“Eternal Confusions in Another World”: American Captives and Imperial Vulnerability in Algiers

“We are Distressed for you, O our BRETHREN, We are Distressed for you!” (3) Puritan minister Cotton Mather thunders in the opening of his “Pastoral Letter to the English Captives, in Africa” (1698). The letter addresses American captives in North Africa,[1] but Mather’s concern for their personal safety is only second to his preoccupation that they may “Renounce the Christian Religion” and become “wretched Renegado’s [sic]” (4-5). Mather’s pronouncements are a fitting introduction to the short readings of the Algerian captivities I propose in the following pages: Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797) and Maria Martin’s Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin (1806); first and foremost, because Mather inaugurates the conjunction between apostasy and confusion, which Tyler and Martin ultimately turn into a triangulation of apostasy, confusion, and empire.

Barbary figures such as the Muslim pirate or the renegade, when met face to face, prove to be far closer to the “American Self” (see Berkovitch) than expected; Barbary spaces and bodies are loci of confusion, “at once radically different and uncannily familiar; […] as appealing as [they are] threatening” (Fenton 93). “The Islamic empire” (Berman 2) as enslaver of Christians and expanding imperial space suggests the weakness of, but also competes with, white Early Republican identity. On a different level, the uncanny similarities between North African and American imperial agendas expose the contradictions in the US’s self-perception as a fiercely democratic and anti-imperial nation. Like a reverse mirror,[2] Barbary foreshadows “the horrors of what the United States could be” (White 23).[3] The Barbary captivity narrative and the figure of the renegade are literary embodiments of this uncomfortable mirroring and shed light on US “imperial vulnerability” (Colley 173).[4]

Mather warns his congregation of the consequences of religious betrayal, which range from the customary “Eternal Fire in the World to come” (5) to something much more troubling: “Eternal Confusions in another World” (11). Mather’s letter illustrates Colin Calloway’s observation that “confusion, not conversion, typified the renegade experience” (44). This essay starts from the premise that North Africa is a space of confusion for the American captives at the core of Barbary literature. In The Algerine Captive, the narrator will declare himself “confounded” by a renegade’s attempt to convert him. In Captivity and Sufferings, Maria Martin timidly undermines Mather’s radical Othering of Algerians as “dragons” and “monsters” in another Barbary letter, “The Glory of Goodness” (1703) (Mather 10, 11). In a confused narration where Martin alternates awe and repulsion, Muslim pirates are miscreants who effectively combine piratic infamy with American virtue. Underhill’s barely escaped conversion and Martin’s partial disruption of Othering canons are the product of the ‘confusion’ triggered by Algerian experiences, and they jointly show that “the construct of Algiers” does not always “create the space for a distinct American identity based upon an ideology of moral superiority” (Brandt 160).


“I trembled for my faith”: Renegade Bodies and Spaces


In the second volume of The Algerine Captive, the picaresque narrator Updike Underhill has been captured and enslaved in Algiers. There, he has two close encounters with renegades: the first one is an Englishman who takes pity on his condition and reminds him that, by converting to Islam, his freedom would be restored. All he has to do is inform his master he is considering conversion and he will be sent to a “college” to meet a “mollah.” The mollah, himself a renegade, is a former orthodox Christian turned Muslim. The renegades’ bodies and the spaces they inhabit are sites of confusion and anxiety for the Christian narrator. While the appearance of the first renegade urges Underhill to reconsider what he thought he knew about his kind, the few days at the college leading to the encounter with the second renegade are enough to mitigate Underhill’s defensive posture towards apostasy, making his own body vulnerable to cultural and spiritual colonization.

Chapter 37 of The Algerine Captive opens with a warning against apostasy. The epigraph calls the renegade a “wretch” who has “wipe[d] off the blessed cross from his dishonour’d brow” (128). The angels tremble in front of them, struck with a mixture of “grief” and “wonder” (128). There is a hiatus, however, between the epigraph’s fierce condemnation of renegades and the events narrated in this chapter and the following two. At first sight, the renegade’s body is a site of inconsistencies. Approached by the first one while going about his work, the narrator lingers on this puzzling sight: The clash of his rosy complexion and the local robes – a “Turkish dress” and a “turban” that “pronounced him a Mahometan” (128) – immediately mark him as a renegado. His body language and non-verbal stimuli arouse confusion, as the man’s “mild air and manners betrayed nothing of the ferocity of the renegado” (128). That he ‘betrayed nothing’ is an ambiguous formulation: does the narrator consider this particular renegade to be skilled at hiding his ferocity, or do his soothing manners make the narrator question his assumptions about the ferocity of renegades? Moreover, the “pity” with which the renegade regards Christian slaves is “entirely inconsistent” with the conspicuous hatred “pious” Muslims reserve for their infidels (128).

