The Fluid Mediterranean

About a month before I traveled to Malta, I received proofs of an article on an Early Modern English play called The Knight of Malta. The timing was quite fortuitous, reminding me not only of my research interests in the construction of racial difference via ideologies of religious difference, but also of my interest in Mediterranean piracy, which like the sea offered fluid opportunities for enterprising individuals to raise their social status and sometimes border-cross between religious communities.

While in Malta, I’ve been able to go to the National Library of Malta to do some research on the privateering or corsairing, as it was commonly referred to from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Most of the work I had done previously on corsairs was from either the English or the Ottoman perspective, so it was quite eye-opening to get a perspective on this activity from Malta because the island and its inhabitants have long been positioned by English writers as being the bulwark of protection against the Ottoman onslaught in the western Mediterranean. The island and the Order of St. John gained particular fame after successfully repulsing the Ottoman attack of 1565, known throughout Europe as “The Great Siege of Malta.”

What drew my interest to Maltese corsairs was the reputation they had in some English contexts as being indiscriminate in their attacks on Christian and Muslim ships in the Mediterranean, and that they would engage in enslaving both Muslims and Christians. I emphasize religion here because that’s what often got emphasized in early modern texts, that the conflict in the Mediterranean was rooted in religious antipathy and an extension of the crusades. This framing unfortunately obscures the very many ways in which peoples from different religions, such as Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived, worked, and cooperated with each other in the Mediterranean in the early modern period and beyond. In addition, by focusing on religious conflict as the reason why these activities took place, we also ignore how a career on the high seas could allow men from lower stations in life to rise in rank. Finally, we also deny the region the kind of cosmopolitanism it had vis-a-vis religious toleration and cooperation that it had for many centuries. To be sure there were wars, but most often they were about territory, money, and imperial ambition, with the veneer of religion applied on later for good measure.

During my time in Malta, I’ve remembered what animated my research in this time period and particularly in this geography. The Mediterranean has a long and rich history and it is connected to the history of the world. Columbus sailed west because the route to the Mediterranean were already controlled by the Ottomans and Venetians and because the Portuguese had managed to secure a route around Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. That voyage introduced Europeans to new land and peoples, and policies that were de rigueur in the Mediterranean, like slavery, took on new forms when they crossed the Atlantic. What I hope will come from my research in Malta this summer is a better understanding of the connections between the Mediterranean and Atlantic worlds in this time period.

Images courtesy of Liam Gauci

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