"Selim the Algerine": Early-Modern Globalization and the Middle East

By Judith E. Tucker
Submitted to Session P2235 (Early Modern Seascapes, 2009 Annual Meeting
Mediterranean Countries;
13th-18th Centuries;
Historians have addressed early-modern (1600-1800) globalization as a largely European-centered phenomenon, shaped by the economic links and cultural encounters that came with the expansion of Europe overseas into the Americas and Asia. This paper tells a related but different globalization story, one that brings connections among the Ottoman Empire, the western Mediterranean, and colonial North America to center-stage by telling the story of “Selim the Algerine,” a hapless victim of early-modern globalization.

The paper briefly narrates the life of the historical Selim (as he came to be known), son of an Ottoman official from Algiers, who was captured by Spanish pirates in the western Mediterranean in the mid-eighteenth century, sold into slavery, and transported to Louisiana, from where he escaped and ultimately found shelter in English settler society in Williamsburg, Virginia. His life story brings globalization into a different focus, as merchants, slavers, and settlers operate their new networks far from Europe. I am concerned not only with demonstrating how globalization connected disparate areas of the globe through the movement of goods, people, and ideas (all of which we find in Selim’s story), but also with how a figure like Selim was understood as he crossed a number of cultural borders. What did Selim represent for those who interacted with him? As a “face” of globalization, what kinds of reflections and reactions did his presence provoke, both at the time of his adventures and subsequently when his story achieved quasi-mythic standing in local culture?

I rely primarily on contemporary accounts of Selim preserved in memoirs and letters from the period, housed in the College of William and Mary Special Collections and the Rockefeller Library in Williamsburg. There are, in addition, a number of local tales and legends collected in Tidewater and Appalachian lore. As a historian of the Middle East, I place this material very much in the context of the Ottoman/Algerian educational and broader cultural practices of the time that produced Selim and the patterns of trade and piracy that launched him on his journey.