The Barbary Coast

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

John Wolf’s The Barbary Coast has proven to be most timely. In considerable detail, Wolf recounts the Islamic-Christian warfare which occurred over control of the Mediterranean from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, concentrating on the corsair community in Algiers. No reader can put down Wolf’s book without realizing that the antagonism and distrust which now poison the relationship between Teheran and Washington are only the latest manifestation of a struggle which has endured for centuries. The work causes salutary reflection on both the underlying structures of human existence and the individual actions which create conflict anew. At a moment when relations with the Islamic world are so strained, this book is a valuable lesson in history. However, The Barbary Coast is not an easy book to read. Wolf covers more than three hundred years and includes seemingly endless naval battles, treaties, and hijackings carried out by a succession of what to the general public must be extremely obscure personages. To a reader unable to place most of this activity in a familiar historical and cultural context, the narrative becomes tedious and one-dimensional. The cumulative result is instructive, but the pedagogical method is overly monotonous.

John Wolf is a noted scholar who has long been respected for his work in European history. Especially well-known for a biography of Louis XIV, he has contributed a volume to the Langer History of Europe series and has also written a history of France from 1815 to 1940. Well-versed in the intricacies of events in Europe, Wolf has wandered somewhat off his beaten track in The Barbary Coast, attempting to analyze a part of the globe separated from the ideas and symbols which move the West. Although he has done his homework, he is not an expert in the Islamic world, nor does he have the deft hand of a Fernand Braudel in dealing with the Mediterranean. He does have an interesting subject, though, and he is right in pointing out that it is not widely known.

There are several aspects to Wolf’s book. One theme which recurs is the private vendetta between Spain and North Africa which dates back to the Muslim conquest of Iberia in the eighth century and continues throughout the period of Wolf’s interest. This conflict was an intimate and bitter one. At the end of the fifteenth century, Christians finally recaptured all of Spain. The result of the reconquest and the Inquisition was the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Muslims (as well as many Jews) to North Africa. Throughout the sixteenth century, there was a great thirst for revenge on the part of the displaced Muslims, leading to incessant strife. Small parties would raid the Spanish coast, pillaging and taking prisoners. The Spanish government in turn organized larger-scale ventures to conquer North Africa and put an end to the terrorism. This remorseless feud continued for a long time, and relations between Spain and the corsairs of Algiers were always worse than those with France or England.

A second theme is the more epic struggle which pitted Christians against Muslims for control of the Mediterranean. The Christian success in Spain was more than countered by the rise of the Ottoman Turks and the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. The Turkish thrust then carried them far into Europe, all the way to Vienna in the sixteenth century, as well as to Algiers in the Western Mediterranean. The Barbary Coast thus became an important component in the great contest between Christian Europe and the Islamic world.

A third focus for Wolf rests on life in Algiers itself. It was a peculiar arrangement. At the top was a government run by Turks recruited annually from Anatolia who were discouraged from having contact with the native Berbers and Arabized Berbers who made up the local population. At the bottom were the thousands of Christian slaves who had been captured by the corsairs. Admittedly, this mixture was unusual, and Wolf is correct to point out its interest.

Finally, the book concludes with the long years of piracy and decay of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The West had halted Turkish expansion, and as its mastery of technology accelerated, it asserted its superiority over the Muslims. The corsairs in Algiers became increasingly restricted in their ability to plunder seagoing commerce, and as funds and slaves dried up, so did their prosperity. Finally, this decadence reached such a stage that in 1830, the French were able to land troops on the beaches outside the city and march in virtually uncontested.

The Barbary Coast begins in the early sixteenth century with the Spanish setting up forts in many of the towns along the North African Mediterranean coast. Concurrently, a group of adventurers from the Levant, led by Aroudj, arrived in the Maghreb. Although basically pirates, their being Muslims made them more acceptable to the local inhabitants, and they were thus able to establish their dominance in a number of towns along the troubled coast. Aroudj expanded his power, taking Algiers, and then, moving westward, he came into direct conflict with Spanish troops and lost his life in the battle. Aroudj’s brother,...

(The entire section is 2129 words.)