In 1640, while sailing off La Rochelle, France, Sieur d’Aranda was captured by the Turks, and then taken to Algiers, Africa, as a slave—a traumatic experience that gave birth to a fascinating little book.
Got a 1655 edition of this crazy little book the other day. One bookseller describes it as follows: “This book, almost totally forgotten today, was very popular at the time, when the corsairs from Algeria, Africa, were raiding the Mediterranean Sea with impunity.” A Flemish noble, Aranda was heading for Spain when Turkish corsairs captured his ship. He was taken to Algiers, and sold at the market place. He discovered a fascinating and corrupted world populated with enslaved Christians, renegade Muslims, corrupted Turks and mistreated Jews. Old books might lose power by the hour, but only an old book can take you there.
That’s what I love about old books: they open so many fields of exploration! Of course, this precise relation was republished in French in 1997, and in English in 2022 (as part of the collective work Barbary Captives), but these are confidential projects, as nobody really cares about Algiers in the 1640s anymore. On the contrary, Relation de la Captivité et Liberté du Sieur Emmanuel d’Aranda (Paris, 1665) is quite recognized among old books collectors. It isn’t so common, and it will cost you a few hundred bucks to get a fair copy. First published in Spanish, it was translated into French in 1656 (Bruxelles), and republished seven (or ten) times before the turn of the 18th century—the website Persee.fr mentions an American edition of 1797 that “no one has ever found”. The Degruyter.com website notes: “Emanuel d’Aranda’s account became the most popular Barbary captivity narrative of the seventeenth century.” Our 1655 edition comes with two folding engravings, including a naive map of Algiers and a scene of torture. The original edition features an allegorical frontispiece and Aranda’s portrait. According to the Rare Book Transaction History Search, Marc Van de Wiele sold a first edition lacking the illustrations in 2021 for $1,250. Then, last year, a 1677 French edition was sold for $403.30 on Catawiki. Last but not least, Arenberg Auctions sold the “very rare Dutch edition” of 1682 for $1,625 in 2022. There was no copy for sale on Abebooks at the time those lines were written.
“An old man with a stick in his hand took me by the arm and took me several times around the market, and those who were interested asked about my native country, my age, my occupation (...). They’d touch my hands to check if they were sweet or callous; they’d open my mouth to look at my teeth, to make sure I could feed on biscuits on a galley. (...) The old man was shouting: Arrache, arrache! which means, Who offers more?” Algiers was then a corsairs’ haven, and its entire economy depended on plundering and trading slaves—many of them being Christian. As a matter of fact, we’re closer here to pirates than to corsairs, as profits were clearly the main if not only thing these people had on their minds.
The city of Algiers was a Turkish dominion run by a Bassa, but the soldiers, who had everything of mercenaries, were calling the dice. “The Bassa can count on 12,000 soldiers, almost all renegades, lost people with no religion and no morals, who’ve run away from Europe or Turkey to escape the wrath of justice; this city is their asylum.” Aranda gives a fascinating historical account of the city, and he concludes: “Such is the state and government of Algiers, where 600,000 Christian slaves have lost their lives since Barbarossa captured it in 1536. It is hard to conceive that such an ill organised government is still around, and that this hole is feared by the whole Europe.”
Aranda and his friends couldn’t disclose their true identity at first, as required ransoms were proportional to your “quality”. For those who could afford it, slavery was but a temporary condition in this city where everything was for sale—including freedom. As a matter of fact, bargaining for freedom was business as usual, and Aranda and his two friends were eventually exchanged for 5 Muslims prisoners. Aranda divided his book into three parts: his own story, a short and fascinating history of Algiers (I found it necessary as most historians mix up names, years and nations, still mistaking the Moors for the Turks), and some 50 particular relations of slavery—some he had experienced, some he had heard about. This is a breath-taking immersion into a disturbing, scary yet exciting world.
This book was successful because the corsairs from Algiers were the highwaymen of the Sea, and that no European government was able to put an end to their depredation. This humiliating situation went on for a long time, and in 1723, Jean de la Faye was sent to Morocco and Algiers to buy back some Christian slaves*. Nowadays, thousands of migrants risk their lives daily, crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, and modern slave traders feed on their misery: they rob them, use them or sell them. As post-colonialism issues rages on in Europe, Aranda’s almost forgotten book proves that before or after colonialism, man has always found ways to exploit man—they just give it different names at different times.
Text and pictures: Thibault Ehrengardt.
* This gave birth to another book of course: Relation en forme de journal, du voiage pour la rédemption des captifs, aux roiaumes de Maroc & d'Alger... (Paris, 1726).