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The Barbary Corsairs: Warfare in the Mediterranean 1480-1580

Jacques Heers
Translated by Jonathon North

“That which fortune done for me in the past that will it continue to do for me in the future. Age has not enfeebled me, continual exercise has but rendered me stronger; I can therefore promise you, my Sultan, the most ready service both by land and sea. The desire which has been mine to persecute the Christians caused me to conceive the idea of serving in your army of the sea.“
Kheir ed-Din Barbarossa​

Jacques Heers was a French historian specializing in the Late Medieval period, who studied at the Sorbonne, he was widely published and received three awards for his work from the French Academy in his lifetime.

Although not as widely known or regarded in the UK as in those countries where the conflict actually affected directly the Corsairs and the Barbary Coast are still evocative phrases in English, evoking a mental picture of a wild lawless land, desperate brigands, nighttime raids and dark deeds both at sea and on shore. I have previously read some books on the North African Corsairs and the experiences of their Christian captives, its surprising what little gems could be found in the forgotten dusty corners of all those barren empty sheds the RAF laughingly described as “departure lounges“ in various countries, so I have an interest in the period.

First published in 2003, this reprint is well presented the illustrations are pertinent, being either prominent individuals, types of ships or significant events the same can't be said of the mapping, which to me leaves a lot to desired. It's outline maps only with prominent locations marked and no country, region or despot of choice's extent of influence delineation and no real sense of the scale or distances involved in these voyages and raids. Most of the maps add nothing especially when they don't have any explanatory key or even display the relevant detail they purport to be showing. This may just be an ex-military thing, as I'm accustomed to maps and comfortable with highly detailed (as long they've not been shrunk to fit into the page) maps from which I can easily read extra illuminating details. These appear to be just for illustrative purposes and added no real value to the book, in my opinion.

Stumbling upon the chronology before you start the book proper will have you immediately turning back to the front cover, as the title suggests the contents cover a very specific time span, the first event mentioned in the chronology is almost 180 years prior to the time line given on the front cover. The introduction begins with the etymology of the word Barbary and continues to cover the history of Piracy (for that is what we are basically dealing with, just not the Captain Pugwash kind) in both the Western Mediterranean, the Levant and of the state sponsored variety, here again we cover periods, events and personalities in the build up to the main book's time frame.

The main meat of the book covers the period mentioned on the front cover and explores the complex political and strategic position, at this point a map illuminating the various territories controlled by the main protagonists would have been very useful to aid our understanding, however it's sadly lacking. This can leave those unacquainted with the main players and nation states of this period slightly confused as it fails to clearly explain the drivers behind the strategic decisions taken by the various powers.

As the narrative moves on it is engaging and at times engrossing as it covers the main events and personalities of the period, however if you're looking for specific details or accounts of maritime combat and daring naval deeds then you'll be disappointed. Although it covers many aspects of the maritime struggle there is less accounts of the pitched naval encounters than I was expecting, if you're a naval buff it wont be for you but if you're interested in the wider political strategic view of Europe then it will be a welcome addition to your bookshelf, and if you also purchase some proper mapping of the period it'll be even better.

The main academic strengths of the author are displayed at the end of the book where he comes to his conclusions, not only does he comprehensively debunk previous academic work on the period but provides copious and illuminating notes on various aspects of this intriguing period in history. Indeed its this part, along with the comprehensive notes and bibliography, that I gained the most knowledge from, if you possess any more knowledge of the French language and don't have to type everything into Google translate, you will find it illuminating. After all I never knew that both the Order of the Holy Trinity and the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy were very active in Scotland raising funds for their work in trying to release Christian captives, until I read this and carried out some further research.

All in all it's a good book which has been let down by poor maps, which is the biggest drawback. If you do read it and it piques your interest there are many excellent books which cover specific aspects of both this period and the Barbary Corsairs and the slave trade in North Africa. If your tastes run to historical fiction then the second, third and fourth books in Dorothy Dunnet's Francis Crawford of Lymond series cover this period and arena with many of the real historical characters being referenced or making appearances.

Overall a slightly disappointing 3 mushroom heads, through no fault of the author but whatever editor picked the maps should be impaled on the walls of Algiers, as a suitable punishment.

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