Were they pirates, or were they warriors for Islam? For centuries, historians have debated the significance of one of the most stirring episodes in the history of Britain’s Muslim minority. Men such as Captain John Ward of Kent astounded their compatriots by proudly adopting Islam to fight the Inquisition and the expansionist powers of Europe. Contemporaries called such men ‘corsairs’; they themselves considered themselves mujahidin. Some were among the most pious Muslims this country has yet produced. Others were famous drunkards and lechers.
Ward and his likes were described by the adventurer John Smith. Later to be Disneyfied thanks to his romance with Princess Pocahontas, Smith was one English traveller who saw these Muslims at first hand, having spent some years in the Ottoman army before sailing to New England. He wrote a book, the True Travels and Adventures, to describe the European Muslims who were fighting for the Crescent against the Cross. Leading the list were men of Holland and England, who, disgusted by religious wars in their own countries, and unpersuaded by Trinities and Vicarious Atonements, ‘took the Turbant of the Turke’. ‘Because they grew hateful to all Christian princes,’ Smith observed, ‘they retired to Barbary.’
Smith was firmly of the opinion that the pirating lifestyle was introduced to the Barbary States by these Europeans, ‘who first taught the Moors to be men of war.’ His compatriots were well aware of the names of the seaborne mujahidin, particularly Captain Danseker and Captain Ward, among the most skilled seamen in the annals of English history, who placed their gifts at the disposal of emirs and sultans, and whose swashbuckling exploits Smith was able to retell in hair-raising detail.
Until the arrival of these European adventurers, the coastal ports of North Africa had been unused to war. They had, however, found new prosperity as the home of Spanish Muslims expelled by King Phillip III in 1610, an event that was perhaps the greatest act of racial brutality seen in Europe prior to the Nazi Holocaust. Most Moors knew little of the sea, and still less of the infernal arts of gunpowder; but they welcomed Muslims from the Mediterranean lands, and from the seafaring nations of the North, who were willing to accept Islam in exchange for military service with the Spanish exiles. By the middle of the sixteenth century, English Muslims were at the forefront of this movement, ranging the seas to capture first Spanish, and then any Christian ship, enslaving the crew, and selling the cargo as spoils of war.
To read the full article: