Cervantes in Algiers: A Captive's Tale
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Returning to Spain after fighting in the Battle of Lepanto and other Mediterranean campaigns against the Turks, the soldier Miguel de Cervantes was captured by Barbary pirates and taken captive to Algiers. The five years he spent in the Algerian bagnios or prison-houses (1575-1580) made an indelible impression on his works. From the first plays and narratives written after his release to his posthumous novel, the story of Cervantes's traumatic experience continuously speaks through his writings. Cervantes in Algiers offers a comprehensive view of his life as a slave and, particularly, of the lingering effects this traumatic experience had on his literary production.
No work has documented in such vivid and illuminating detail the socio-political world of sixteenth-century Algiers, Cervantes's life in the prison-house, his four escape attempts, and the conditions of his final ransom. Garces's portrait of a sophisticated multi-ethnic culture in Algiers, moreover, is likely to open up new discussions about early modern encounters between Christians and Muslims. By bringing together evidence from many different sources, historical and literary, Garces reconstructs the relations between Christians, Muslims, and renegades in a number of Cervantes's writings.
The idea that survivors of captivity need to repeat their story in order to survive (an insight invoked from Coleridge to Primo Levi to Dori Laub) explains not only Cervantes's storytelling but also the book that theorizes it so compellingly. As a former captive herself (a hostage of Colombian guerrillas), the author reads and listens to Cervantes with another ear.
of Malta in 1566; Leghorn, refounded by Cosimo de’ Medici; and finally, above all, the astonishing city of Algiers, which functioned as the apotheosis of privateering. This fascinating North African city would leave its indelible mark on Cervantes. The Apotheosis of Privateering In 1571, when Cervantes arrived, Algiers was a booming urban center of about one hundred twenty-five thousand inhabitants, freemen and slaves, perhaps even more populous than Palermo or Rome (Wolf, 97–98). Formidably
captives in this drama. Hostile nomad tribes who hunted fugitives for bounty, wild animals—such as lions, hyenas, and cheetahs—and lack of food or drink made it a nightmare. Per Álvarez, a fugitive in El trato de Argel, describes the ordeal that tempts him to return to his captors in Algiers: Tanto pasar de breñas y montañas y el bramido contino de fieras alimañas, me tienen de tal suerte, que pienso de acabarle con mi muerte. THE BARBARY CORSAIRS 41 [So much crossing of heath and mountains,
por un santo” [that they took him for a saint] (Topografía, II: 4). The fact that the Jews were situated at the lowest point of the social echelon, even below the Christian slaves in Algiers and most cities of the Maghrib (Topografía, I: 111–14), may explain Mahamed’s decision to convert to Islam. The mistreatment of Jews in Morocco and the Maghrib is described by a sixteenth-century traveler and writer from Granada, Luis del Mármol Carvajal: “son los Iudíos en Affrica muy vituperados de los
swept over the region at the end of the fifteenth century, one that lasted until the eighteenth century with the wars of Muslim and Christian privateers (Abun-Nasr, 142–43). Despite his diatribes against the Algerians and the inhabitants of Barbary, Sosa recognized the famous schooling in the human sciences in Islam and the work of philosophers, doctors, and astrologers in Muslim Spain, such as Avicenna [Ibn Sìnà], Averroes [Ibn Rushd], Rasis (historian Ahmad ar-Razi, the Moor), and Avempace
other, even more horrifying tortures, for the condemned men of Algiers do not suffer on account of their sins, evildoings, or weaknesses. Their sorrow arises from tragic accidents in their lives, determined by an incomprehensible destiny: “dura, inicua, inexorable estrella” [hard, wicked, inexorable fate] (Trato, I.339). Almost four centuries later, Primo Levi would invoke Dante’s Inferno, this time in response to the horror of the Lager, where thousands of men, women, and children were dying of