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  • Peter Parley in Tripoli:Barbary Slavery and Imaginary Citizenship
  • Jacob Crane (bio)

At first glance, Samuel Griswold Goodrich's short work "Story of Robert Seaboy" (1833) seems a straightforward morality tale about the kind treatment of animals and the importance of family—the type of story that still fills children's bookshelves today. The story begins with the titular Seaboy as an old man encountering a group of mischievous young boys who are shooting birds for fun. Seaboy scolds the boys and implores them to be "the friends, not the enemies, of birds."1 To reinforce this lesson, he tells them the story of when, as a boy, he once stole a nest full of baby robins. Despite his attempts to care for the stolen chicks, they died the next day. Today's readers would recognize this conventional story as one told countless times before and since 1833.

However, in this case, the story does not end with the chicks' deaths. Not content to leave the boys with the specter of his own regret, Seaboy punctuates his lesson in dramatic fashion:

When I was fourteen years old, my father took me to sea. We sailed across the Channel, and entered the Mediterranean. This sea was frequented at that time by sea-robbers, called corsairs. One day, we were met by a [End Page 512] corsair vessel, and a sharp battle followed. I was on the deck of our vessel, when some of the pirates sprang from their own ship, and entered ours…. One of the pirates laid his strong arm around my waist, and sprang back into his vessel…. The robbers escaped, and I was carried into captivity. For nearly two years, I remained at Algiers, suffering great cruelty and hardship.

At length, I was released, and returned to my parents. I was now happy; but during my captivity, I frequently dwelt upon my cruelty to the little birds; and I suffered the more keenly from remembering, that I had as little mercy upon these helpless creatures, as the Algerines had upon me.2

For modern readers, this sudden escalation of violence may seem out of place within what had at first appeared to be a simple didactic short story. Why, of all possible villains, did Goodrich choose Algerian pirates to punish Seaboy for his animal cruelty and his disregard for family bonds?

From the broader perspective of nineteenth-century literary history, this African intervention invokes a genre integral to early American discussions of race and slavery: the Barbary captivity narrative. After the Revolutionary War, American shipping, removed from the protection of British treaties, repeatedly fell prey to corsairs from the North African states of Tripoli, Algiers, and Tunis. During this period, which lasted until approximately 1816, when European and American naval power finally suppressed the corsair threat, hundreds of American sailors were captured and enslaved, sometimes waiting as long as a decade to be ransomed. Once freed, a number of these sailors, including John Foss, Thomas Nicholson, and William Ray, wrote popular accounts of their captivity. These American [End Page 513] Barbary narratives, published between the 1790s and the 1810s, were distinct from older European accounts because writers drew explicit and implicit connections between North African and North American slavery, critiquing the limits of American liberty.3

As Goodrich's "Robert Seaboy" demonstrates, the popularity of these narratives extended into the nascent field of children's literature. In fact, Barbary pirates and slave masters would continue to appear in Anglo-American children's works throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, long outlasting the actual threat of Barbary piracy.4 Would Goodrich's young readers have recognized the reference to a series of national crises that had ended almost two decades earlier? Why do these North African figures remain so prevalent in children's literature for so long, and what can their continued circulation tell us about the enduring influence of Barbary narratives and of the discourse surrounding white slavery in Africa? Such questions point to larger concerns about the relationship between the fields of children's and adult literature in the period: How do the genres and tropes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature circulate within...


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pp. 512-550
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