In the early modern period, the Ottoman Empire was a Mediterranean powerhouse, and a source of both fear and envy throughout Europe. Daring Maghrebi corsairs filled printed books, plays, and romanticised ballads. Many Britons, attracted by promises of opportunity and freedom, made the Maghreb their permanent home, converted to Islam and adopted local customs. Several achieved great notoriety in Britain, blackened by insinuations of backsliding treason as ‘renegades’, but valued for information, assistance, and entertainment. There was Yusuf Rais/John Ward (c.1553-1622), English privateer turned Tunisian corsair, who starred in Robert Daborne’s A Christian turn’d Turk (1612) and a slew of swashbuckling ballads and pamphlets. A poor British woman captive, renamed Lella Balqees, married Moroccan Sultan Mawlay Isma’il (r. 1672-1727), and held influence over their Anglo-Moroccan diplomacy for decades. In 1704, double convert Joseph Pitts (c.1663-c.1735-39) wrote the first description in English of Mecca and Medina from the inside.
But these famous examples obscure many British converts who lived more marginal and stable lives, like merchant Hadge Biram (Hajj Bayramı). We know about him from only a few letters exchanged with English merchants in Tunis and Tripoli, but these letters powerfully illustrate the everyday tensions converts experienced. Named for the festival surrounding the hajj pilgrimage, Hajj Bayramı lived in Cairo as a Muslim from at least 1679. Thomas Baker, British consul in Tripoli, called him ‘our Countryman at Cairo’, and trusted him to pass on letters to British merchants in Istanbul, mediate trade in velvet, wire, and scarlet cloth, and procure ‘two fine Damaskeen Barrells’ for Baker’s musket.
In 1692, Bayramı wrote to Thomas Goodwyn, British consul in Tunis, to recommend 21-year-old Edward Allen, ‘a god sevel Lad & bred a marchant &…Capable for al marchandes’ in Cairo on his uncle’s recommendation. Disappointed to find ‘no English Christians to pas his time with hm’, Allen was ‘mad to meet wth English men’ and hoped to come to Tunis instead. Biram apologised for not replying to several letters Goodwyn sent him three years earlier, swearing it was ‘not ungratefulnes nor unnaturall forgetfulnes of my Cuntrymen’ but lack of reliable ships to carry them, and invited Goodwyn to do business with him.
A second letter centred on the ordinary merchant courtesy of passing on news. Bayramı transmitted a French take on an Anglo-French naval battle, mentioning his friendly correspondence with Goodwyn’s close associates Horsey and Nelthorpe in Livorno, and asked whether the deposed James II had invaded England as planned, and whether the long-running Algerian-Moroccan war continued. Finally, six years later, Goodwyn’s colleague James Chetwood recommended sending a cargo of lead to ‘old Honest Hagi Biram’, who would sell it for them ‘wthout any more adoe’.
For the English in Ottoman Tunis and Tripoli, Bayramı was a contradiction. A countryman, apparently trustworthy, courteous, and interested in English news; yet Allen found his religion excluding, and Goodwyn apparently never accepted Bayramı’s commercial cooperation. He was both an insider and an outsider: neither fully English, nor fully Ottoman, a renegade, yet not fully lost or disconnected.
University of Melbourne
For letters about Hadge Biram, see The National Archives, Kew, FO 335/1/32, FO 335/2/3, FO 335/3/2, FO 335/9/8, FO 335/9/10, FO 335/13/1.
Barker, Andrew. A true and certaine report of the beginning, proceedings, ouerthrowes, and now present estate of Captaine Ward and Danseker, the two late famous pirates. London: William Hall, 1609. Available on Early English Books Online (EEBO) through the British Library.
Cutter, Nat. ‘Grateful fresh advices and random dark relations: Maghrebi news and experiences in English expatriate letters, 1660-1710’. Cultural and Social History (2022). Available online through the British Library.
Cutter, Nat. ‘“Grieved in my soul that I suffered you to depart from me”: Community and Isolation in the English Houses at Tunis and Tripoli, 1679-1686’. In Keeping Family in an Age of Long Distance Trade, Imperial Expansion and Exile 1550-1850, edited by Heather Dalton, 169-89. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020.
Daborne, Robert. A Christian turn’d Turke: or, The tragicall liues and deaths of the two famous pirates, Ward and Dansiker. London: Nicholas Okes for William Barrenger, 1612. Available on Early English Books Online (EEBO) through the British Library.
Dervla Laaraichi, Saoirse. ‘The Adventures of Helen Gloag in Morocco’, Untold Lives blog 30 May 2022.
Matar, Nabil. Britain and Barbary, 1589-1689. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005. British Library Document Supply m06/.10725.
Nixon, Anthony. Nevves from sea, of tvvo notorious pyrats War the Englishman, and Danseker the Dutchman. London: Edward Allde for N. Butter, 1609. British Library General Reference Collection G.7343
Pitts, Joseph. A true and faithful account of the religion and manners of the Mohammetans. Exeter: Phillip Bishop and Edward Score, 1704. British Library General Reference Collection 1048.b.19.
Pennell, C.R. ed. Piracy and diplomacy in seventeenth-century North Africa: the journal of Thomas Baker, English Consul in Tripoli, 1677-1685. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989. British Library General Reference Collection YC.1992.b.5589.
The seamans song of Captain Ward the famous pyrate of the world. 1609. Available on Early English Books Online (EEBO) through the British Library.
This blog post is the last of a collaborative series with Medieval and Early Modern Orients (MEMOs). On the last Monday of every month, both Untold Lives and MEMOs' own blog have featured a post written by a member of the MEMOs team, showcasing their research in the British Library collections. Follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #BLMEMOS.