algiers: Algerian music was primarily military in nature, reflecting its Ottoman origins. The ocak military band consisted of twenty-seven pieces: eight large drums called davul, played with the fingers; five kettledrums (nakkare); ten bugles; two trumpets; and two pairs of cymbals. The type of music was mehter, a strongly accented rhythmic style popularized in the Ottoman Empire by the Janissary corps and synonymous with Ottoman military pomp and power. A second popular type of music was the Andalusian, brought by Morisco refugees from Spain and incorporating the use of such Oriental instruments as the 'oud, tar, rebeb (a two-stringed violin), and ney (a reed flute) featured in Anatolian Mevlevi dervish compositions, on a semitonal scale. During the period of the Regency, Andalusian orchestras of twenty or thirty persons could often be heard in Algerian cafes, "playing all by ear, and hastening to pass the time quickly from one measure to another, yet all the while with the greatest uniformity and exactness, during a whole night," as Renaudot tells us.]

In Sale the Sufi and military Turkish music would have been unknown, but Andalusian music-a complex of Persian, Arab, Moorish, Iberian, and other influences, developed over centuries in Islamic Spain and now suddenly exiled to North Africa-must have been imported to Sale by various waves of Moors and Moriscos from Spain; new Berber and African influences would have been added to the mix giving birth to classical North Moroccan music more-or-less as it's played today and still called Andalusi.

Sale, by contrast with the other Barbary states, remained free of Ottoman control or even much influence. A close relation between Algerine and Saletine corsairs (discussed below) probably led to dome Turkish cultural influence in Sale. For instance, Sale celebrated a special holiday with the old Turkish custom of a candlelight procession. But Sale was at all times either a Moroccan possession or a free MoorishCorsair state, and no “foreigners” ever seized power there in the name of an alien government.

Structurally, the most notable feature of the Algerian Ocak was its system of “democracy by seniority.” In theory_ and for the most part even in practice-a recruit rose up through the ranks at the rate of one every three years. If he survived long enough, he'd serve as commander-in-chief or “Agha of Too Moons”… for two months. He would then retire into the Divan or Ocak chamber of government with a vote on all important issues and appointments. All this had nothing to do with “merit”, but was simply a matter of time served. The lowliest Albanian slave-boy or peasant lad from the Anatolian outback, and the outcast converted European captive sailor, could equally hope one day to participate in government-simply by staying alive and serving the “Corsair republic”, which was the real power-structure within the Ottoman protectorate. As Pere Dan put it: “The state has only the name of a kingdom since, in effect, they have made it into a republic.” No wonder the Ocak never seemed to have trouble recruiting new members. Where else in the world was such “upward mobility” possible?

The Divan itself used one of the strangest “rules of order” ever devised by any group anywhere in the world:

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The rules covering the meetings of the divan were simple enough. No member was allowed to carry arms of any kind, and armed guards maintained order. No member was allowed to use his fists for any offensive action on pain of death, but he was allowed to express his feelings with his feet, either by stomping or by kicking. One French consul was nearly killed when he was “footed” in the divan. All speech was in Turkish; dragomen translated into Berber or Arabic and the European languages when necessary. The “word” was taken in order of seniority or importance, although the most usual practice seems to have been for the speaker to orchestrate a chorus of shouting by the assembly. These sessions were incredibly disorderly as a result of this procedure. Foreigners who attended were often convinced that they were dealing with wild, violent, irrational men; the evidence seems to point to the fact that the leaders used this procedure to emphasize their programs and to shout down any objections. To an Englishman, however, such procedures seemed irrational; for instance, Francis Knight, who, in the second quarter of the 17th century spent several years in Algiers as a slave, was apparently able to witness meetings of the divan. His account of procedures is worth repeating:

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“They stand in ranks, passing the word by chouse or pursuivant, jetting each other with their arms or elbows, raising their voices as if in choler or as a pot boileth with the addition of fire…. They have a wise prevention of a greater mischief, for [they] are commanded upon deepest pains not to drink wine or any strong liquor before coming…or to carry a knife thither…. It is such a government like which there is nowhere else in the world…”

