Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean
by Joshua M. White
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 376 pp.
Reviewed by Raymond Ibrahim
Author of Sword and Scimitar
Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2019
In the late sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire and its European opponents increasingly withdrew from the Mediterranean, their primary theater of war, leaving it to privateer allies. As a result, “incidents of piracy increased dramatically, as both Mediterranean corsair proxies and Atlantic entrepreneurs filled the power vacuum at sea, undisturbed by the once dominant Mediterranean superpowers.”
White’s book aims to present “the Ottoman perspective” on piracy and law in the Mediterranean since most of this history is told from the “viewpoint of Europeans and on the basis of European sources.” He argues that the “Ottomans were not simply perpetrators or enthusiastic supporters of piratical violence as they have usually been portrayed, but rather its most prominent victims.”
The more the Ottomans withdrew, “opportunities for [Muslim] raiders to conflate ‘enemy infidels’ with protected [dhimmi] subjects increased exponentially.” Non-Muslim Ottoman subjects—religious minorities who paid tribute and were meant to be protected by their Ottoman overlords—became free game for pirates who did not split hairs over their enemy or protected status. This phenomenon where rogue Muslim groups victimize infidels in the name of jihad irrespective of their protected status continues to this day, for instance, the Islamist jihad on Egypt’s Copts, despite President al-Sisi’s “protection.”
The primary weakness of White’s book is a side-effect of its strength. By heavily relying on Ottoman sources, the book is one-sided, only from the Ottoman point of view. As a result, European and Christian corsairs, particularly Malta’s Knights of St. John, appear as “a serious, recurring, incurable menace that was extremely disruptive to Ottoman state and society and affected lives and livelihoods throughout the empire.” In reality the entire phenomenon of Christian corsairs preying on Muslims was retaliatory. As Robert Davis explains in Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, slaving around the Mediterranean was “a prevalently Muslim phenomenon.”
To demonstrate that Christian pirates “wreaked havoc,” White offers numbers: “Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at least thirty-five thousand to forty thousand [Muslim] slaves passed through Malta.” Compare this with Davis’s statistics: “between 1530 and 1780 there were almost certainly a million and quite possibly as many as a million and a quarter white European Christians enslaved by the Muslims of the Barbary Coast.”
White’s heavy reliance on Ottoman archives offers a more nuanced and detailed picture concerning the role of piracy in the premodern Mediterranean. Unfortunately this sometimes comes at the cost of losing sight of the bigger picture provided by European perspectives.
 Robert Davis, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003 ed.), p. 9.]
 Ibid., p. 23.