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date: 21 September 2017

America’s Interactions with Islam and Judaism in North Africa

Summary and Keywords

Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.

Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.

These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.

As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.

After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.

Keywords: Islam, Judaism, captivity, missionaries, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Morocco, Egypt

Europeans and North Africa

Americans’ earliest and most extended contact with Muslims and Jews occurred in North Africa. Although North Africa would fade from most Americans’ consciousness after the Civil War, these early impressions would have a lasting effect on their views of Semitic people and the two non-Christian Abrahamic faiths.

The vast majority of Americans never knowingly encountered an actual Jew or Muslim before the 20th century. Nevertheless, images of Jews and Muslims, Islam and Judaism played an important role in early American culture. Encounters between Anglo-Americans and these groups were often well publicized, and Americans read and produced a good deal of orientalist literature about them. Colonial and early national theologians studied both faiths and their relationship to Christianity. Early American views of Islam and Judaism were very similar, in large part because so much of their information came from the same region, the North African states of Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, Algeria, and Egypt.

Although viewed as part of an exotic “Orient,” these states were the portion of the Islamic world closest to and most familiar to Christian Europeans, who had a long history of interaction with North Africa. Many Muslims, particularly in Morocco, had arrived relatively recently from Europe due to the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion of Moors in the 1490s or in later 17th-century expulsions of Moriscos. Europeans and North Africans were frequently at war, particularly in the 16th century as the Ottoman Turks gained control of most of what was known as the Barbary coast. Their great leader, Barbarossa (Oruς‎ Reis, 1474–1518), was of European descent himself, as were most of the janissaries who made up the military elite. France was for a time allied with the Turks, and the Turkish navy used Toulon as a base for a short while. Europeans and Muslims both captured thousands of prisoners of the opposing faith, many of whom, when released, informed their co-religionists of conditions across the Mediterranean. Miguel Cervantes was probably the most famous of the thousands of captured Europeans. When Europeans and North Africans were not at war, they traded in a wide variety of goods ranging from grain to gold.

After Jews were expelled from England in 1290, Spain in 1492, and Portugal in 1497, North Africa’s sizable Jewish communities were among the closest to western Europe. All of the North African states had towns with large Jewish communities in the thousands or tens of thousands. Many Jews in these places were of European origins, having come south from Spain and Italy or, less frequently, from Central or Eastern Europe. They enjoyed relative toleration. A small but very visible strata achieved great success and influence as merchants and political advisors. European traders and consuls frequently interacted with these Jews who rose to prominence in large part because of their familiarity with European customs and economic markets. However, most North African Jews lived in relative poverty. All suffered from the prospect of occasional persecution, particularly during periods of political instability.

The Colonial Period

Like other Europeans, early modern English people were reasonably well informed about North Africa and its inhabitants. North Africans captured at least twenty thousand Britons over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, some on British soil during raids on coastal areas in the 17th century.1 The idea of British people as “slaves” to Africans was shocking and resulted in a good deal of public interest, which was stoked by printed petitions and other literature. A short-lived British colony at Tangier on Morocco’s Mediterranean coast in the latter part of the 17th century also kept Britons attuned to North Africa and its people. While their literature focused on Islamic corsairs, Britons also were cognizant of Barbary’s Jews. A community resided in Tangier, and 17th-century British literature such as the anonymous fiction, The Blessed Jew of Morocco (1648) and Lancelot Addison’s The Present State of the Jews (More Particularly Relating to those in Barbary (1675), reflected interest in the topic.

The discourse of captivity dominated colonial American views of North Africans. Captain John Smith, the most famous of the Jamestown colony’s founders was captured by Turks and held in Constantinople in 1603. The next year he traveled through Morocco. In his account of those travels he observed that the Moroccans followed the “Religion of Mohamet, with an incredible miserable curiositie.” He also described Morocco’s Jewish quarter and mentioned that “Turks,” almost certainly North Africans, captured a Virginia ship headed for Spain in 1615.2

