Post-classical history


The King’s Agent: Life in Late-Seventeenth-Century Tripoli


His Majesty was this day pleased to honor me with his Commission under his Sign Manual and Privy Signet delivered me by the Right Honorable Henry Coventry Principal Secretary of State; thereby constituting me his agent and consul general in the city and kingdom of Tripoli in Barbary.”1

Thomas Baker’s journal “of whatsoever occurrences shall happen or be noteworthy” is a uniquely detailed English perspective on everyday life in a pirate city-state. But when he first put pen to paper on May 2, 1677, the career prospects of English consuls on the Barbary Coast were not happy. They were bullied, held hostage, and even killed by their hosts; they were constantly pestered by desperate captives who expected them to stand surety for ransoms. Throughout the Ottoman Empire they were escorted by Janissaries whenever they ventured out, since Muslims could respond to the sight of a Frank by punching him or spitting on him as he passed by. The district where a consul lived, often in closed collegiate communities, or khans, with other Franks, was contemptuously referred to by Turks as the “pig quarter.”

And the reward for putting up with all this was to be ignored or forgotten by one’s own government. “I do verily believe,” complained James Frizzell in his last despairing dispatch from Algiers in 1637, “that never any of his majesty’s ministers hath been so neglected as I am.”2

Yet men like Thomas Baker were eager to serve, for all sorts of reasons: honor, the potential for advancement, the opportunity to make money on the side, the chance to make a life in an exotic and alien world. Baker’s qualifications for the post were sound. He had close contacts with prominent Levant merchants and London financiers. As a young man he had worked as a factor in Algiers, and he had lived in Tunis in the late 1660s and early 1670s, where he made good friends, both Christian and Muslim. And his brother Francis was in Tunis now, acting as unpaid English consul.

Unlike his brother, Thomas was not prepared to work without pay. The Tripoli appointment came with a salary of £200 a year, and within days he had persuaded the government to increase it to £300 and to give him his first six months’ pay in advance. He put his affairs in order and arranged to take receipt of an expensive present of damask and brocade from the king to the dey of Tripoli. One evening in July he was brought by the secretary of state, Sir Henry Coventry, into the Privy Garden at the Palace of Whitehall, where he knelt and kissed the hands of Charles II and the Duke of York.

Ten days later he was aboard the Plymouth at Spithead and preparing to set sail for Barbary. He would not see the English coast again for another eight years.

Baker was not destined to see the shores of Tripoli anytime soon, either. The new consul traveled with Sir John Narbrough’s Mediterranean fleet, and although Narbrough was charged with personally delivering him to the dey, he considered the task to be a low priority in comparison with the fleet’s primary objective, which was to tackle a resurgence of Algerian attacks against English shipping. The voyage to Tripoli normally took no more than two or three months, but as summer turned to autumn, then winter, an impatient Thomas Baker sat helplessly aboard the Plymouth while Narbrough careered around the Mediterranean, chasing pirates, parleying with the authorities at Algiers, convoying Levant Company merchants to and fro from Zante and Cephalonia to the Straits, and calling in at Tangier and Cadiz and Málaga and Livorno and Alicante and Minorca—everywhere, it seemed, but Tripoli.

At least the consul wasn’t bored. Narbrough’s fleet, which at its greatest strength numbered a colossal thirty-five vessels, was engaged in frequent if often inconclusive naval warfare with the Algerians, who took more than sixty English ships in the year 1677 alone. In return, Narbrough captured five corsairs and destroyed seven more in the course of an expedition which lasted for nearly two years. Baker saw action several times, including a pitched battle off the coast of Spain, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. The fight involved seven English ships and the 142-gun Golden Rose of Algier, commanded by a German renegade named Hassan Raïs: more than sixty English sailors were killed or wounded, and 200 Turks died in the fight.

Baker’s journal shows that casualties weren’t confined to combat. The Plymouth, Narbrough’s flagship, was only a few days out when in saluting a homeward-bound frigate one of her guns went off prematurely “and shot off Richard Robinson’s hand at the wrist whilst he was ramming the wad home.”3 Drunken seamen suffered alcohol-induced fevers and fatal falls; an officer fell sick and died, from taking too much ice in his wine, according to Baker. One poor sailor was caught with his breeches down when the seven a.m. watch gun was fired; contrary to normal practice, it was loaded and the shot killed him “as he was easing himself ” over the side.4

By January 1679 Baker had been aboard one or another of Narbrough’s warships for nineteen months with only brief spells ashore at Cadiz, Cartagena, and a few other ports of call, and the admiral still showed not the slightest inclination to take him to Tripoli. In desperation he asked to be put on board the Diamond, which was convoying merchantmen to Alexandria and could call in at Tripoli without too much difficulty. And finally, at eight in the evening of April 5, 1679, nearly two years after he received his commission from Charles II, the new consul arrived at his destination.

