Anatomy of a Trans-Mediterranean Rumor

Friday, January 4, 2013: 9:10 AM
Balcony N (New Orleans Marriott)
Gillian L. Weiss, Case Western Reserve University
In February 1685, slave number 2011, otherwise known as Agy Adallah, was enlisted to quash a tenacious rumor. “My lord,” he addressed the dey of Tunis, “I have been a slave in France and living in Marseille for five years and never have I seen or heard about…anyone bringing girls from Tunis or anywhere to Marseille or making a single Turk Christian by force.” In fact, in 1679, this so-called “Turk,” one of about two thousand then serving on the royal galleys, had heard talk of a Muslim girl baptized against her will – and alerted Tunisian authorities. Often unsubstantiated, such tales of defiled female faith (and cemeteries) had previously imperiled the lives of French merchants, consuls and slaves in North Africa. This time a local investigation turned up Beatrice de Leon, stepdaughter of a Spanish-born Jew, and wife of an exiled Marseille merchant, who had sent his then-pregnant lover to relatives until she delivered their child and converted to Catholicism. She did both, then on her way home to Tunis crossed paths with corsairs, and spent three years in Algerian captivity before winning release as a French subject, repatriating and marrying. Hers is another story of religio-political fluidity and fragile freedom in the Mediterranean. It is also a far less familiar story of Muslim slaves as influential rumormongers between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Already the embodiment of violence, these Franco-North African interlocutors, despite their subordinate status, had the potential to instigate literal clashes on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean. Based on a corpus of letters written by both free and servile men, this micro-history reflects on the varying stakes of one woman’s baptism for different audiences and the inability of one state to control the words of a slave.
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