Early Massachusetts ships also fell victims to North African corsairs. Moroccans captured one as early as 1625, and New Englanders continued to fall victim sporadically throughout the 18th century. A colonial Massachusetts ship is thought to have been the first American vessel to engage in naval warfare when its crew encountered a North African ship in 1645.3 A Boston shipwright named Joshua Gee was captured by Algerians in 1680. His account of seven years of slavery was the first such narrative written by an American. Although not published until the 20th century, Gee’s account likely circulated throughout New England by word of mouth. Cotton Mather, one of Puritan New England’s most influential divines, would have been familiar with Gee’s story through his close acquaintance with Gee’s son, with whom Mather shared the pulpit of Boston’s North Church.4

Concern over North African corsairs prompted Mather to write two theologically oriented pamphlets on the subject in 1698 and 1703 in which he portrayed a conflict between despotic Muslims and Christianity. In doing so, he introduced several long-persisting themes into American literature on North Africa. Muslims, he asserted, were not merely despots, they were also satanic and deluded in following “the imposter Mahomet, and his accursed Alcoran.” He did, however, implicitly praise Islamic theologians for accepting that the Christian gospel was sent by God and that it described the “right way to fear God.”5

Like many later American Christians, Mather viewed captivity in North Africa through a chiliastic lens. Millennial prophecies gleaned from the New Testament equated the rise of the Ottoman Empire with the last plague prior to the day of judgment. Mather and others believed the Ottoman Empire, the “union of the four Turkish Kingdoms in the one Ottoman family,” would collapse in the early 18th century, thereby setting the stage for the millennium. The successful resolution of the captivity crisis was evidence of the decline of the Turks and coming ascendency of Christendom.6

Mather and other New Englanders also were well aware of North Africa’s Jewish population. Mather was among the first in a long line of Americans to describe the supposed perfidy of North African Jews. According to Mather, a Jewish merchant convinced the Moors’ “false tyrant” to prevent the English from redeeming the captives before purchasing them himself to use them as slaves to build a town for the monarch. New Englanders gained a more positive view of North African Jewry through their familiarity with Judah Monis, a North African Jew who lived in Italy and Jamaica before arriving in the mainland colonies in the 1710s. In the 1720s he moved to Boston, became a Hebrew teacher at Harvard College, and converted to Christianity. The college granted him an M.A., making him the first Jew to receive a degree from an American college.7

The American Revolution and Constitutional Debate

During the era of the American Revolution, captivity continued to color American perceptions of North Africa. But the founders also drew on portrayals of Islamic despotism that peppered Enlightenment political philosophy. John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, now considered among the most important links between British thought and the American Whig tradition, used Islamic rulers to symbolize tyranny. They specifically condemned the Moroccan sultan as “absolutely despotic” and asserted that “his will, that is to say, his lust, his maggots, or his rage, is his only law.”8 Readers of Book 24 of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws also would be familiar with the argument that Islam was connected to despotism, as would American viewers of Voltaire’s play, Mahomet the Imposter.

This view was reinforced at the close of the Revolution when American ships, no longer protected by the British navy, fell victim to North African corsairs. The first incident was the 1784 capture of the Betsy by Moroccans who had been among the first nation to recognize the United States, in 1778. Quick resolution of the incident resulted in a peace treaty between the new nation and Morocco in 1786. Algerians captured two other American ships, the Dauphin and the Maria, the next year. Their crews were taken into slavery, creating a twelve-year-long diplomatic mess that would color Americans’ perceptions of Islam throughout the early national period.

This frustrating engagement with North Africa no doubt was on the minds of many commentators who employed the trope of Muslim despotism when discussing the proposed U.S. Constitution three years later. While most referred vaguely to the despotism of the Turks or the janissaries, Thomas Jefferson, who was closely involved in negotiations to free the captives, referred specifically to Algeria when including the “Deys of the Ottoman dependencies” among the historically dangerous hereditary rulers exemplifying the need for “rotation in office” for the new office of the president.9 Other founders, most notably John Jay, referred to the Algerian crisis when arguing that the U.S. government must be strengthened to facilitate more robust foreign policy. Finally, in debating constitutional protection of religious liberty, a number of Americans questioned whether freedom of religion ought to be extended to Jews or Muslims—or in the vernacular of the time, to Jews, Turks, and infidels.