As the Diamond negotiated the narrow channel into the harbor the next morning, Baker stood on deck and looked out on the city which was to be his home for the next six years. The ship moved slowly past shore batteries and gardens, past the forbidding walls of the vast Assaray Al-Hamra citadel and the shipyards that lay in its shadow, past the mosques with their slender minarets reaching for heaven—the Dragut Mosque, named for the sixteenth-century corsair who built it; the mosque of Sid Salem, whose minaret was well known to European mariners as “a mark to bear into the port”;5 the mosque of Al-Naqah, said to date back to the earliest days of Islam; and the mosque that Uthman Pasha commissioned in the 1650s, part of a domed complex which included his mausoleum and a madrasa. At the opposite end of the shore to the citadel stood the Mandrake, a fortress which guarded the northwest approaches. Baker could glimpse, rising gently up the hill behind the high battlemented walls of the city, a sea of densely packed streets and alleys extending half a mile back toward the plains and the scrubby desert beyond.

Tripoli has a distinguished history. Founded in the seventh century B.C. by the Phoenicians, Oea, as it was known, was absorbed into the Roman province of Africa around the second century B.C., along with the colonies of Leptis Magna to the east and Sabratha to the west. By the third century A.D., the coastal strip containing Tripoli, Leptis, and Sabratha was known as the Regio Tripolitana, the “region of the three cities.”

Although Tripoli had its fair share of invasions and regime changes over the ensuing 1,400 years or so—at different times it belonged to Egypt, to Sicily, to Tunis, to Spain, and even to the Knights of St. John, before becoming an Ottoman province in 1551—there was still scattered evidence of its Roman past when Baker arrived to take up his post. The most substantial was (and still is) the magnificent Arch of Marcus Aurelius which marked the junction of the main north-south and east-west cross-roads of the Roman city; but generations of Tripolitans recycled classical remains, and mosques, public buildings, and private homes often boasted columns and capitals many centuries older than themselves.

Thomas Baker hadn’t come to Tripoli to look at the vestiges of antiquity. He was there, as the king’s commission put it, “to aid and protect as well all our said merchants and other our subjects trading, or that shall trade or have any commerce, or that do or shall reside at Tripoli.”6 And that meant ensuring that the Tripolitan corsairs kept to their side of the treaty agreed with Narbrough in 1676 and did not rob or otherwise molest English shipping. They could rob the Dutch; they could molest the French; they could do what they liked with Greek barks and Genoese pinks and Maltese galleys. But English ships must be allowed, in the words of the treaty, to “freely pass the seas, and traffique where they please, without any search, hindrance or molestation.”7

Tripoli regarded itself as being at war with France and Holland; so, technically, its fleet did not commit acts of piracy, but acted legally in attacking the merchant shipping of an enemy nation, just as Elizabethan privateers had operated against the Spanish, brandishing their exculpatory letters of marque.

Less concerned with definitions than with the threat to English shipping, over that first summer of 1679 Thomas Baker set down “an exact list” of the fleet that lay in the little harbor beneath the city walls. Tripoli boasted thirteen vessels, with a fourteenth on the stocks. (This man-of-war had been under construction for five years, and the shipyard was so short of timber and other materials that it would be another five years before it was launched.) The vessels ranged upward in size from a little galley carrying one gun and 150 men to the flagship of the Captain of the Sea (admiral), its stern painted with a white half-moon, which was armed with forty-two guns and had a complement of 350. Six of the ships—the galley and the five biggest—were built in Tripoli; the rest were presumably converted prizes, since they originated in Provence (three), Genoa (two), Venice (one), and Malta (one).

Baker also noted the name and origin of each raïs. The corsairs of Tripoli were as cosmopolitan as their fleet. Seven were “Turks,” including the Captain of the Sea, Ali Minikshali, and his rear admiral, Karavilli, although this is not to imply that they were native Tripolitans. Ali was Greek and Karavilli came from Anatolia. Four others were Greek renegades, including Ali’s vice-admiral, Mustafa; one was a Moor; and one, Ryswan Raïs, was a French renegade. Ryswan commanded the memorably named Venetian prize Souls in Purgatory. Baker noted that its stern was painted with “purgatory”; sadly, there are no other details, although recycled Christian iconography clearly wasn’t a problem for the Muslims of Tripoli, since the Genoan prize, which was commanded by a Greek renegade, regularly went out in search of Christians with a gilded figure of Mary Magdalene on its stern.

When every ship was carrying its full complement, more than 3,000 Janissaries and sailors might go out on the cruise. This seems impressive, but the fleet was considerably smaller than that of Tunis, which numbered twenty vessels, and it was dwarfed by Algiers’s thirty-eight men-of-war, seven brigantines, and three galleys.

It was also much less successful. Over that first summer of 1679, Baker watched Ali Raïs’s ships go out “a Christian-stealing” again and again, only to come back empty-handed.8 Their range was limited: food was so expensive and they were so poor that they could only afford victuals for three or four weeks at a time. (“Corn is always dear, because their fields are sand,” was Samuel Purchas’s verdict on Tripoli back in 1614.9) At least six men-of-war were forced to turn to more respectable occupations. Three of them, “having been long out in corso and meeting with no purchase,” put in at Alexandria and took on legitimate cargoes of rice and beans.10 Two more went to the Dardanelles in search of timber to finish the warship in the yards; and the sixth was sent to Crete for supplies of corn.

