Ϸhorsteinn Helgason, The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage: The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627, translated by Anna Yates and Jóna Ann Pétursdóttir (Simon Egan)

Ϸhorsteinn Helgason

The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage: The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627

(Brill, 2018) 372 pp. $185.00/€154.00

In the summer of 1627, the island of Iceland was subjected to two large-scale raids led corsairs from the North African entrepôts of Algiers and Salé. Collectively remembered as the ‘Turkish’ raid, the first of these attacks targeted the island’s south-western coastline in late June; the second, and far more devastating assault, occurred nearly two weeks later and raided the south-eastern part of Iceland before turning westwards and hitting the Westman Islands. The events of 1627 resulted in widespread damage to property and saw over four hundred Icelandic inhabitants taken captive. Of those four hundred led away into slavery in North Africa, only ten percent were successfully ransomed – this was, in itself, a protracted process and one that was largely orchestrated through the efforts of the Danish monarchy. In this fascinating study, translated from the original Icelandic by Anna Yates and Jóna Ann Pétursdóttir Ann Pétursdóttir, Ϸhorsteinn Helgason re-examines the raids from two main standpoints: (i) locating the raids within a broader Atlantic, European, and Mediterranean context; and (ii) exploring the cultural memory of the raids in Icelandic society from the immediate aftermath down to the present day.

The introduction offers a nuanced overview of scholarship surrounding the raids themselves as well as recent work on European slaves within the early modern Ottoman Empire.  The author also draws attention to recent work on the Ottomans’ North African satellites – such as the port of Algiers – demonstrating an impressive ability to work across a variety of different languages and shifting historiographical traditions. The first chapter moves on to consider the origins of the 1627 raids as well as the possible aims and motivations of the main protagonist, Murat Reis. (Reis was, in fact, a Dutchman from Haarlem named Jans Janszoon who had been captured in 1618 by Algerian pirates. Following a short period in captivity, he converted to Islam and began a colourful career as an admiral and corsair in the king of Morocco’s navy. He later led a similar assault on the coastal town of Baltimore in Ireland in 1631). Here, Helgason examines the political and cultural scene in the early seventeenth-century western Islamic Mediterranean and emphasises that although Salé was within the kingdom of Morocco, it enjoyed a close relationship with the Ottoman-controlled port of Algiers. Many of the corsairs active at this time operated out of both ports – an issue which, as Helgason points out, has given rise to the incorrect idea that the raids were conducted solely by Ottoman ‘Turkish’ subjects. (Indeed, Helgason notes that English and Dutch sailors may have participated in these raids, thus underlining the complex, multi-ethnic dimension to ‘North African’ piracy in this period). Helgason is also careful to locate the motivation for the raids within the context of the wider Thirty Years War (1618-48) and argues that Denmark’s entanglement in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-48) made its Icelandic colony and the island’s plentiful fishing grounds vulnerable to attack.

Chapters two, three, and four move on to discuss the raids upon Iceland during the summer of 1627. Chapter two examines the first raid led by Murat Reis and the force raised from the port of Salé. Drawing upon surviving contemporary accounts of the raid, Helgason reconstructs the attack on the coastal village of Grindavík – an event which, despite the corsairs meeting some stiff resistance from Danish sailors, saw the pirates make away with one Danish merchant ship and somewhere in the region of thirty captives who could be sold as slaves or ransomed. Chapter three explores the Algerian raid on the south-eastern section of the island, an attack which Helgason believes to have been originally planned and orchestrated by Reis. Using a variety of later sources as well as folk tales, the author re-assess the impact of this more damaging assault. Chapter four examines the ensuing Algerian assault on the Westman Islands, focusing, in particular, on the killing of Reverend Jón Ϸhorsteeinsson. Strikingly, his murder at the hands of the corsairs saw him become an Icelandic martyr; his captured son, Jón Vestmann (taking his name from the Westman Islands), by comparison, later went on to become a corsair in the Mediterranean, enjoying a remarkable career before returning to Iceland in 1646.