Captivity and the Early National Period

Due to the ongoing crisis in Algiers, Americans continued to view both the Muslims and Jews of North Africa through the lens of captivity during the first years of the republic. Pitiful letters from the captives inflamed American anger against North Africa at the same time that they revealed the new nation’s impotence. Politicians such as Thomas Jefferson tried to keep the issue out of the public eye, but that strategy failed when Algerian corsairs captured eleven more American ships and their crew members in 1793, bringing the number of American captives in Algiers to nearly 120, including several who had been held since 1785. The First Barbary War (1801–1805) further exacerbated the situation when the USS Philadelphia ran aground in Tripoli harbor and Tripolitans captured its 307-member crew in 1803, imprisoning them until 1805. Algerians captured the American ship Edwin in 1812 and held the crew captive until 1815.

These events reinforced perceptions of Islamic despotism, prompting further condemnation of North African tyranny. Such concerns often merged with fear of British tyranny for observers who believed that the king of England, another symbol of despotism in the early republic, was the moving spirit behind the North African crisis. This point was made graphically by a contemporary cartoon titled, “The Allied Despots,” which showed King George III and the Ottoman sultan side by side. The caption read, “The Imperial George instructeth his good ally and Cousin Mustapha … [and] extorteth him to annoy [Americans] by sea, as implacably, as the Savages do by Land.”10

American authors were especially interested in recounting Muslims’ use of sadistic punishments such as the bastinado or various methods of hanging victims on hooks. It was not uncommon for Americans to equate North Africans with allegedly savage Native Americans. Attendees at a 1794 public meeting in Philadelphia accused Britain of maintaining a “savage war” on America’s frontiers by colluding with Indians and of letting loose “the barbarians of Africa, to plunder and enslave the citizens of the United States.”11 America’s consul to Tunis wrote that in North Africa, “The Arabs in every respect resemble the savages of America, except that they are less enterprising.”12

These captivity crises also reinforced older stereotypes of Jews. During this period one of the most influential Algerian merchant houses, Bacri and Busnach, was a Jewish one. They exploited their connections to Algeria’s dey, the most powerful of the North African rulers, and their links to European merchants throughout the Mediterranean to become valuable middlemen in Mediterranean commerce. American officials, who were notoriously impecunious, had to go hat in hand to these Jewish merchants when in need of cash for any purpose, including redeeming the captives. The merchants’ shrewd negotiations with these Americans triggered nasty anti-Jewish reactions among them, none worse than that of William Eaton, America’s consul to Tunis. At various times, he labeled North African Jews sharpers, Shylocks, spies, and Christ killers. Many other Americans in the region shared his opinions, though none expressed them quite so forcibly.

The ongoing conflict between Americans and North Africans served as fodder for a spate of literary depictions of captivity in narratives, poems, novels, and plays. Captivity narratives, in particular, focused on evil, sadistic Muslims, as did the oft-reprinted saga of the torture of a female captive known variously as Mary Velnet and Maria Martin. But a good number of publications actually turned the tables by using white “slavery” in North Africa as a means of criticizing the hypocrisy and sadism of American slaveholders. These publications often portrayed North African Muslims in a more tolerant light. Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive (1797), one of the first American novels, not only used the title character’s plight to reflect on the evils of American slavery but included a sympathetic North African “mollah” who nearly convinced the hero that Christianity is not superior to Islam. Yet condemnation of Americans’ hypocritical outrage over Algerian “slavery” did not necessarily lead to toleration of Islam. In describing the moral equivalency of American and Algerian slavery, the anonymous poem “The American in Algiers, or the Patriot of Seventy-Six in Captivity” (1797) portrayed the Algerian “moor” as “the vilest despot and the worst of men,” who was no worse than the “savage brutes and overseers” in slaveholding Maryland.