In Baker’s first six months in Tripoli the fleet took only two prizes, even though it was out for most of the spring and summer. One, the inappropriately named Madonna of the Good Voyage, was taken off Zante on its way to Istanbul with a cargo of brazilwood and sugar, her French crew escaping in a longboat. The other, also a Frenchman, was actually on her way into harbor at Tripoli when she was captured. It wasn’t considered sporting to take a vessel in this way—the convention was that if a merchant managed to get within gunshot of the batteries, she should be allowed to come in unmolested. It shows how desperate the Tripolitans were for prizes that the dey overlooked this nicety, impounded the bark, and made slaves of her fourteen crewmen.

Baker meticulously recorded the unimpressive comings and goings of the Tripoli fleet: he counted them out, and he counted them back—“without any prize.”11 In the middle of August 1679 half the fleet came back not only without prizes, but also without their admiral. Ali Minikshali had gone ashore with all his money and possessions at Heraklion on Crete and announced he was staying there.

Ali’s decision to jump ship was related to his part in a failed attempt that summer to oust the dey, an Anatolian Turk named Aq Mohammed al-Haddad. The stability which Uthman Pasha had imposed on Tripoli in the 1650s and 1660s was a distant memory in 1679, as was amply demonstrated by the fact that Aq Mohammed was the eighth dey to rule since Uthman’s death in 1672. Two deys had ruled for less than a fortnight, and one for a matter of hours.

Each change of government was accompanied by an inordinate amount of strangling, although the luckier outgoing officials were deposited alive on Djerba, the fabled island of the lotus-eaters described in Homer’s Odyssey . (However attractive it might have been to Odysseus’s men, it held little appeal for the Tripolitan exiles: according to John Ogilby’s Africa, the land was barren and there were “no cities, nor any thing else, but some huts, scattered here and there far from one another.”12)

Aq Mohammed’s hold on power was already shaky. A plot by kulughis to depose him while most of the Janissary corps were out on the cruise with the fleet was forestalled in June, and the dey had eight of the ringleaders dismembered alive. (“The silly, but wicked animal,” declared Baker.13) In July, one of Aq Mohammed’s exiled predecessors landed at Zuwarah, to the west of Tripoli, joined forces with a group of disaffected Arabs, and disappeared into the mountains of Gharyan, seventy miles south of Tripoli. The dey sent his bey, or commander of land forces, Hasan Abaza, to find out exactly what was going on, and to make certain that the powerful governor of Gharyan, Murad, was loyal to him.

He wasn’t. Nor was Hasan, who came back to Tripoli with Murad as his deputy, called a full meeting of the diwan, and denounced Aq Mohammed. The dey was taken away in chains to face some rather rigorous questions as to the whereabouts of 394 pounds of gold which was missing from the treasury, and, with a suitable show of modesty, Hasan reluctantly agreed to take his place as ruler. The next afternoon, Aq Mohammed was shipped off to Djerba, “a Christian and a negro being his whole retinue and dollars five hundred his subsistence.”14 And the afternoon after that, the new admiral, vice-admiral, and rear admiral prepared to set out on the cruise. It was business as usual.

Baker’s reaction to the coup was a very human irritation—he’d wasted Charles II’s expensive present of damask and brocade on the wrong dey. But he loathed Aq Mohammed and liked Hasan Abaza, so he shrugged his shoulders, ensured that the new regime ratify the old articles of peace with England before the fleet sailed (which it did), and settled into life in Tripoli.

Contacts with fellow countrymen were few. There was no sizable English merchant community resident at Tripoli; nothing like what could be found farther east, at Aleppo in Syria and Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Turkey. Thomas Goodwyn, a friend who had accompanied Baker from Livorno in April, only stayed until September, preferring to try his luck in Tunis instead. Henry Caple, a ship’s master liberated by Narbrough in 1676 who had acted as consul from then until Baker’s arrival, left in a bad temper aboard the Diamond, having tried and failed to persuade the diwanthat Baker must pay him 1,500 dollars (around £350) before being allowed to take up his post.

It wasn’t until nearly a year later that the consul realized the full extent of Caple’s duplicity, when it emerged that in the chaos of the handover, while the captains of the Diamond and the Pearl were taking their leave and the consulate was crowded with visitors come to pay their respects, the outgoing consul had bribed his secretary to slip a forged deed under Baker’s nose in a sheaf of papers. Baker had signed it with the rest, not realizing that it made over to Caple a sum of 4,302 dollars (about £1,000) which did not belong to him.

Baker doesn’t say how he discovered the deception, but when he did, the secretary, a fifty-nine-year-old Venetian slave named Andrea Nassimbene, was hauled before the dey and formally accused. The man confessed straightaway and was sentenced—rather to Baker’s horror—to have his right hand chopped off. The Venetian had another trick up his sleeve, however (if that’s not a hopelessly inappropriate expression in the circumstances). The moment sentence was pronounced he said to the dey that he wanted to convert to Islam.