The “sacred college of the Mussulman Priest” (132) – in all likelihood a madrasa, an Islamic school – where Underhill meets the local “mollah,” sheds precious light on the confusions of apostasy. Not unlike the bodies of renegades, the space of the madrasa is duplicitous: a “gloomy building” on the outside, it reveals an “earthly paradise” within its walls (131). Once more, the subtitles prove misleading as they announce a chapter on “The Mortifications and Austerites of the Mahometan Recluse” (131), but the reader wonders if irony is involved, since Underhill is “offered with profusion all those soft excitements […] which the most refined voluptuary could desire” (131). In the college, the narrator goes through physical experiences that lay bare his vulnerability, lower his defenses, and literally soften his skin. He is for instance, bathed and scrubbed “so hard” by his attendants, that his face and limbs feel “as fair as a child’s of six months old” (133), but also he also suspects their goal is to “cleanse me from all the filth of error […] that I verily thought they would have flayed me” (132).   fearing that this is what awaits him, he is overcome by shock and confusion when, instead of “force and terror” he is met with the renegade mollah’s “candour and gentleness” and admits to be “totally unprepared” (134). “I trembled for my faith,” he finally confesses, “and burst into tears” (134).

The college, its bath, and its garden are miniatures of Algiers and Barbary as spaces of spiritual colonization. This scenario is a projection and reversion  of another spiritual colony: the narrator’s home, New England, the theatre of en masse Native American conversions to Christianity, land of Praying Towns, and home to white missionaries like John Eliot, the Mayhews, and Eleazar Wheelock, who dedicated their lives to the so called ‘Praying Indians.’ In a lengthy footnote, Underhill elaborates on Native American bathing practices “founded on similar principles” that European luminaries would have “pronounced deletery” but apparently “produced pristine health and vigour, when prescribed by the Indian physician, or pow-wow” (132). The narrator’s reference to Native American bathing practices as similar to what he undergoes in Algiers suggest that the parallel between cultural Others across the Atlantic might be on his mind. Here, however, it is the American narrator who occupies a subaltern position, exposed to the soothing manners of a missionary, on whom he depends in economic and social terms. This enables a fleeting moment of identification with Otherness, to put it with Jacob Rama Berman (2), more specifically with the American Native: What is at stake for the narrator through conversion is citizenship, and a legitimate place in Algerian society, the same way Native converts were promised a viable identity in the early American colonial order. This sudden shift to a position of subalternity, where the narrator’s personhood depends on his willingness to forgo his cultural and spiritual legacies, exposes his vulnerability and unleashes anxieties.

Ultimately, the narrator admits that, for a moment, the mollah had him shaken and “almost confounded” (142; emphasis added). The narrator’s confusion is like the angels’, “more struck with grief or wonder, who can tell?” (128) at the sight of a renegade. Their wonder is a reaction to the absurdity of religious ‘betrayal,’ Underhill’s, to how close he came to apostasy. In the days he spends in the college he is, after all, anointed with the “balm of Mecca,” “clothed in the drawers, slippers, loose coat, and shirt of the country”, hands and feet colored with henna (Tyler, 132-133). He had, as Berman notes, “Arabiz[ed] himself” (20).


Self-Made Corsairs: The Barbarossa Brothers


In History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin (1806), the narrator’s thoughts on the city of Algiers and its inhabitants are strikingly contradictory: Algiers is, once more, a place that confounds, where the nascent American imagination tests vocabularies of alterity. The title’s bleak premises, announcing that the narrator was Six Years a Slave in Algiers, Two of which She was Confined in a Dark and Dismal Dungeon, Loaded with Irons, are hardly compatible with Martin’s first impression of Algiers,[5] as she seems moved by the beauty of the place: “The climate is remarkably delightful. The air is pure and serene. […] The town appears beautiful at a distance, when approaching from the water” (6-7). Martin shows little interest in making Algiers into a living hell and its inhabitants into enemies: Her tone is generally descriptive, even appreciative, and negative remarks are rare. However, there is a perceivable tension in Martin’s text that surfaces through contradictions. Algerians are both “active” (10) and “indolen[t]” (13). They are not exposed to the “sedentary and unhealthy employments” of American towns, like the “café” (10), but spend most of their time “in drinking coffee and smoaking [sic]” (13). Martin’s judgment on the locals thus oscillates between approval and disapproval, as if she were to balance a genuine fascination for the unknown with the awareness of writing within a genre that would be laying the discursive foundation of the ‘American Self’ against the backdrop of a non-Christian, non-Western space.