A good deal of American literature reflected fascination with Islamic toleration of multiple marriages. The harem or seraglio was a standard subject in orientalist Western art ranging from Arabian Nights to the “Abduction from the Seraglio.” Early National Americans shared Europeans’ fascination with the sexual dynamics of the harem, but they also tended to view gender relations as further evidence of the tyranny of North African men and of their licentious lack of self-restraint. Some commentators made a similar point when they slyly hinted at the Algerian dey’s supposed proclivity for young boys. Susanna Rowson’s influential play, Slaves in Algiers (1794), was more focused on female slaves to “the lordly tyrant man” than on American captives. Like a number of American writers, Washington Irving parodied the situation in his Salmagundi by presenting the views of a fictional North African traveling in America. At one point, the visitor observes with shock that American women “instead of being carefully shut up in houses and seraglios; are abandoned to the direction of their own reason, and suffered to run about in perfect freedom.”13

Much as American writers used well-worn stereotypes to depict Islamic North Africans, they also relied on derogatory European tropes in describing Jews. Avaricious Jewish merchants were stock characters in their accounts. In Slaves in Algiers, Susanna Rowson drew from traditional European stage portrayals in creating a greedy, perfidious Jewish merchant who spoke with a Yiddish accent and discussed his “monies” much as Shylock did in Merchant of Venice. Royall Tyler also included a treacherous Jewish merchant in The Algerine Captive. To signal his debt to Shakespeare, Tyler uses quotes from The Merchant of Venice to begin two chapters dealing with Jews. American authors occasionally also drew on lascivious notions of Jewish women. In his very famous captivity narrative, James Riley describes two Jewish “sirens” who attempted to get him to part with his money, presumably through sexual transactions. This passage particularly outraged the American Jewish writer and consul to Tunis, Mordecai M. Noah. Less ominously, the Jewish woman in Rowson’s Slaves in Algier is portrayed as unusually frank sexually, although in the feminist context of the play this quality was more a mark of liberation than of harlotry.14

Early National Americans exhibited great pride in their new Constitution and its exceptional provisions for religious liberty. When they looked toward North Africa’s Jews, they frequently expressed shock at what they understood as the religious despotism of Islamic rulers. Mistreatment of Jews, they believed, was a prime example of Islamic intolerance. Both Riley and Tyler included instances of Muslim persecution of Jews in their accounts. James Stevens wrote in his history of Algiers that “whenever [Algerians] discover a Jew they immediately pursue him, while the poor despised wretch flies with the most hideous outcries to avoid the outrage of these banditti, who are at liberty to commit any act of violence upon him, with impunity.” Former American captive John Foss wrote, “Such is the gross indignation that the Mahometans bear toward the Jewish religion” that a Turk could murder ten Jews “with impunity,” while “the poor Israelites are not allowed to lift their hand in their own defense.”15 Jews, in fact, were subject to a number of pogrom-like attacks during this period, although the American Jew, Mordecai Noah, felt that North African Islamic states were generally more tolerant toward them than were European countries. Whatever the truth of Islamic persecution of Jews, most American observers were more concerned with contrasting American tolerance to North African intolerance than with the actual plight of North African Jewry.

The era of American captivity in North Africa ended with the Second Barbary War (1815). The United States’ complete and easy triumph over the North African states insured the end of American victimhood. Some Americans now saw themselves leading the Christian forces against Islamic tyranny. Newspaper accounts lauded Americans for giving the “barbarians” an “electric shock as was never before discharged from a Christian battery” and for being the “champion of Christendom.”16 America’s victory in the Mediterranean contributed to the growing sense of national power that was developing in the wake of perceived military success against Britain in the War of 1812 and superiority over Native Americans in the rapidly expanding western territories. As North African power declined and American imperial ambitions replaced the earlier sense of national impotence, perception of the North African states as formidable military threats receded and began to be replaced with a new perception of the region as a fertile site for Christian missionary activity.

Missionaries in the Early National Period

After the Second Barbary War, North Africa began to seem less intimidating and the United States appeared to be on the road to taking its place with the larger Western powers. As a result, missionaries and missionary societies started to replace sailors and captives as the Americans most engaged in North Africa. Missionary societies such as the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) founded in 1810 and the Female Society of Boston and Vicinity for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (1816) sought to proselytize Jews and Muslims throughout the Mediterranean and Asia. The ABCFM flooded the United States with publications detailing their efforts in foreign lands. Both groups drew from and superseded the older captivity literature in shaping Americans’ views of North Africa and the wider Islamic world. At the same time, the North African states began to lose power, in part due to the end of the trade in captives and the onset of European influence and colonization. While American evangelists still occasionally visited and wrote about North Africa, their interests increasingly were to the east in Palestine, Turkey, and Syria.