This was a common ploy among Christian slaves trying to avoid harsh punishments. And sometimes it worked. But Hasan Abaza Dey wasn’t having any of it. He told Nassimbene he couldn’t. As he wrote to Charles II in a letter absolving Baker of any part in the deception, “we had [Nassimbene] sent from our presence with insulting and threatening words as merits his falsity, to be taken to a public place where there should have been executed our sentence that his hand should be separated and chopped from his right arm.”15 “Should have been,” because this was all too much for Baker, who leaped up from his seat in the court and, to quote Hasan Abaza Dey again, “urged, prayed and beseeched us for a moderation of the penalty.” The sentence was commuted: Nassimbene had the right side of his head and the left side of his beard and mustache shaved, after which he was paraded through the streets in chains and then set to work in the quarries. He was also thrashed with a tarred rope by the Guardian of Slaves on the assumption that this would please the consul. It didn’t.

The episode suggests Baker had a compassionate side, and this was borne out again and again during his stay. Two days after Nassimbene’s trial, the consul was in the Assaray Al-Hamra citadel on business when he received word that a drunken Janissary had burst into his house and stabbed one of his servants. He demanded satisfaction and the soldier was duly sentenced to a thousand blows with a baton, which would almost certainly have killed him. Once again Baker pleaded with the dey to show mercy, and the man was pardoned—thus earning the consul the gratitude not only of the culprit but of the entire Janissary corps.

He was an astute political operator, rigid in his determination to claim his rights as set out in the articles of peace (Article 16 clearly stated that the English consul should be allowed to live “at all times with entire freedom and safety of his person and estate”16) but aware that there was also power in magnanimity. When one of the port officers contravened the articles by preventing him from taking a boat out into the bay, Baker immediately demanded the man’s dismissal. This was duly done, and the consul let him sweat for a few days before petitioning the dey for his reinstatement. He had made his point. And when Baker began to have problems with his interpreter, a Norfolk man named Edward Fountain, he opted for the gentler path again. Fountain, a convert who had taken the name of Hasan Agha, had a drinking problem. Instead of firing the dragoman, Baker gave him a gold coin against a forfeit of ten that he couldn’t stay away from alcohol for the next six months. He doesn’t say whether or not he won the bet, but I suspect not, judging from the fact that a year later he noted in his journal that “I cashiered my conceited, foolish, impertinent false, traitorous, base, drunken dragoman, who is called Hasan Agha.”17

Besides the impertinent false Hasan Agha, Baker’s household included at least one English servant, Thomas Landsford. He employed a French secretary, and later a Venetian. There may have been an English chaplain—the articles of peace stipulated that the consul must be allowed a place to pray in—but if so, Baker never mentions him, or indeed makes any mention of his own religious observances. The majority of the 800 or so Christian slaves in the city were Italian and French Catholics, and their spiritual needs were managed by a small community of missionary priests.

The consul’s main sources of contact with home were the English merchant ships that called to trade or to take on supplies. And those contacts were few and far between. In his first year, Baker welcomed just five English ships to Tripoli.

In fact he only saw thirteen during his entire six-year stay. Some were regular visitors: the Francis and Benjamin, which regularly plied between Livorno and Barbary, put in at Tripoli four times between March 1680 and May 1681. Others came once and then vanished back into the Mediterranean. The Content, for instance, put in with forty-seven butts of Sicilian wine and some timber boards at the end of December 1679; she stayed in port for two months, waiting for good weather before leaving for Malta and Messina with a cargo of dates, and was never mentioned again. The following summer the Resolution arrived from Syracuse on its only visit during Baker’s consulate, bringing one hundred butts of wine. (An English butt was 105 gallons, or 477 liters.) Wine was a valued commodity in Tripoli, in spite of repeated attempts by Istanbul to outlaw the consumption of alcohol throughout the Ottoman Empire. At various times Baker recorded the arrival of consignments of wine from Sicily, Cephalonia, Zante, Livorno, Marseilles, and Frontignan. The imperial edict banning alcohol from any town or village with a Friday mosque was clearly more honored in the breach than in the observance on the Barbary Coast: one English visitor to Tunis in 1675 commented that “they drink more freely wine [here] than in other parts of Turkey,” while near the marine gate in Tripoli, slaves kept taverns “where commonly all sorts of religion go to play from morning until evening.”18 Baker’s problems with his dragoman and the close encounter with the drunken Janissary suggest the residents played hard.

At the end of his first year in Tripoli, Thomas Baker sat down and made out a list of all the prizes that had been taken by the corsair fleet since his arrival.

It wasn’t a long list. In fact, for a state whose economy depended on piracy, it was remarkably short. The corsairs had brought in five ships, and that included the little bark so unsportingly apprehended on her way into harbor. All five were French. Far and away the most valuable was the St. Louis, a brigantine of fourteen guns homeward bound for Marseilles. Karavilli Raïs, the Tripolitan vice-admiral, came upon her one night in October as she tried to pass between Sardinia and the coast of Tunis, and after a brief scuffle she surrendered.

The St. Louis was on her way back from Sidon and Cyprus with a cargo of fine silk, cotton yarn, pistachio nuts, and spices. She also carried fifty-two Christian passengers. Baker initially valued the prize at 100,000 dollars without the slaves—more than £23,000. And although he later revised his estimate downward slightly (to 98,000 dollars), the St. Louis still represented sixty percent of the entire year’s haul, which, including a grand total of 152 Christian slaves valued at 300 dollars each, came to 165,200 dollars, nearly £39,000.

