Pirates Of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests And Captivity In The 17th Century Mediterranean begins with a brief argument for its timeliness. “Pirates are history,” Adrian Tinniswood declares, explaining how his research coincided with the rise of Somalian pirates, which put his archiac figures back in the news. That brief introduction is one of two gestures toward modernity in Tinniswood’s strictly narrative chronicle; the other is a succinct argument that Mediterranean pirate states only resorted to piracy to prevent European colonization, and ultimately succumbed to that colonization after surrendering their ships. But most of the book is straight history plundered from the primary sources, retold with various degrees of excitement.
Proceeding in a linear direction across the 17th century, Tinniswood favors profiles of individual pirates, diplomats, and factors, rather than overviews. His first anti-hero is turn-of-the-century pirate John Ward, who lamented (through a biographer’s beefed-up reporting) “Where are the days that have been, and the season that we have seen, when we might sing, sweat, drink, drab, and kill men as freely as your cake-makers do flies?” With the British navy small, uncomfortable, prone to harsh punitive measures, and paying poorly, British men took to the sea to plunder, authorized by the government or not. “The land hath far too little ground,” one poem lamented, “the sea is of a larger bound.”
Tinniswood goes wherever the story takes him, though his perspective (limited by primary materials as it is) is nearly always from a British vantage. His story rises and falls into narrative ruts: Far too many sentences just annotate numbers and nationalities. (“She was armed with… a polyglot crew consisting of sixty-five Muslims, a number of whom were European renegades; one French slave; nine English slaves,” etc.) In some chapters, his pulse evidently roused by dramatic material, Tinniswood interpolates raw facts with enjoyably shameless narration: The lurid story of the sack of Ireland’s Baltimore by unexpected pirates begins “The men didn’t like passing through the Straits. It made them nervous.” Such historical-paperback language helps jazz up the flying statistics.
The original voices, though, are the most compelling, and Tinniswood’s generous extracts will be useful for anyone unable to casually visit the British Museum to inspect them. Samuel Pepys’ diaries make some cameos (he was part of a mission to blow up an incomplete port), but so do less-remembered figures like Thomas Baker, the British consul of Tripoli in the late 17th century, who casually celebrated the poisoning of a treasurer who was “as malicious as ignorant.” Through them, rather than overheated narrative or tedious detail, Tinniswood occasionally brings his dramatic story to full life.