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The Muslim World in Early U.S. Texts

Julie R. Voss

Associate Professor of English, Coordinator of American Studies Program, Lenoir-Rhyne University

About a decade ago, I began researching representations of Islam in early national American literary texts; when someone would ask what the subject of my dissertation was, and I gave this answer, I often received responses along the lines of, “Was there any literature about Islam in the early U.S.?” 

Oil painting of Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat
during the bombardment of Tripoli, 3 August 1804.

Source: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, Washington Navy Yard

Like my interlocutors, I was initially surprised when I stumbled upon the presence of Islam in early American writing.  Somehow, through the many American history classes in my education, I had missed learning about the Barbary conflicts that followed the Revolutionary War.  The Muslim world was never as separate from Europe (and Colonial America) as we moderns might believe, and between 1785 and 1815, Americans were intensely aware of Muslim North Africa in particular.  The sultanate of Morocco and the almost-independent Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—collectively known as the “Barbary States”—presented very real threats to the shipping of the fledgling nation, as well as more philosophical threats to the nation’s sovereignty.  American ships were seized, sailors were held captive for many years, and two wars were fought (with Tripoli in 1801-1805 and Algiers in 1815).[1] These conflicts in general, and the enslavement of (Christian) American sailors in Muslim North Africa in particular, captured the imaginations of the American people, and publishers capitalized on this interest by offering a number of texts related—often only very loosely—to the plight of American seamen in Barbary.   

From Early American Imprints, Series I:
Evans, 1639-1800

Some of the texts offered more or less factual information.  A number of “histories” of the region appeared during this period, such as publisher Mathew Carey’s A Short Account of Algiers (1794) which appeared in English and German and was occasionally appended to other documents.  

From Early American Imprints, Series I:
Evans, 1639-1800

Additionally, as American sailors were ransomed and returned home, some wrote accounts of their ordeals.  John Foss, for instance, published A Journal, of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss, Several Years a Prisoner in Algiers (1798); this text, which he claimed was composed primarily of extracts from a journal he kept while in Algiers, proved so popular with readers—despite its numerous flaws as a piece of writing—that he quickly produced a much longer edition (also published in 1798).  Most of the additional material in the second edition is pulled from Mathew Carey’s Short Account, suggesting that Foss’s limited experience as a captive confined to the city of Algiers did not give him enough material for the kind of lengthy “eye-witness” account readers may have wanted.

The Gazette of the United States, 16 Dec. 1793,
Philadelphia, Penn. From Early American Newspapers.

Despite Foss’s two editions, other captives’ accounts, and frequent publication of captives’ letters in newspapers, there were apparently not enough “authentic” narratives of Barbary captivity to satisfy the reading public, because a number of spurious accounts also appeared during this time.  One such account carried the wonderfully evocative title History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Maria Martin, Who was Six Years a Slave in Algiers, Two of Which She was Confined in a Dark and Dismal Dungeon, Loaded with Irons, by the Command of an Inhuman Turkish Officer. Written by Herself.  This text appeared a number of times between 1806 and 1818, with fairly significant variations among its editions.  Despite the claims to veracity, spurious accounts like this have nothing authentic about them but tell romanticized, titillating stories.  As such, they resemble the many “Eastern tales” that appeared in early national periodicals and offered sensationalized plots and exotic landscapes.  Both spurious captivity accounts and Eastern tales are highly romanticized and offer a little “Eastern” or “Moorish” coloring but no authentic information—though they are entertaining.

From Early American Imprints, Series II:
Shaw-Shoemaker, 1800-1819

Barbary also offered entertainment by way of playwrights’ imaginations.[2]  Susanna Rowson, for instance, wrote (and acted in) Slaves in Algiers; Or, A Struggle for Freedom (1794), which combines patriotic American sentiments with concern for the plight of American captives in Algiers—in the end, the patriotic fervor of the liberty-loving American captives convinces Algiers’ ruler to free all his slaves.  James Ellison also invoked American ideals in The American Captive; Or, the Siege of Tripoli (1812), in which he rewrote the end of the Tripolitan War in a more honorable light.  Despite the fiction involved in spurious accounts of captivity, Eastern tales of exotic maidens, rewritten versions of historical events, and even embellished “authentic” accounts, the sheer number of texts that relate to Muslim North Africa suggests the height of interest in matters related to Barbary.

From Early American Imprints, Series II:
Shaw-Shoemaker, 1800-1819

These texts reveal what Americans imagined about the Muslim world more than what they knew—the fictionalized accounts in particular demonstrate a fascination with little-understood aspects of Muslim culture (harems, for instance) and suggest the appeal of the exotic Other.  The texts also use situations in the Barbary States to comment on issues pertinent to the United States, and the imagined Muslim world was malleable enough to do varied cultural work.  Abolitionists seized on the image of American sailors held as “slaves” in Africa as a tool for generating sympathy for slaves at home, while advocates of slavery pointed to the treatment of the American captives as evidence of African “barbarity.”  The vulnerability of the nation made evident by the taking of American captives fed the debate about whether or not the U.S. should have a standing military, and some of the later texts speak of the treatment of sailors in the navy that was eventually created to deal with the threat of Barbary.  Some women writers used Barbary captivity to allude to the limitation of women’s liberty, while other writers found explorations of Islam helpful for defending religious tolerance. 

From Early American Imprints, Series II:
Shaw-Shoemaker, 1800-1819

When I began my research in this arena, I was fortunate that my university owned the microcard collection of Early American Imprints; by browsing through Evans’ and Shaw and Shoemaker’s printed bibliographies, I could identify texts that sounded promising (thanks to the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century penchant for mile-long titles) and dig out cards with microscopic images of documents that might relate to my topic.  Now, with Early American Imprints and Early American Newspapers online and searchable, it is much easier to answer the question, “Was there any literature about Islam in the early U.S.?”  By searching for “Barbary” or “Algiers” or “Islam,” one can find a surprising number and variety of texts that were popular in our nation’s early years.


[1] There are a number of sources, both popular and scholarly, on the Barbary conflicts, thanks in large part to renewed interest in U.S. relations with the Muslim world following the 9/11 attacks.  Two of the most reliable (and most readable) are Robert J. Allison’s The Crescent Obscured (University of Chicago, 2000) and Frank Lambert’s The Barbary Wars (Hill and Wang, 2007).

[2] And novelists’ imaginations.  Thanks to recent growing interest in this area, modern editions are available of several novels, including The Algerine Spy in Pennsylvania by Peter Markoe (1787; Westholme, 2008) and The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler (1797; Modern Library, 2002) in print editions, and the anonymous Humanity in Algiers (1801) as a digital edition produced by Just Teach One/Common-place (2013).

Julie R. Voss is an associate professor of English and coordinator of the American Studies Program at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. Her primary area of research is on the role of Islam in early national American literature, but she has wide-ranging interests and even dabbles in fiction writing.

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