Much as Cotton Mather had a century before, early national Protestants tended to view the Islamic world through the lens of millenarianism. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 convinced some Americans that the millennial prophecies of the fall of the Ottomans were about to begin. It was, according to a New Jersey resident, “enter[ing] the wedge which eventually may produce a fracture upon the Mohametan empire.”17 The fall of Algiers to France in 1830 may have further reinforced the sense that the prophecies were on track. In the 1840s, the Millerites, whose leader, William Miller, expected the Second Coming to occur imminently, also believed events in North Africa conformed to chiliastic prophecies in the Book of Daniel.

While missionaries and their followers did not entirely dismiss the idea of Muslim tyranny and savagery, they generally subscribed to a more positive and nuanced view. The decline in captivity and the rise of American military power made North Africans less fearsome at the same time that the imperative to convert souls prompted more clear-headed analysis and an insistence that the inhabitants of the Islamic world were not too far gone to accept Christianity. William Jowett, one of the American missionaries’ English mentors, set the tone when he wrote that Egyptian Muslims were often clever and perceptive in their moral precepts and philosophical insights, but overall their religion remained a “system of deceit.”18 As a result of the rise of missionary work, Americans began to study Islam more closely and to produce new orientalist literature that could serve as a tool for spiritual, if not material conquest. John Bigland’s Geographical and Historical View of the World (1811) offered an “impartial” view of Muhammad as the “legislator of a nation” who found it acceptable to “establish the rational worship of one Supreme Being.” Hannah Adams’s Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations (1817) described Muhammad as “a subtle genius.”19

Islam now seemed so rational that some American missionaries began equating it to Socinianism (a variant of Unitarianism) and Deism. A New York Presbyterian pastor declared that “the creed of the Musselman is essentially the same with the Socinians.”20 While such assertions were probably not as negative as the earlier equation between Islam and Satan, they were hardly entirely positive. Certainly they showed respect for Muslims’ intelligence, yet, to evangelical Protestants, Deists and Unitarians also were not far removed from Satan with their rejection of the divinity of Jesus. Still, American missionaries found Islam persuasive enough that some feared the temptation to “turn Turk,” that is, convert to Islam. This was a concern for Pliny Fisk, one of America’s most famous early missionaries, who spent a great deal of his career in Egypt, studied Islam carefully, and began to believe that it had more in common with Protestantism than Protestantism had with Catholicism. Contact with renegades caused Fisk to fear that Muslims could be more successful in converting Christians (voluntarily or involuntarily) than the Christian missionaries had been with Muslims.

Converting Muslims was always difficult for Americans due to antagonism from Islamic authorities and resistance from the potential converts themselves. As a result, American missionaries tended to focus more on Jews and non-Protestant Christians such as Maronites, Catholics, and Greek Orthodox instead. The Female Society was devoted exclusively to converting Jews, and the ABCFM always viewed conversion of Jews as important. In 1826 the two groups teamed up to send out the first American missionary assigned specifically to the Jews, Josiah Brewer. Unable to travel to North Africa due to “unsettled relations between the Christian and Mahometan nations,” Brewer spent most of his time in Turkey and Greece instead.21 By the mid-1820s, missionaries focused on conversion of Catholics in the Mediterranean world and of Jews primarily in the Holy Land and Greece. They were protected in these endeavors by the Islamic Ottoman authorities, provided they did not attempt to proselytize Muslims.

Missionary interest in Jews in the Islamic world was also a product of the millenarian belief that the Jews must be restored to Jerusalem as a prerequisite for the Second Coming. As a leading American missionary said in the 1850s, “Salvation is of the Jews.”22 Despite the missionaries’ zeal, they were widely viewed as unsuccessful in their efforts to convert Jews throughout the Islamic Mediterranean or to bring them to Jerusalem. On learning a missionary in Acre had labored six years without converting a single Jew, a Jewish traveler from Baltimore informed him that “when the almighty will gather [the Jews] together, He will do it in the twinkling of an eye more than you and all the missionaries and all their societies can do if they worked till doomsday.”23

