April 27, 2007

The End of Barbary Terror, Frederick C. Leiner

Subtitle: America's 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa

This is a ripping adventure story about a heroic Navy attacking a slaving nation; and a rather less straightforward diplomatic story about why it was that particular navy, and that particular kind of slavery; and underlying it is, possibly, something illuminating about international commerce in the time.

The adventure story will be, I think already is, a comfort and example to pro-war parties in the United States. The Barbary Terror were a few city-states, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Morocco, on the south coast of the Mediterranean, which made their living by piracy: they attacked commerce from practically any nation and either ransomed their captives or sold them as slaves. The richer trading nations, especially Britain and for a while the U.S., paid annual tribute for exemption; this probably increased their trading advantage overall. The pirate nations were technically Ottoman subjects, although I get the impression that the Sublime Porte denied any inconvenient responsibility.

The U.S., under a series of more-or-less official envoys (it was a long round trip for letters from the States: our diplomats seem to have made use of this everywhere), became outraged by the capture of a US trading vessel, strengthened our navy, and destroyed Algiers. Bombed it out. Caught the Algerian navy, sailed up to the guns under the city walls, and beat them both until the dey surrendered their traditional right to commit piracy.

So far heroic; and the U.S. disgust at Britain's willingness to pay tribute sounds good, too. Also, of course, the U.S. and Britain had hardly finished the War of 1812. The complicated bit is that this was the middle of the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and Britain was using persuasion and armed force to stop it (the Napoleonic wars are involved, and the British navy attacked Algiers in 1816); but slavery was still legal in British territories (query: but not GB itself?) as well as in the U.S. In toto, the efforts of the U.S. and U.K. to end slavery might be about equal at this point.

It is striking that each nation is endeavoring to end slavery in the other's backyard, which is not offhand the obvious strategy. All other nations seem to have assumed that the shopkeeping Anglos were simply plotting for own commercial success; this is not unbelievable for our mercantile nations. I'm pretty curious about whether direct trade through the Mediterranean was significant for U.S. commerce; a connection to India? To the silk road? To markets for materials?

There was considerable argument over whether Britain had any excuse to complain about black slavery before ending white slavery. Leiner seems reasonably convinced by this argument, calling the whole campaign "a way station in the gradual evolution of Western thinking that regarded all slavery as abhorrent", and citing Benjamin Franklin's point that white people attacking white slavery but enjoying black slavery is hypocritical. But it seems to me that Leiner is making a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. This reminds me of the bitter arguments played out in the footnotes to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; his critics complain that he didn't give Christianity credit for being incompatible with slavery, and therefore ending it in the Roman Empire; his defenders laconically remarked that Gibbon was an active opponent of slavery under the uncontestedly Christian government of his day. Leiner's second elision is treating U.S. politics as unitary when it was and is obviously divided on this point. Franklin and his political descendants were not in charge. Going far overseas to end white slavery, while benefiting from black slavery at home, probably made slavery worse because it made it a racial, not merely economic, condition; essentialist, rather than random. We are still paying for the belief that some of our people deserved to live and die slaves.

Find in a Library: The End of Barbary Terror

Posted by clew at 04:31 PM

April 16, 2007

Friendly Brook, Rudyard Kipling

I regret that the paragraphs about hedge-laying were not longer, but it's still amazing to read a hillslope hydrology mystery. Perhaps it's an amateur civil engineering mystery. Water moves.

It's also amazing how good late Kipling is. Most of the story is unwritten, but it isn't missing or even obscure.

Friendly Brook.

Posted by clew at 04:57 PM
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