Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

January Books 1) The Stolen Village

1) The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates, by Des Ekin

On 20 June 1631, pirates from Algiers descended on Baltimore in County Cork and kidnapped over a hundred of its inhabitants, most of the population, bringing them back to Africa and selling them into slavery. Ekin describes this as "the most devastating invasion ever carried out by the forces of the Islamist jihad on Britain or Ireland", and while I regret that he asserts the jihadism of the pirates, who were clearly less interested in religion than, say, Sir Francis Drake or Oliver Cromwell, you can see what he means.

Yet in fact very little of this is quite as it seems. The leader of the pirates was a Dutch renegade whose sons settled in New Amsterdam (or as we now call it, New York), and whose descendants include, for instance, Caroline Kennedy. The kidnapped villagers were a small Calvinist colony in a hostile territory; Ekin makes a good case against a local Irish Catholic dignitary for having organised the pirates' raid in the first place, and makes it quite comprehensible that when the opportunity of ransom came aroud fifteen years later, only two of the hundred-plus former villagers of Baltimore chose to go home. Algiers had a decent health service, running water in the houses and a decent climate; Baltimore is still lacking in some of these respects and certainly lacked all of them in the seventeenth century. (I was there when I was nine, but did not check the water or the health service; the weather, however, was poor.)

Ekin is a journalist rather than a historian, and (as tamaranth points out) has got perhaps a bit carried away by his research into what life was like for the slaves of Algiers, his description of which occupies most of the book. (Having said that, his attitude is properly sceptical and his documentation scrupulous; my criticism is of his structure, not his methods.) He also doesn't appear to have visited Algiers personally, which is not a criticism, it's just a shame that he doesn't give us the benefit of today's perspective.

Even so, the story is a fascinating insight into the world of seventeenth-century maritime commerce linked by the Atlantic Ocean: New Amsterdam at one end, Don Quixote and Zoraida at the other. The fact that Algiers and New Amsterdam were such cosmopolitan places, with people moving pretty freely between them and Western Europe, makes it rather difficult to justify describing one city as "Islamic" or indeed the other as "Christian". (And makes his choice of words to describe the raid even more regrettable.)

Anyway, fascinating stuff, which has got my 2009 reading off to a good start.
Tags: bookblog 2009, world: ireland

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