The missionary movement, like the captivity crisis, sparked a good deal of literature about Jews in the Mediterranean. A number of widely read books and periodicals would have done much to shape perceptions of Jews in the antebellum period. The first American history of the Jews was written by Hannah Adams, who was associated with the Female Society. Unlike earlier American writers, Adams and other missionaries rarely referred to the Shylock stereotype, but they did draw on older accounts of North African Islamic despotism toward the Jews. In part, this trope demonstrated the superiority of enlightened Protestant Americans to the Muslims, but it could also reflect what they understood as the Christ-killing Jews’ cursed condition. William Jowett, in describing the Muslim oppression of North African Jews, paraphrased Deuteronomy 28:65 when he wrote that the Jews “feel the curse in full, that among the nations where they are scattered they should find no ease, and have none assurance of their life.”24 Nevertheless, missionary authors tended to dig deeply into Jewish religious practice, often conversing at length with Jews in Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and other places. They believed serious study was necessary if the notoriously stubborn Jews were to be converted. In charging Josiah Brewer to study the condition of Jews in the Mediterranean, the leaders of the Female Society noted, “The first object of our missionary will be, by an open and affectionate manner to secure the confidence of the Jews, without which he can do them little good.”25

Late 19th- to 21st-Century America

North Africa was never central to perceptions of Islam or Judaism in postbellum America. Americans interested in visiting the Islamic world or proselytizing Muslims focused on Turkey, Syria, or most often, the Holy Land. With European colonization and the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the North African states had not posed a military threat for a long time and remained peripheral to American foreign policy. Additionally with the rise of Jewish immigration to the United States in the late 19th century and Islamic immigration in the late 20th, Americans no longer needed to leave home to become familiar with Jews or Muslims.

A series of anti-Semitic incidents in Morocco in the late 19th century did manage to gain attention from American Jewish groups and others. The Spanish-Moroccan War (1859–1860) caused a great deal of disruption to Jewish life in Moroccan cities. The Board of Delegates of American Israelites raised money and lobbied to assist Jewish refugees from the conflict. From the 1880s to the early 1900s American Jews and others fought what they perceived as persecution of Jews in Morocco. The United States raised the issue of anti-Semitic persecution at two international conferences held to determine Morocco’s fate: the Madrid Conference (1880) and the Algeciras Conference (1906). The focus on Morocco may have been an effort by the U.S. government to assuage the rising Jewish American population’s concerns about international anti-Semitism, particularly in Eastern Europe, by taking action in a region where the diplomatic stakes were much lower and success was more likely. At the same time, these efforts built on and reinforced existing notions of Islamic savagery and despotism. Felix Mathews, America’s Moroccan consul, urged protection of the Jews from the “semi-civilized races among whom they dwell,” and an author in the American Hebrew newspaper compared the Moroccans unfavorably to Russian anti-Jewish rioters, describing them as “prejudiced savages.”26

Throughout the 20th century, as American conflict with the Islamic world grew, the North African states only occasionally came to the public’s attention as sites of perceived Islamic violence. In Innocents Abroad (1869), a hugely influential travel account of the Mediterranean world, Mark Twain largely ignored North Africa, although he did note that the Egyptian Arabs “put on airs unbecoming to such savages.” A 1927 National Geographic photo essay on Mussolini’s invasion of Libya saw Italian colonization as a blessing for “this long derelict land.” The pan-Arabist movement promoted by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nassar raised concerns in midcentury America and prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to comment, “If you go and live with these Arabs you will find that they simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom or human dignity.”27

All of these images came together in the 21st century in public perceptions of Islamic terrorists. Once again, American notions of Islam are being shaped by events abroad, albeit usually outside North Africa, much to the detriment of the now sizable domestic Muslim population. In an important speech delivered at the University of Cairo in 2009, President Barack Obama reached back to his nation’s earliest encounters with Islam in North Africa in an effort to modify persistent views of Islamic savagery. He vowed to “fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.” He also implicitly praised Morocco for being the first nation to recognize the United States in 1777 and approvingly cited the 1796 treaty with Tripoli about which then President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” In doing so, Obama attempted to rewrite the early history of conflict, mistrust, and orientalist condescension between the United States and the North African states to create a more positive sense of intertwined destiny. In this sense, the early encounter in North Africa continued to play a role in American perceptions of Islam centuries later.

