Saturday, November 03, 2012

1st-ever substantial study of Joseph Pitts: An English slave and Muslim convert in 17th C Algiers and Mecca

Paul Auchterlonie delivers his SOAS lecture

Paul Auchterlonie, an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter's Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, gave a highly enjoyable and informative lecture in the Khalili Lecture Theatre at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University, last Wednesday on his fascinating book Encountering Islam: Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in 17th Century Algiers and Mecca: A critical edition, with biographical introduction and notes, of Joseph Pitts of Exeter's A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731 . The book is the first-ever substantial study of Joseph Pitts, the first Englishman known to have made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The lecture was entitled 'Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in Algiers and Arabia and his contribution to our knowledge of the Muslim World'.
Auchterlonie has had a distinguished career as a librarian specialising in the Middle East and served for many years as Chair of the Middle East Libraries Committee (MELCOM-UK) and was founding secretary of MELCOM International.. He read Arabic at Oxford in the late 1960s and then trained as a librarian at the University of London. He worked for 40 years as a librarian in the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, first at SOAS, and then at the University of Lancaster. From 1981 to 2011 he was librarian in charge of the Middle East collections at the University of Exeter.

Auchterlonie was introduced to the audience by William Facey, the director of London-based Arabian Publishing which published the 354-page book earlier this year in association with the British Foundation for the Study of Arabia (BFSA). BFSA was created in 2010 by the merger of the Society for Arabian Studies and the Seminar for Arabian Studies, and the lecture was formally part of BFSA's lecture series as well as being a book launch.

Facey said the book project originated in 2009 when he and Auchterlonie were at a British Muslim conference in Exeter. "We found ourselves talking about Joseph Pitts after a lecture about him. I said wasn't it high time someone produced a definitive edition of Pitt's wonderful little book which came out in its definitive form in 1731. It's probably the best - or at least one of the three best - of the captivity narratives written by Europeans enslaved in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries."

Auchterlonie explained that captivity narratives are the autobiographies of Europeans who had been captured and enslaved by the Barbary pirates. "There were slaves in  North Africa, from Morocco through to Tripolitania who had by escape, or by ransoming, or by exchange of prisoners, returned to their homeland and decided to describe their experiences." There are about 35  published captivity narratives originally written in English, ranging in date from 1589 from John Fox, a slave in Alexandria, to the American sailors Robert Adams and James Riley who separately in 1816 and 1817 published narratives of their captivities in Morocco: "Interestingly, they were both taken to Timbuktu in modern day Mali."   

Joseph Pitts was born in the city of Exeter in south-west England in around 1663, when Exeter was a major industrial and trading centre; in the early 17th century it was the busiest English port outside London, apart from Hull in the north. Pitts became a sailor in his mid-teens and in 1678, at the age of 16 or so, was captured by Algerian pirates. He was sold as a slave, first to Mustapha and then to Dilberre Ibrahim in whose service he was forced to convert to Islam. After he was sold yet again his kindly third master Eumer took him on the hajj to Mecca: Pitts is the first Englishman known to have visited the Muslim Holy Places, and certainly the first Englishman to write about the hajj and Muslim Holy Places, in A Faithful Account of the Religion and the Manners of the Mahometans. 

In Mecca Eumer granted Pitts his freedom and he subsequently became a soldier in the Algiers army. He took part in campaigns against the Moroccans and the Spanish before escaping while serving with the Algerian fleet. He crossed much of Italy and Germany on foot and finally reached his home city of Exeter 17 years after leaving. 

Pitts's book A Faithful Account of the Religion and the Manners of the Mahometans was fiirst published in 1704. Following its success unauthorised editions appeared in Exeter in 1717 and London in 1719. Pitts eventually decided to produce a revised edition, which was published in 1731 and it is this edition that is at the core of Encountering Islam. It is thought that Pitts died in 1739. 

Facey describes Pitts's book as "a work of supreme importance - not only in itself, but because it gave its readership an authentic picture of life in the Muslim world for the first time." Facey asked Auchterlonie to come up with an introduction to the reprint, and the result, Encountering Islam, is "two books in one - not just a reprint. Paul's introduction on Pitts tells us about Pitts's life and puts it in the context of his time and puts his book in the context of captivity narratives. There is a lot in it about the nature of the Corsair states in the Mediterranean."

The introduction to Encountering Islam describes Pitts's book as "an intriguing and, as far as is known, unique combination of three distinct genres: captivity narrative, travel account, and description of Islam." There are 17th and 18th century books combining two of these three elements, but it seems that no author but Pitts combines all three strands within a single work. Auchterlonie comprehensively covered the three strands in his lecture, and provided members of the audience with copies of two maps from his book. One  traces  Pitts's Arabian journey in 1685 or 1686; the other shows his various travels in the Mediterranean and Europe between 1678 and 1695. 

Encountering Islam is divided into two main parts. In the first part, covering 96 pages, Auchterlonie puts Pitts' life and book in context. In his first chapter, 'Algiers as a Corsair State', Auchterlonie writes on Algiers and the Ottoman Empire; the political, social and economic organization of Algiers; the corsair economy; and the condition of slavery. Auchterlonie then gives an account of  'Joseph Pitts: The Man and his Background'. This is followed by a chapter on A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731, looking at it as a captivity narrative, as a travel account and as a description of Islam, and then recounting its publishing history. 

The second part of Encountering Islam reproduces A Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, 1731, with the addition of Auchterlonie's footnotes. The remaining 85 pages of Encountering Islam contain copious footnotes to the first and second parts of the book, an extensive bibliography, and separate indexes for each. The book also has a three-page foldout reproduction of an engraving of the Haram and Ka'bah entitled 'The most sacred and antient Temple of the Mahometans at Mecca'. This is one of two plates that Pitts added to the 1731 edition of his book, both of them copied without acknowledgement from Muhammad Rabadan's Mahometism Fully Explained.
report by Susannah Tarbush

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