An initial thorn in the side of European imperialism, Muslim pirates were seen through an orientalist lens because they posed an economic threat to the West.

Between the 15th and 19th centuries, piracy was rife in the Mediterranean. However, Muslim pirates were vilified and portrayed as an immense danger to the western world in orientalist narratives. Why is this? And why were they stereotyped as "barbaric infidels" and "lustful" beings? In contrast, western pirates are romanticised and seen more as lovable rogues.

Professor Nabil Matar, an expert in the field of Barbary pirates, highlights how mainstream narratives paint an inaccurate image that these pirates were a huge threat to Europe and the West, and therefore needed to be crushed. 

“The pirates were not a danger as such; it's basically economic forces at work. At no point ever did the North Africans have the capability to bomb Plymouth in the way the British, for example, bombed Tripoli,” Matar told TRT World.

“Pirates were part of the economy of that period in the Mediterranean,” said Matar, and they were rewarded for their efforts on behalf of their respective rulers. Therefore, the perception of pirates as ‘villains’ was relative, as one empire’s pirates were clearly another empire’s ‘swashbuckling heroes’.

The perceived threat of Barbary pirates was not realistic according to Matar, who has written extensive academic works which try to portray a more balanced history of Barbary pirates and also address overtly anti-Muslim narratives. 

“By 1830 the fleets of Europe were by far more powerful, more sophisticated, more advanced in their military technology than North Africans; it was an excuse for colonisation rather than eradication of piracy,” he said.

Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman who lived in the 16th century, sailed around the world as he fought Spain.
Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman who lived in the 16th century, sailed around the world as he fought Spain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Matar argued that the main threat posed by the Barbary pirates was that they challenged European desires for capitalist superiority. One could say that the Muslim pirates were an impediment to western imperialism, although Matar believes the Barbary corsairs were “fighting a poor man’s war” and were not really able to challenge the might of the European powers.

Despite this ‘non-threat,’ the West did all they could to discredit and tarnish the image of Muslims, increase an appetite for a ‘Holy War’, and some say to justify colonialism and expansion. 

The narratives were also a way to impose western superiority. As Edward Said observed: “The power to narrate, or to block all the narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” 

In orientalist writings and propaganda, Muslims have historically been labelled as ‘infidels’ and ‘barbarians’. Even the word ‘Barbary’ in Greek and Latin translates as ‘uncivilised’. The North Africans themselves never called the area the ‘Barbary coast’. Western writings also served to justify American and European slavery, because of the image they painted of African ‘barbarity’ towards European captives.

Those anti-Muslim narratives have since continued and pervaded western culture and historical accounts. Not only do western historical writings tarnish Muslims, but whoever was regarded as the ‘Other’, including the Aborigines, Black Africans and the Native Americans.

The Muslim pirates for several centuries did to a certain extent disrupt western economic objectives and perhaps managed to delay but not halt the goal of European imperialism. This was ultimately realised through western colonisation from the nineteenth century onwards. 

“Exactly a century after the second edition of ‘A plan of the English Commerce’ was published, in 1830 France invaded, de-peopled, and dominated Algiers and turned it into a satellite in its empire of trade and power. Defoe’s prophecy of empire was fulfilled; the conquest of the Middle East has begun,” said Matar. 

Many pirates were rogue and worked for their own benefit. But some found rewards and status working for the major empires of the time. Sir Frances Drake was sailing and taking spoils and riches for Queen Elizabeth I and she consequently knighted him; but to the Spanish, he was a lawless pirate.

The Knights of Malta could also be regarded as partaking in piracy for the Papacy. According to historian Christopher Lloyd, the Knights and “their piratical activities almost equalled those of the Algerines, though cloaked under the guise of a crusade against the infidel.”

In the Muslim world, the Barbarossa brothers were seen as pirates working for the Ottoman Empire. They disrupted Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the western Mediterranean and managed to stave off their incursions into Ottoman territory. Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, also known as ‘Barbarossa’ was the admiral of the Ottoman fleet, whom National Geographic called “the most feared pirate of the Mediterranean.” For the Christian world, the Barbarossa brothers were a nightmare.

There was widespread disgust about European pirates converting to Islam and working for Muslim empires, who were subsequently called renegades. These renegades were accused of sharing technical skills and knowledge with the enemy. They are depicted as being very large in number and shamed for denouncing their Christian faith and turning ‘Turk’. These perceptions were reinforced in plays and literature as well as other propaganda.

One such renegade, John Ward, is said to be the inspiration behind Johnny Depp’s character Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.

Pirates like John Ward began working for Muslim empires by choice, and his Muslim name was Yusuf Reis. The Barbarossa brothers also converted to Islam. This willing defection, perhaps more than the actual threat that it posed, concerned Christendom.

The accounts that were written and published by freed European captives were also responsible for the negative perceptions of Barbary pirates in history. These narratives pandered to an already-formed image of the Muslim world and its people as barbaric, uncouth and promiscuous.

Matar says “the released prisoners of war wrote and published their stories because they wanted to make money, and some were even ghostwritten”. It could be argued that they were writing to fit into an accepted paradigm that would appeal to the masses and sell books.

Historian Paul Baepler echoes this view, stating: “These narratives, then, must be read with an awareness of the writers’ immersion in imperialist culture if both their confining limits and how they expressed a dominating attitude are to be understood.”

Source: TRT World