To look at this phenomenon in more detail, I will linger on a section called “Origins of the Present government of Algiers,” where the narrator chronicles the role the “Barbarossa” brothers – the renowned pirates from the island of Lesbos –  played in Algerian history. In Martin’s narrative, the two corsairs embody the American trope of self-reliance, but are simultaneously described through clusters of Othering markers. The discriminant which marks the passage from an appreciative semantics of selfhood to a distancing one of Otherness is their involvement in expansionist maneuvers affecting Western and Christian states, and, by extension, the Christian democracy the US itself was preparing to become. In this respect, Stefan Brandt posits that Algiers “became a fundamental threat to American prosperity and democracy to form a sinister space of non-civilization, against which the fledgling American Republic could be positioned as a beacon of progress” (159-160). My focus on Algiers as a space of confusion and confrontation suggests that Martin’s captivity abandons this dualism of darkness and light in favor of a politics of mixed feelings.[6] As long as the Barbarossa brothers rise to power within the Barbary sphere, the narrator lets them participate in American templates; as they pose an expansionist threat to Christian countries, however, they trigger a measure of imperial anxiety that the author translates into Othering semantics. The first edition of History of the Captivity and Sufferings of Mrs. Maria Martin was published in 1806, after the Tripolitan War (1805-1801) had “marked the US’ debut as a global naval power” (Dillon 407); this newly gained visibility “evoked questions of national coherence related to remapping the globe in light of the American shift from colony to nation” (Dillon 409). Martin’s oscillatory assessment of Algerian maritime strength may derive from these shifts and re-mappings, and from the “questions of national coherence” brought about by the US’ exposure to the global transatlantic context and the necessary confrontation with other naval powers.

The success story of Horoc and Hayradin, both known as “Barbarossa” due to their red beards, begins on the island of Lesbos, in the Ottoman Empire. The narrator constructs their success in Franklinesque terms: Their “enterprising spirit, […] valour and activity” (16) facilitated their career from sons of a potter to “masters of a small brigantine” and then of a “fleet of twelve galleys” (16). They are equipped with “ambitious views” and “the talents of the conquerors” (17), so when offered an opportunity of establishment in the ports of Barbary, “they did not suffer it to pass unimproved” (17). The affinity to the American self-made-man trajectory is evident in Martin’s appreciation of the Barbarossas’ relentless “enterprising spirit,” which, in this passage, obscures the “infamous trade” of piracy (16) that turned the Barbarossas from potters to rulers. Berman claims that Americans in Barbary “saw in the various cultural groups they encountered not absolute difference […] but moments of uncomfortable cultural recognition” (5; emphasis added). Martin’s account can be read in this light as illustrative of a Barbary-specific language of “anxious recognition” which provided “the possibility for identifying with otherness” (Berman 15, 2). When these sailors “assum[e] the ideas and acquir[e] the talents of the conquerors” and their power grows to the point that they were “not only capable of keeping the Moors and Arabs in subjection at home, but of annoying the Christians at sea” (18), Martin’s language shifts towards an Othering register. As Hayradin becomes dreaded by the maritime Christian powers, the American narrator’s colonial anxiety becomes more palpable. It is at this conjuncture that Martin’s wariness of Algier’s political expansion becomes entangled with religion and the perils of conversion.

A decisive paragraph shows the intensification of negative terms and the entanglements between imperial expansion and religion in Martin’s conceptual universe. Here, “the Algerines bec[ome] more insolent, openly def[ying] all the European powers,” they “infes[t]” the British Channel, make “a vast number of captures,” and “prosecut[e] their piracies with “impunity” (24). The routes of geopolitical expansion coincide with religious identity, as “the perfidious behavior of these miscreants” brings “terror and disgrace [on] Christendom” (24; emphasis added). The appearance of a Sardinian renegade, Hassan Aga, concurs to sharpen the image of geopolitical expansion as religious conflict. Hassan, appointed by Hayradin as bashaw of Algiers “pursue[s] his ravages on the Spanish coast with greater fury than ever” (19). As Hassan attacks his fellow Catholics with oblivious hatred and vindictiveness, Martin underlines that conversion brings the erasure of not only religious, but also political affiliations: A renegade’s treason is complete and irremediable. This resonates with The Algerine Captive, where conversions are “political as well as religious: in Algiers, the Christian who becomes a Muslim is also the slave who becomes a citizen” (Fenton 171). In Martin’s account – as well as in Tyler’s – it is not the renegade who is prey to “eternal confusions,” like Mather’s Barbary renegades, but the American. Confusion in the shape of contradictions and oscillations is deeply entwined in Martin’s narrative, where her desire to seek affinities between Algerians and Americans gives way to the imperative of inscribing Otherness onto non-Christian peoples, constructing an enemy that could uphold nascent narratives of American hegemony.

