No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

#9: The Stolen Village -- Des Ekin

The individual tales of these stolen villagers may be unknown, but that does not mean that their story is unknowable. I could still tell what happened to them without resorting to fiction.

In June 1631 two warships full of Barbary pirates, led by the notorious Morat Rais, sacked the village of Baltimore in Western Ireland. They slew some villagers, captured the rest and carried them off to a life of slavery in Algiers. Only two of the prisoners ever returned to Ireland. 'The Sack of Baltimore', in the somewhat incendiary back-cover blurb, 'was the most devastating invasion ever mounted by Islamist forces on Ireland or England.'

The Stolen Village is a very readable work: Ekin's research is brought to life with almost novelistic pacing, and while he's at pains to stress that much of the content is speculation -- typical experiences for white captives in 17th-century Algiers, rather than the specific experiences of the captives from Baltimore -- the tale he tells is credible and rich in detail, and not nearly as grim as one might expect. Though it's grim enough: seventeeth-century Algiers, a woman like Joane Broadbrook could be sold for the price today of a ten-year-old hatchback car. (p. 184)

The life of a slave is usually portrayed, in fiction and otherwise, as nasty, brutish and short -- at least unless that slave chose to convert to Islam. For the Baltimore captives, and especially the women and children, things might have been rather more pleasant. Ekin treads carefully in his discussion of the positive aspects of slavery, but points out that even a lowly-born individual, converted to Islam, could rise through the (military or civil) ranks on merit alone -- a degree of social mobility unavailable to the average European peasant at the time. The women, meanwhile, might be treated with some respect despite their role as commodity in the harem economy: a typical female captive who'd spent her previous life squelching through boggy fields or labouring at the stinking fish palace might have considered her new situation in sunny Algiers and concluded that life was at the very least not intolerable. (p.234)

There are a few minor flaws and idiosyncrasies -- it's Gray's Inn, not Gray's Inns; capitalising 'of', in the Sack Of Baltimore, is entirely unnecessary; the word 'jihad' is anachronistic; Ekin seems puzzled by contemporary accounts that mention 'elephants' teeth' as items of value, but surely this refers to tusks? And I'm not sure if his 'Ida McDonell, daughter of the British Consul' is 'Ida M`Donnell, daughter of Admiral Ulric, consul-general of Denmark, and wife of the British consul': but I am taken with the anecdote of her 1816 escape dressed as a midshipman.

I think that's one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much: the rich mix of detail, contemporary and otherwise, about life in Algiers. Here's Miguel de Cervantes, pre-Don Quixote, repeatedly betrayed in the act of escape; here's Aaron Hill, in 1709, sensationalising harem life with the revelation that 'any phallic-shaped vegetables must be finely chopped before entering the bedrooms' (p.221); here are Morat Rais' sons, emigrated to America under the surname van Salee. Apparently Humphrey Bogart is descended from Morat Rais: 'it seems fitting that he was always most at home in the movie role of a sea captain operating on the fringes of the law.' (p. 314)

If there's a flaw in this book, it's that Ekin revels too much in the richness of life in Algiers c.1630, and not enough in what might be called the framing narrative: the what and why and how of Morat's raid on this particular small Irish village. There is a credible and rather chilling explanation of why Baltimore was targetted, and perhaps why it took so long to attempt to redeem the prisoners: but it feels tacked on, and I think it deserves more attention.

Highly recommended, though: history that tells a story and is full of facts I just had to Google, all of which seem to be true.

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