Review of the Literature

America’s interaction with Islamic North Africa became a topic of enormous interest to historians beginning in the 1990s. The rise of terrorism, American wars with Islamic nations, and, most importantly, the September 11, 2001, attacks on American soil all served to stimulate interest further, as did recent initiatives to globalize the study of American history.

Interest in diplomatic and military aspects of the U.S.–North African relationship predated the 1970s beginning with Ray W. Irwin’s 1931 volume.28 Several more recent diplomatic treatments, including those by Richard B. Parker, Frank Lambert, and Frederick C. Leiner, were published in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Leiner, in particular, deals directly with the parallels between Barbary piracy and modern terrorism.29 While not directly addressing religious issues, these authors do provide valuable cultural context.

Beginning with Robert Alison’s important 1995 study, The Crescent Obscured, historians produced a number of culturally oriented overviews of American–North African interaction. Timothy Marr’s work offered an overview of cultural interaction from the colonial period to the mid-19th century, while Lawrence Peskin and Christine Sears focused more on captivity and slavery. Fuad Sha’ban’s wide-ranging series of essays offers much material on the religious context.30

Since the 1990s there has also been an explosion of interest in North Africa on the part of literary scholars. They have focused on the captivity narratives and other literature emerging from Americans in North Africa. Paul Baepler’s anthology offers a good introduction as well as excerpts from some of the more important works. Edited volumes of two important captivity narratives, those of William Ray and Robert Adams, also offer excellent introductions. Malini J. Schueller’s work provides a broader overview of American orientalist literature, including many works situated in North Africa.31

On the missionary turn and later 19th and 20th centuries, see Christine Leigh Heyrman, American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam, and Karine V. Walther, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821–1921.32 Douglas Little’s American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 brings the story of American orientalism up to the 21st century.

The literature on Americans’ encounters with North African Jews is much thinner. Heyrman, Walther, and Little all discuss them to varying degrees. An older article by Morton Rosenstock focuses on the leading Jewish bankers in Algeria and their interaction with Americans and Europeans. Recent articles by Cengiz Sisman and Lawrence Peskin touch on American missionaries to the Jews and American anti-Semitism in North Africa respectively.33

Primary Sources

The richest sources for American interaction with North Africa are printed publications. There are a number of captivity narratives and missionary journals. Many are excerpted in Paul Baepler, ed., White Slaves, African Masters An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Among the most useful are John Foss, A Journal of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss (1795); James Riley, An Authentic Narrative of the Loss of the American Brig Commerce (1817); William Ray, The Horrors of Slavery, or, The American Tars in Tripoli (1825); and Jonathan Cowdery, American Captives in Tripoli (1806).

Missionaries printed a great deal of useful travel literature, including Josiah Brewer, A Residence at Constantinople in the Year 1827 (1830), and Alvan Bond, Memoir of the Rev. Pliny Fisk A.M., Late Missionary to Palestine (1828). Many more missionary accounts can be found in the Missionary Herald, which the ABCM published from 1820 until 1934. The most important contemporary literary works include Susanna H. Rowson, Slaves in Algiers (1794); Royall Tyler, The Algerine Captive (1797); and Anonymous, The American in Algiers, or The Patriot of Seventy-Six in Captivity (1797).

Diplomatic sources are extensive and when carefully used can provide a good deal of cultural context. Many of the most important items have been printed in Dudley W. Knox et al., eds., Naval Documents Related to the United States’ Wars with the Barbary Powers (1939–1944). Many other documents are available on microfilm in the National Archives and Records Administration’s enormous General Records of the Department of State (Record Group 59). Most useful are the Consular Despatch series from the various North African ports.

A number of groups of personal papers also exist. Most useful are the papers of James Cathcart at the Library of Congress, the Cathcart Family Papers at the New York Public Library, William Eaton Papers at the Huntington Museum and Library, and Pliny Fisk’s journals in special collections at Union Theological Seminary and Middlebury College. Finally, the ABCFM archives at Harvard University’s Houghton Library offer a wealth of material on American missionaries in the Mediterranean region.