The semantic field of reversion and inversion recurs so extensively in Barbary captivity studies that it almost became a trope worth studying in itself. The captivity narrative and the scholarship it generated have followed the Orientalist tradition in constructing Barbary as a distorted mirror, offering a reflection and reversion of the democratically inclined Early American Republic. In the present essay, I have shifted the focus from Barbary’s Otherness to its Sameness, casting it as space of surprising recognition and confusion. Parallel to a vocabulary of opposition, entering the space of Barbary animates a destabilizing language of identification with Otherness that translates into Martin’s oscillations, Tyler’s ambiguous phrasings, and above all, the semantics of stupor and wonder that emerge from the debris of fallen prejudice.  Even when approaching it in chains, Algiers “appears beautiful at a distance.”


[1] In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, privateers from the independent kingdom of Morocco and the Ottoman-affiliated territories of Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers attacked European and North American trader ships and harvested captives. John Blasingame estimated that between five hundred thousand and one million white slaves were held in North Africa (in Baepler 219). The United States fought two ‘Barbary Wars’ over captives and the right to sail undisturbed, one with Tripoli in 1801–1805 and one with Algiers in 1815–1816. While some of the captives were returned to their home countries after costly negotiations, other decided to “cross over” (Colley 173), convert to Islam and remain with their captors.

[2] On tropes of reflection and reversion, see, for example, Berman 14-16 or Brandt 162-163.

[3] See also Brandt 163 and Larkin 501. Cf. Berman 4.

[4] In 2000, Colley lamented the scarcity of studies on renegades: “no historian has explored captives and renegades from these societies as a means of investigating issues of identity and imperial vulnerability” (173). On Barbary renegades see also Sayre, “Renegades from Barbary” and Edwards, “Disorienting Captivity.”

[5] On Algiers “as a space of racial and cultural ambiguity” (168) see also Brandt 162, 165 and 168.

[6] Cf. Bouânani, “Propaganda for Empire,” esp. 401.


 Works Cited

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Puritan Origins of the American Self. Yale UP, 1975.

Berman, Jacob Rama. “The Barbarous Voice of Democracy: American Captivity in Barbary and the Multicultural Specter.” American Literature, vol. 79, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1-27.

Brandt, Stefan L. “The Algerine Dilemma: (Cons)Piracy and the Specter of North Africa in Early U.S. Barbary Captivity Narratives.” Hemispheric Encounters: The Early United States in a Transnational Perspective, edited by Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez & Markus Heide. Peter Lang, 2016, pp. 157-171.

Colley, Linda. “Going Native, Telling Tales: Captivity, Collaborations and Empire.” Past & Present 168, 2000, pp. 170-193.

Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. Oxford UP, 1986.

Edwards, Brian T. “Disorienting Captivity: A Response to Gordon Sayre.” American Literary History, vol 22, no. 2, 2010, pp. 360-367.

Fenton, Elizabeth. “Indeliberate Democracy: The Politics of Religious Conversion in Royall Tyler’s ‘The Algerine Captive.’” Early American Literature, vol. 51, no. 1, 2016, pp. 71-100.

Larkin, Edward. “Nation and Empire in the Early US.” American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3, 2010, pp. 501-526.

Mather, Cotton. “Letter to the English Captives, In Africa. From New-England.” Green and Allen, 1698.

—. “The Glory of Goodness.” Green and Eliot, 1703.

Martin, Maria.  A Narrative of the Captivity and Suffering of Mrs. Maria Martin. Crary, 1806.

Sayre, Gordon M. “Renegades from Barbary: The Transnational Turn in Captivity Studies.” American Literary History, vol. 22, no. 2, 2010, pp. 347-359.

Tyler, Royall.  The Algerine Captive; Or, The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill, Six Years a Prisoner Among the Algerines. Gleason and Co., 1816.

White, Ed. “Divided We Stand: Emergent Conservatism in Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 27, no. 1, 2010, pp. 5-27.








About Elena Furlanetto

Elena Furlanetto earned her doctorate in American Literary and Cultural Studies from the Technical University of Dortmund in July 2015 and currently works as researcher at the University of Duisburg-Essen. She is the author of Towards Turkish American Literature: Narratives of Multiculturalism in Post-Imperial Turkey (2017) and a co-editor of A Poetics of Neurosis: Narratives of Normalcy and Disorder in Cultural and Literary Texts (with Dietmar Meinel 2018) as well as Media Agoras: Islamophobia and Inter/Multimedial Dissensus (with Frank Mehring, 2020). She has published on the influences of Islamic mystic poetry on American Transcendentalism, on Orientalism in Hollywood film, and on the captivity narrative. Her research and teaching interests also include postcolonial literatures, comparative empire studies, and poetry. Elena Furlanetto is writing her postdoctoral thesis in the framework of the DFG Research Unit “Ambiguität und Unterscheidung: Historisch-kulturelle Dynamiken” (Ambiguity and Difference: Historical and Cultural Dynamics). Her focus are dynamics of ‘ambiguation’ in the early and nineteenth-century Americas.
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