“This Is Not a Corsair’s License”: Legality, Captivity, and Belonging in the Late Eighteenth Century Eastern Mediterranean

Friday, January 4, 2013: 3:10 PM
Cornet Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
Will Smiley, Yale University
Captivity and maritime raiding in the Mediterranean were always intertwined, as one day’s captors could become the next day’s captives. This paper will use the detention of corsairs by the Ottoman state in the late eighteenth century as a lens through which to see the shifting boundaries of violence, belonging, and legality in the eastern Mediterranean basin. I approach this question through a detailed microhistory of the case of the Greek mariners Andrea and Nikola, detained in 1791 on charges of piracy. Using an array of Ottoman and British archival sources, I situate their arrest in the contentious eastern Mediterranean milieu, at a moment when Russian-backed privateers competed with unauthorized freebooters to raid Ottoman shipping. In contrast to previous centuries, Greek-speaking Ottoman subjects were now just as often predators as prey. The resulting ambiguities and difficulties were reflected in Ottoman official orders of the period, which combined brutal punishments with attempts to appeal to Greeks’ loyalty.

Reflecting this ambiguity, Andrea’s and Nikola’s ship carried a Russian flag along with both Russian and Ottoman safe conduct papers. Were they disloyal corsairs, or loyal subjects protecting themselves against all comers? The Ottoman state attempted to fix their identity through a detailed investigation, generating a remarkable array of depositions and reports which connected the sultan’s palace with distant Aegean ports. I trace these in detail, from the Greeks’ arrest to their final acquittal. Ultimately, I argue, this case suggests the shifting and ambiguous boundaries which separated loyalty from disloyalty; those who belonged from those who did not. These boundaries were drawn with a remarkable emphasis on due process and careful investigation, even on the eve of the catastrophic inter-communal violence of the Greek Revolt—a conflict in which the lines between loyal and disloyal Ottomans would catastrophically crystallize throughout the eastern Mediterranean.