Further Reading

Alison, Robert J.The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.Find this resource:

Baepler, Paul, ed. White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam. New York: Hill and Wang, 2015.Find this resource:

Lambert, Frank. The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.Find this resource:

Marr, Timothy. The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Peskin, Lawrence A.Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Schueller, Malini. U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation and Gender in Literature, 1790–1890. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Sha’ban, Fuad. For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture. Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Walther, Karine V.Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821–1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600–1850 (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), 56.

(2.) John Smith, Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America (New York: The Library of America, 2007), 734, 182.

(3.) Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

(4.) Paul Baepler, ed., White Slaves, African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 1.

(5.) Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters, 64; and Cotton Mather, A Pastoral Letter to the English Captives in Africa: From New-England (Boston: B. Green and J. Allen, 1698), 8.

(6.) Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, 102–103.

(7.) Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters, 66; and Jacob Rader Marcus, Early American Jewry (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951), I: 106–107.

(8.) Denise A. Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 23.

(9.) Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, 165.

(10.) Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, 32.

(11.) Charleston Herald, April 16, 1794, p. 4.

(12.) Charles Prentiss, The Life of the Late Gen. William Eaton (Brookfield: E. Merriam, 1813), 157.

(13.) Malini Schueller, U.S. Orientalisms: Race, Nation and Gender in Literature, 1790–1890 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998), 71.

(14.) William Ray, Horrors of Slavery Or, The American Tars in Tripoli, ed. Hester Blum (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 392; Mordecai M. Noah, Travels in England, France, Spain and the Barbary States (New York: Kirk and Mercein, 1819), 313; and Schueller, U.S. Orientalisms, 64–65.

(15.) James Wilson Stevens, An Historical and Geographical Account of Algiers (Philadelphia: Hogan and McElroy, 1797), 214; and John Foss, Journal of the Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss, 2d ed. (Newburyport: A. March, 1798), 39–40.

(16.) Lawrence A. Peskin, Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785–1816 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 202, 204.

(17.) Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, 112.

(18.) William Jowett, Christian Researches in the Mediterranean, From MDCCCXV to MDCCXXI (London: R. Watts, 1824), 249.

(19.) Christine Leigh Heyrman, American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), 51.

(20.) Heyrman, American Apostles, 61.

(21.) Josiah Brewer, A Residence at Constantinople in the Year 1827. With Notes to the Present Time (New Haven, CT: Durrie and Peck, 1830), 256, 263.

(22.) Fuad Sha’ban, For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2005), 78.

(23.) Mendes I Cohen to his mother, Beirut, November 4, 1832, Mendes I Cohen Papers, Box 2, Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, MD.

(24.) Jowett, Christian Researches in the Mediterranean, 231.

(25.) Brewer, Constantinople, 257.

(26.) Karine V. Walther, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821–1921 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 133.

(27.) Douglas Little, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 13, 18, 27.

(28.) Ray W. Irwin, The Diplomatic Relations of the United States with the Barbary Powers (New York: Russell and Russell, 1931).

(29.) Richard B. Parker, Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2004); Frank Lambert, The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, 1776–1815 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2005); and Frederick C. Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War against the Pirates of North Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

(30.) Robert Alison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism; (Lawrence Peskin, Captives and Countrymen; Christine Sears, American Slaves and African Masters (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2012); and Sha’ban, For Zion’s Sake.

(31.) Baepler, White Slaves, African Masters; Ray, Horrors of Slavery; Charles Hansford Adams, ed., The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Schueller, U.S. Orientalisms.

(32.) Heyrman, American Apostles; Walther, Sacred Interests; Little, American Orientalism.

(33.) Rosenstock, Morton. “The House of Bacri and Busnach: A Chapter from Algeria’s Commercial History,” Jewish Social Studies 14 (October 1952): 345–346; Cengiz Sisman, “Failed Proselytizers or Modernizers? Protestant Missionaries Among the Jews and Sabbateans/Dönmes in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Empire,” Middle Eastern Studies 51.6 (2015): 932–949; and Lawrence A. Peskin, “American Exception? William Eaton and Early National Anti-Semitism,” American Jewish History 100.3 (July 2016): 299–317.