That seems a lot of money. But the Tripolitan captains had to set against it the expenses of successful and unsuccessful cruises. They still had to buy victuals, powder, and shot and maintain their vessels, whether they came home with a prize or not. When they did capture a prize, the treasury took a huge cut. (In Uthman Pasha’s time the treasury’s cut rose as high as fifty percent, which was one of the reasons for his overthrow.) Private individuals expected a return on their investment. And the corsairs themselves, sailors and Janissaries, had to have their shares.

Corsairing was a precarious business: at least one raïs didn’t manage to take a single prize in the whole time Baker was in Tripoli. “I would to God Algier afforded no better sailors or soldiers!” noted Baker in his journal, as the raïs, whose name was Mustafa Qadi, set off on his thirteenth trip. (He was back a month later “without a rag of purchase.”19) If it hadn’t been for Karavilli Raïs’s chance midnight encounter with the St. Louis, the taifat al-raïs would have had a very lean year indeed. And as a result, so would the whole of Tripoli.

For the next five years Baker held to his habit of sitting down each April on the anniversary of his arrival in Tripoli and making out a list of all the prizes and slaves brought in by the pirates over the past twelve months. Success rates varied dramatically. The cruising season of 1680-81 proved good for them, if not for the eighteen French, Venetian, Ragusan, Genoese, and Maltese vessels they captured: “The damages which have accrued to the navigation of Christendom by the depredations of these corsairs” amounted to 428,100 dollars, or well over £100,000.20 The following year was disastrous (for Tripoli), with prizes and slaves valued at only 124,800 dollars (less than £30,000). The 1682-83 haul was better, at 204,500 dollars (£48,000); but only because of the capture off Crete of “the richest prize that was ever brought into this place by a single ship,” the Three Kings of Marseilles, which was homeward bound from the Levant and was valued at 120,000 Spanish dollars (£28,200).21

Takings were down again in 1683-84 at 129,300 dollars (just over £30,000); and, again, they would have been a great deal worse without the capture of a substantial French vessel, the Golden Sun, worth 50,000 dollars (£11,750). Baker’s final year as consul, 1684-85, was the corsairs’ worst. This time there was no big prize. They took sixteen ships, but all were small, and six were empty. Baker reckoned the lot, plus seventy-nine slaves, at a mere 105,500 dollars, or less than £25,000. Lean times.

Times were destined to become leaner yet. When Baker arrived in 1679, England was the only European nation to have a treaty with Tripoli, which meant that the Tripolitan corsairs felt no compunction in taking any vessel which wasn’t flying English colors. The two other major trading nations in the Mediterranean, France and Holland, were keen to reach similar agreements. In April 1685, articles of peace with Holland were concluded when a Dutch man-of-war arrived at Tripoli with masts, cables, 150 barrels of gunpowder, and 3,000 shot as presents for the dey and the other senior officers “to confirm their peace with this government,” noted Baker.22

The French were also keen for peace. In 1680 a French squadron arrived at Tripoli with an offer to negotiate, but the overture was roundly rebuffed by the dey, who simply could not afford it. War with France was essential to the Tripolitan economy: during the six years of Baker’s time as consul, French ships accounted for more than seventy-five percent of all prizes taken, by value.

The French persisted, and the presence in the Mediterranean of Admiral Duquesne and his fleet persuaded the dey to change his mind. In December 1681 he accepted the presence of a French consul and an offer to begin peace negotiations—to the disgust of his captains, who complained they could barely scrape a living by preying on little barks out of Genoa or Malta. At the end of 1682 they broke the peace by taking a Marseilles merchant ship on its way home from Syria with a valuable cargo, and, faced with the prospect of having to give it back, the captains forced a full meeting of the diwan at the citadel, where raïs after raïs argued for war. The French were enemies to Islam and the empire. They had not returned to confirm the treaty as they had promised. And, most telling of all, “as long as a peace were maintained with France t’would be time and money spent to no purpose to arm out these ships, whilst all the Italians would enjoy the same security to their navigation by abusing these Turks with French colors, French passes and French sham-captains.”23

The result was a declaration of war. The French consul was placed under house arrest; the diwan agreed to keep the Marseilles merchantman and make slaves of its crew and passengers. Six weeks later, corsairs took the 120,000-dollar Three Kings. But Duquesne’s robust response to the taking of French merchant ships in the Mediterranean, demonstrated by his ruthless bombardments of Algiers in 1682 and 1683, was a worry. It is significant that in the middle of all the clamors for war in the diwan, one of the few voices raised in dissent was that of the Tripolitan admiral himself, leading the dey to tell him to his face that if he foresaw “evil contingencies which might arise by the war,” now was the time to say so.24 He was silent.

The French would mortar-bomb the Tripolitans into submission three years later.

