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Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 1.2 (2003) 133-158

Pirated Tars, Piratical Texts
Barbary Captivity and American Sea Narratives
Hester Blum
The Pennsylvania State University

For most nineteenth-century readers of American sea narratives, actual experience of maritime life was hardly a prerequisite for appreciating the textual matter at hand. In fact, most sea writing was prefaced by assurances to the landed reader who might be wary of salty or technical language. Truth-averring prefaces, which glossed or justified sailors' use of nautical terms, were conventions of the genre. Charles Barnard, for example, offered his nautical account "to the judgement of his fellow citizens, dressed in the simple language of a seaman's journal"; he hoped "it may be received with that indulgence which it claims as a narrative of sterling truth."1 Nathaniel Taylor similarly saluted the launch of his narrative: "Going forth to the world, it claims but one merit—fidelity to truth—and welcomes the reader to the iron realities of a sailor's home and a sailor's heart."2 Another seaman author, John Sherburne Sleeper, confessed that his narrative "may not contain much which is extraordinary or exciting; but the pictures it furnishes of 'life at sea,' the illustrations it gives of the character of the sailor, the temptations by which he is surrounded, and the moral as well as physical dangers which beset him [End Page 133] on every side, have at least the merit—I had almost said the novelty—of truth" [Sleeper's emphasis].3 The value placed on "truth" in Sleeper's narrative is directly tied to the accessibility of the picture of maritime life it presented.

Nowhere was this relationship between narrative value and verisimilitude made more explicit than in Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, easily the most influential sea narrative (and one of the most widely read volumes) of the nineteenth century. Dana's preface encourages the landed reading community to assimilate technical nautical language and customs through comparative reading practices: "There may be in some parts a good deal that is unintelligible to the general reader; but I have found from my own experience, and from what I have heard from others, that plain matters of fact in relation to customs and habits of life new to us, and descriptions of life under new aspects, act upon the inexperienced through imagination, so that we are hardly aware of our want of technical knowledge."4 In Dana's narrative, like those of his fellow seamen, the opacity and mystery of life at sea is presented as an invitation to nonspecialist readers, who are encouraged to make legible the experience of a class of laborers whose work was often obscure or invisible. The truth of "plain matters of fact," for Dana, is in part rhetorical, and helps to construct a reading community of those to whom such truths might otherwise seem "unintelligible."

However, the confidence of writers such as Dana, whose presumption of a domestic audience for his work proved well-founded, had no purchase in the one distinct class of American sea writing that made no such universalizing gestures toward its readership: Barbary piracy narratives, written by captive American sailors of the federal era. Whereas Dana's narrative (and those of his contemporaries) offered "descriptions of life under new aspects" to a "general reader," the Barbary captives—an earlier generation of sailors—located their narratives' truth-value in their serviceableness to an audience of fellow mariners. As a consequence, Barbary narratives form a body of writing little known to readers and critics of the sea genre. Captive seamen consistently located the value of their writings not just in the texts' relation of interesting or affecting particulars but also, crucially, in their utility to fellow laboring mariners. The value of sailors as national subjects was a problem for a young [End Page 134] nation with neither the hardware for a naval defense against piracy, nor the coffers to ransom its captive nationals—and the...


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