Helgason moves on to discuss the Icelanders’ ability to defend themselves from incursions in chapters five and six. The author points out that prior to 1627, skirmishes with visiting English fishermen were not unknown; yet, the attacks of 1627 were by the largest suffered by the islanders in centuries and left a deep imprint upon collective Icelandic memory. Regarding defence, the fact that Iceland was sparsely populated meant that it was relatively easy for the locals to flee in the event of an attack. The majority of the armed forces on the island were Danish – however, as Helgason notes, the crown did not want to invest too heavily in the island’s defence nor delegate military responsibilities to the native Icelanders. Gunpowder was particularly difficult to keep dry in the Icelandic climate, the locals were thus vulnerable to the predations of well-armed pirates. In chapter seven, Helgason returns to the Mediterranean setting and explores the fate of those Icelanders taken into North African captivity. In order to commence the ransom negotiations, the city authorities in Algiers released one captive – the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson – who later wrote one of the most important accounts of the raid; his account forms a key source for this present work. Helgason investigates the mechanics of the ransom negotiations in detail here. Upon arriving in Copenhagen in 1628, Egilsson sought support from the Danish government. However, owing to the fact that Denmark was virtually bankrupt after King Christian IV’s unsuccessful war with the Holy Roman Empire, the crown was forced to tap into other sources of ransom income. Methods of raising income included holding church gate collections in Denmark, Norway, and Iceland.

The authors makes clear the difficulties faced by the Danish authorities in negotiating the ransom; an issue that largely centered on the fact that Denmark did not enjoy a formal relationship with the North African ports at this time. Intermediaries were required and the Danes looked to the Dutch and Spanish. By examining the activities of the Danish consulate in Madrid, Helgason reveals how the raid indirectly (and somewhat ironically) drew two confessionally-opposed countries closer together. The author also considers how a number of the more well-known captives navigated their dramatically changed circumstances. Conversion was one route to escaping a life of slavery and was a recourse taken by the aforementioned Jón Vestmann. Another famous captive, Anna Jasparsdóttir, also became a Muslim and married a Spanish convert living in Algiers. Helgason draws attention to the gender dimension underpinning these conversions; whereas Vestmann has been remembered in Icelandic tradition as as man forced into conversion (he atoned when returning to Iceland in 1646), Anna Jasparsdóttir has been viewed as an irredeemable apostate. By exploring the lives of both Icelanders, Helgason nevertheless, offers a very sympathetic view of two people who successfully navigated very challenging environments.

The final two chapters consider the long-term impact of the raid in Icelandic literature and upon material culture. Despite a dearth of primary material for the seventeenth century, Helgason expertly draws upon surviving eighteenth-century Icelandic sources to recreate a vivid picture of the raids’ place both within the landscape (i.e., placenames) and the built heritage. The author also considers how the raids have been presented in Icelandic schoolchildren’s history books from the nineteenth-century onwards. Focusing on the more nationally-centered textbooks, Helgason notes that the raid of 1627 has often been viewed as a symptom of ineffectual Danish rule in Iceland.

Overall, this is a very impressive study and the author has, on one level, clearly demonstrated the ability to work with a broad range of difficult primary and secondary sources across a variety of different languages. It should also be noted that one of the most remarkable aspects of this book is the author’s capacity to locate the raids within a much broader interpretative framework that draws together elements of history, archaeology, art history, and toponymy. At times, the author has a tendency to delve into too much detail beyond his core area of study. However, a reviewer’s task is to nit-pick and this is but a very minor criticism. This book will, therefore, be of interest to those scholars working in the growing area of Atlantic political and cultural history, Mediterranean studies (especially the relationships between the Christian West and Islamic East), and early modern cultural interactions centering on integration, assimilation, conversion, piracy, and slavery.

Simon Egan
University of Glasgow

This entry was posted in BookReview. Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.