Faced with a difficult economic climate, Tripolitans began to cast around for alternatives to corsairing. Tunis had been quite successful in making the switch from piracy to agriculture and legitimate commerce, establishing control over the countryside beyond Tunis itself, extracting taxes from the inhabitants, and exporting a range of commodities, from staples like rice, dates, and olive oil to sponges and coral. Visitors commented on the wealth of foodstuffs available: flatbread (“not unpleasant whilst it is new”25); sheep, goats, and bullocks; fresh fish like mullet and bream; dates, oranges, lemons, and limes.

The countryside beyond Tripoli, on the other hand, the Fezzan, just wasn’t that fertile. It consisted mainly of mountains, steep ravines, and inhospitable desert, and it was populated by equally inhospitable nomads. So the Tripolitans’ options were limited. They exported a certain amount of salt from the salt pans of Zuwarah along the coast, and they occasionally tried to supplement the income they derived from prizes by raiding coastal villages in Calabria and the Morea for slaves. They also began to look to the tribes of the interior, for tribute and for slaves. In 1682, Murad Bey, the governor who had helped to topple Aq Mohammed al-Haddad, and who was now general of land forces and the power behind the throne in Tripoli, returned from an expedition deep into the Fezzan, where his soldiers killed a tribal chieftain who refused to pay tribute and brought away five hundredweight of gold and a thousand black slaves, who were later sold to Albania.

Peace meant poverty for Tripoli. And Baker knew it. He knew, too, that occasional forays into the Sahara for slaves wouldn’t sustain the Tripolitan economy. The choice was war with England or war with France. In November 1682 he was relieved when Admiral Herbert’s flagship, the New Tiger, arrived to confirm the articles of peace once again. The dey welcomed him with a spectacular display of arms on the shore. For three hours Murad Bey’s soldiers drilled and exercised, while Herbert watched from a barge and the dey looked down from the battlements of the citadel, “where he caused to be spread abroad a great flag of green silk most richly wrought with gold, a respect whereith the Turks’ most solemn festivals have not been known to be honored.”26 Herbert invited Baker and most of the senior officers of the government to dinner aboard the New Tiger. Only Murad was absent, because he couldn’t stand the rough sea. (That’s why he was commander of land forces, presumably.) There were salutes and presents and expressions of mutual admiration, and the articles were once more confirmed, although that didn’t stop Baker smuggling two fugitive slaves aboard in disguise. One was a Swede with a Newcastle wife; the other, a Muscovite named Gabriel, had been hiding in Baker’s house for the past nine months.

Herbert’s arrival was a relief to the consul. “I do verily believe it will have turned the scale on our side,” he wrote in his journal as the New Tiger weighed anchor and sailed away. “A poor barren country, an empty treasury, and a good peace continued with his majesty and the French king, destroys the very foundations of [Tripoli’s] existence.”27

Baker was a familiar figure in Tripoli, in the souks and narrow streets, down by the harbor, around the courtyards and fountains of the Assaray Al-Hamra citadel. In the later seventeenth century, Europeans—those who weren’t renegades, at least—tended to adopt the same dress all over Barbary and the Levant: a broad-brimmed beaver hat, a knee-length black silk suit, perhaps with high red stockings and a red waistcoat; and for winter, a long gray woolen coat. Baker’s journal gives fleeting glimpses of his day-to-day activities. One moment he is firing off an angry note to a raïs called Mustapha Four-Beards who is flying English colors from his bowsprit: “I must have that flag immediately taken down and sent to my house without more ado.” (And it was.)28 Another time he receives word that an English gunner from the Francis and Benjamin has decided to convert to Islam. He immediately sets off for the citadel, where he finds that the man, whose name is William, has already presented himself to the dey, announced his wish to turn Turk, and recited the shahada. Technically that means the consul is too late, but Baker pays no attention to such niceties. He drags William away from the dey, down to the harbor, and aboard his ship, where he is locked up—for his own good, of course—until she sails, three weeks later.

But Baker is tantalizingly reticent about life in Tripoli—with two exceptions. He takes a keen interest in court gossip about the power struggles and falls from grace and regime changes. Deys come and go: Hasan Abaza is packed off to the island of Djerba in June 1683; his replacement lasts for two days before being banished to Crete (Djerba is full, presumably) himself replaced by a Rumelian renegade, Ali al-Jazairi, who lasts for thirteen months before taking the boat to Djerba. The Janissaries strike for their pay: the rear admiral, who is blamed for stirring them up, is abruptly taken off his ship as she’s about to set sail for the Levant and put aboard a small boat for Djerba. The daughter of a high-ranking court official, “the finest woman of the town,” is murdered by one of the dey’s officers. The treasurer dies suddenly; Baker assumes he has been poisoned but can’t feel any regret since the man was no friend to the English and was, in any case, “as malicious as ignorant.”29

The other facet of Tripolitan life which fascinates the consul is sex. Any kind of sexual relationship between a Christian man and a Muslim woman was in theory punishable by death (although the sentence was usually commuted to a heavy fine); and fraternizing with the local women was frowned on by both sides. But six years was a long time to stay celibate. Whores plied their trade in the Greek and Jewish quarters by the Arch of Aurelius, and there were those taverns by the marine gate where “all sorts of religion go to play from morning until evening.” Perhaps Baker was made of purer stuff. Perhaps that’s why his thoughts lingered on stories of sexual transgression.