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[Wolfe, 1979: 78] In the course of its long run for the money, Algiers witnessed every sort of skullduggery, riot, rebellion, corruption, political murder, and disorder known to the human condition-and yet somehow survived and thrived. Some have gone so far as to define its form of government as l'democracy by assassination“. But was it any more corrupt or violent than any other state in the 17th (or any other) century? Was it so much more chaotic than, say, the European monarchies, so wild that it could boast of a freedom obtained-at least for the successful few-and obtainable only through chaos? Or do the accounts (by European visitors, remember) over-stress the negative and present us with a wicked caricature of Algiers? My suspicion is that the daily life of the City was no more or less violent over the long haul of history than the daily life of many another human group. But Algiers was different because its very economy depended on violence outside its borders-the acts of the corsairs. And it was more democratic than the European or Islamic monarchies. Are these two features somehow connected I prefer to leave it a question.

The corsair equivalent of the Divan was the Taiffe reisi,or Council of Captains. Unfortunately we know a good deal less about it than about the Divan, because the corsairs had no Ottoman bureaucrats and hocas (learned scribes) to serve them as record-keepers. The Taiffe has been compared to a medieval guild, but this is misleading to the extent that the Corsairs' proto-labor-union was also a de facto ruling (or at least consultative) body within the Regency. The Divan and the Taiffe may sometimes have competed or clashed in power struggles, but we may be sure that neither body would lightly risk alienating the other. The Corsairs depended on the Ocak for political protection, funding, and a supply of men-at-arms. The Divan depended on the Taiffe for its economic life-blood, the very prosperity of the Regency, which lived, in large part on pirate booty and ransom fees. Apparently the Divan of Sale was based on the structure of the taiffe of Algiers (rather than on the structure of the Divan of the Ocak), so it's a pity we know so little about Taiffe organization. Unlike the Ocak, seniority would obviously not work as a modus operandi. The reis was a captain either through sheer merit (or “luck” as most pirates would call it), or because he owned a ship or two. Of course, again, a lowly pirate cabin boy (like Hamida Reis) could hope to become Admiral of the Fleet some day, whatever his class or race origins-a far different situation than in, say, the British Navy! And we know that the Taiffe voted democratically on issues and to select its leaders. Altogether it may well be that the 16-17th century Algerian Divan-and-Taiffe form of “bicameralism” can be seen as a precursor to the republican governments of America and France, which came into being only centuries later; as for the genuine Republic of Sale, it preceded even the protectorate/Commonwealth structure of revolutionary England (1640's and 50's). A strange thought: Does European democracy actually owe a direct debt to the 'Corsairs? No one would ever have admitted it openly, of course, since the Barbary corsairs were heathen-but as Rediker points out, sailors were the 17th century's proletariat, and we might imagine whispers circulating from ship to ship (England sent a fleet to Sale in 1637!) about the enviable freedoms of the 'worsairs and Renegadoes. [In 1659, the Ottoman-appointed Pasha demanded a bigger cut of the Gorsairs' booty: This produced a revolution that ended the powers of the pasha of Algiers. A boulouk-bachi, Khalil, rallied the divan to an insurrection to "re-establish the ancient ways." These "ancient ways" were alleged to be a constitution that placed all effective powers in the hands of the janissary agha and the divan. Of course, this was pure mythology, but like revolutionaries in mid-seventeenth-century England, France, Barcelona, Naples, and elsewhere, the Algerian divan insisted that it only wanted a return to ancient forms. No one in this era would admit to being a "revolutionary." The result, however, was revolutionary. A few years later d'Aranda could write, "The pasha...acknowledges a kind of subjection to the Grand Seigneur in words, but takes little account of his orders.... The soldiers are more dreadful to him than the Grand Seigneur." They had become the rulers of Algiers, leaving the pasha as a ceremonial officer, paid a regular salary, but without power. [Wolfe, 1979: 84]]

 

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