These stories are presented with little in the way of moralizing, even though it is precisely because they are transgressions that Baker gets to hear about them. In the summer of 1683, for instance, the son of a Dutch renegade, “a brisk young fellow of the town” is gang-raped in a tavern by thirty-six Janissaries;30 the consul remarks that the rape was carried out without shame or fear of retribution, but that’s as far as his censure goes. He seems to maintain a bemused detachment, as he does when a Turk is given 500 strokes on his buttocks, “not for having committed the act of sodomy with a boy, but for that, after having so done, he threw him over the town wall, whereby he brake both his legs.”31 That’s it. It is as if Tripolitan homosexual mores can be marveled at, but they are so impossibly alien that it is really none of his business to condemn them.

Baker is more comfortable with heterosexual misbehavior. Sidi Usuph, the strikingly handsome brother of a revered holy man, is caught by the watch at two in the morning coming out of a woman’s house. There is a scuffle and he is killed. “Unlucky accident!” laments the consul. “Thus to disoblige all the fine women of the town, who, besides the reverence they bore for ye holiness of his strain [i.e., his bloodline], were most of them at his devotion, so comely was his personage.”32 And when three Christian slaves are caught outside the walls with three women, he takes a delight in describing how the women are paraded around the town riding backward on asses with sheep’s entrails draped around their necks. One of the men turns Turk to avoid punishment; the other two have to pay fines of 850 dollars (about £200) and receive a bad beating into the bargain.

“Upon my word,” says Baker with a Pepysian flourish. “Twas a dear bout!”33

Baker didn’t concern himself exclusively with the welfare of His Majesty’s subjects, although English strategic interests usually lay at the heart of everything he did. This sometimes led him down some unusual paths. On one occasion, at the request of Hasan Abaza Dey, he provided a Tripolitan raïs with a letter of introduction to Lord Inchiquin at Tangier, requesting the English garrison to offer the corsair protection as he headed out to hunt for shipping in the Atlantic. His justification, that this was “no more than what he may reasonably claim by our capitulations with this government,”34was technically correct, even though the raïs’s ship, a recently captured Genoese prize, was to be fitted out at Algiers, with whom England was currently at war. No doubt the prospect of the raïs harassing French shipping when he reached the Atlantic also played a part in the consul’s thinking.

It was a difficult job, as the Giaume Ballester affair and its aftermath showed. Ballester was a Majorcan captain who was taken with his ship in the Gulf of Venice and brought back in chains to Tripoli. Initial efforts to arrange his release foundered on the fact that the dey, convinced that Ballester had wealthy connections at home, set his ransom at an exorbitant 7,000 dollars, or around £1,650. His friends arranged to exchange him for a well-known Tripolitan being held at Naples, but this came to nothing when the Majorcan entrusted with the negotiations suddenly decided to convert to Islam and join the Tripolitan fleet. Baker was particularly appalled at the man’s behavior because he had been a guest in his house, and had actually gone from there to the citadel, “where he most infamously renounced his baptism and turned Turk.”35

In May 1684, two and a half years after his capture, Ballester was redeemed for just 2,000 dollars (£470)—still a lot, but a lot less than 7,000 dollars. The man who redeemed him was Thomas Baker, who received an order for 800 dollars from Ballester’s friends and trusted the Majorcan’s assurances that the rest would be repaid as soon as he was safe home. A redemption certificate was issued, and Ballester was released into Baker’s custody while he waited for a ship to take him back to Majorca.

Four weeks later he was rearrested and thrown into one of the city’s three bagnios.

Baker stormed up to the citadel to demand an explanation. He found the dey, Ali al-Jazairi, uncharacteristically calm and reasonable—but adamant. The captains had told him the Majorcan was worth twenty times more than 2,000 dollars, and they were so powerful, claimed Ali al-Jazairi, that he couldn’t contradict them.

The consul went back to his house fuming, convinced that the dey’s days were numbered. He was right. Before the week was out Ali al-Jazairi was on his way to Djerba, and a new ruler, Hajj Abdallah al-Izmirli, had taken up residence in the Assaray Al-Hamra citadel. Baker gave him four days to settle in and then renewed his assault. At a meeting of the full diwan he demanded absolutely that Ballester be given up. Not unless he came up with another 3,000 dollars, they said.

By his own account, this flagrant disregard for what was right goaded him into a bravura piece of brinkmanship. In front of the entire diwan he declared that this affront was done not to him but to the king of England. That three English warships were at that very moment on their way to Tripoli from Livorno. And that the moment they arrived he was going to declare war.

He was bluffing, but it worked. The diwan backed down and Ballester was immediately produced and taken to the consul’s house. “And so, with a present the dey made me of a pleasant young bear ended this troublesome business.”36

If only life were that simple. A couple of days later an English merchantman, the Unity, put in from Livorno with a cargo of French wine, and Baker asked its master, William Ferne, to take Ballester back to Livorno. The Unity left Tripoli with the redeemed captive aboard on July 16, 1684. Ten weeks later Captain Ferne was back, and he had two pieces of bad news. The first was that Ballester had died of a fever five days after arriving at Livorno. Including expenses, passage money, and various gratuities, the consul had paid out 1,320 dollars of his own money on the Majorcan’s redemption; the prospect of getting his money back also died in Livorno. “A good help to a poor Tripoli consul!” wailed Baker.37

However, Ferne’s second piece of news was potentially even more serious. The captain picked up a handful of passengers for the return voyage to Tripoli, and among them was a prominent Tripolitan who had just been redeemed out of slavery at Livorno. Off the island of Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily the Unity was overtaken by a Genoese pirate, Giovanni Maria Caratini. Ferne was carrying an English pass; the liberated Turk was carrying a certificate of redemption. Neither of these facts cut any ice with Caratini, who seems to have decided his international status—the Genoese was sailing under Spanish colors in a Dutch man-of-war and holding Sicilian letters of marque—entitled him to disregard legal niceties. He took the Unity’s cargo, which was worth more than ten thousand dollars. He took four Jews who were traveling to Tripoli. And he took the Turk.

This was a disaster. There were echoes of the business with the Goodwill back in 1651, when Stephen Mitchell allowed the Knights of Malta to board his vessel and take thirty-two Tunisians: that incident had led to riots, reprisals, and war. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. The Dutch were concluding their own articles of peace with Tripoli, and the French were pushing hard for the dey to accept theirs. (That summer the Unity had brought news of a massive French mortar attack on Genoa which pounded the city into unqualified submission, and Tripoli was bracing itself for a visit from Duquesne and his bomb-ketches.) Baker was convinced the Tripolitans were looking for an excuse to break the peace with England, and, as he reported to the English government, unless the navy moved swiftly to free the Turk and punish Caratini, “they will be the more easily invited to take strangers’ goods and passengers out of our numerous unguarded shipping in these seas.”38

Baker was tired. The climate at Tripoli had taken its toll on him, and he suffered from gout—“a most disingenuous unkind mistake!”—and other unspecified chronic illnesses.39 It was time to go home. He had asked to be recalled in the spring of 1683, and now in a coda to his report he repeated the request, “which once more I presume languishingly to remind you of.”40 But before his letter reached England a French bark came into harbor at Tripoli with word that Caratini had panicked and destroyed the evidence, throwing the Turk and the four Jews overboard. Shortly afterward he was himself captured by the Venetians, who put him and his crew to work in their galleys. This gave some satisfaction to the Livornese merchants who had lost their cargo, but not to the Tripolitans, who believed Caratini was being punished for his piracy rather than for killing the Turk; nor to the man’s widow and children, “whose continual outcries and tears will neither be quicked nor dried up, unless the person of the pirate be rendered here.”41

If the consul was hoping for swift and decisive action, he was destined to be disappointed. When a response finally arrived in May 1685 (from the pen of Samuel Pepys, reappointed as secretary to the Admiralty after his return from Tangier), it was noncommittal. The matter was in the hands of the king’s secretaries of state, and there it must rest, although Pepys did add that if it were up to him, something would certainly be done to give the Tripoli government satisfaction for the murder of her subjects.

It wasn’t up to him, and as far as I can find out, nothing ever was done. The peace with England held, however, even after the expected bombardment by French mortars—which took place over three days that June—persuaded the dey and the diwan to conclude a treaty with Louis XIV.

Baker left no account of the French assault. That is because Pepys’s letter ended with the welcome news that James II was recalling the consul to London; he could go home as soon as his replacement arrived. When that was, we don’t know—only that on October 23, 1685, he “returned into the King’s presence and kissed his hand.”42 But the letter from Pepys, carefully copied into his journal, is the very last entry, as though with his recall the urge to keep a record “of whatsoever occurrences shall happen or be noteworthy” came to an abrupt end.

Thomas Baker was a good consul. He served his country more conscientiously than many public officials, and with less regard for his own pocket than most. If he was a man of his own time with all the prejudices that entailed—he called Islam, for instance, “that accursed superstition,” and the French, his bitter enemies, the “scum of the earth”—at least he was able to establish good relationships with individual Tripolitans, based on shared interests and mutual trust.43 He was sorry when the treasurer of Tripoli was dismissed and banished to Crete, because he had been a “constant friend” not only to English interests but also to Baker himself. (He put the blame for the treasurer’s downfall on the man’s interfering wife: “Women hold an empire even amongst these barbarous nations, as well as in England.”44) He regarded the captain of the port, who was sacked a few months later, as “my truly cordial friend.”45

One gets the impression that for all his grumbling Baker rather liked North Africa and North Africans, an impression confirmed perhaps by the fact that he went back. He was appointed consul to Algiers in 1691, and when he left the post, in 1694, he went on to Tripoli to renew the articles of peace before coming home for the last time—in a vessel provided by the dey of Algiers, who wrote that “since his coming [he] has gained the love of all our people.”46 The government reimbursed him £1,389 0s. 6¼d. for the redemption of captives in Algiers, Salé, and elsewhere in Barbary during this second stint as consul, and he was able to end his time there with a remarkable declaration—that there were no longer any subjects of the crown taken under English colors in slavery anywhere in Algiers, Tunis, or Tripoli.47

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