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Joseph Pitts (author)


Joseph Pitts (author)

Joseph Pitts (1663–1735?) was an Englishman who was taken into slavery by Barbary pirates from Algeria in 1678 at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Little is known about Pitts aside from what is revealed in his narrative concerning his time held captive in Northern Africa, during which time he went through three masters ranging widely in their cruelty towards him over the course of more than fifteen years, with whom he travelled to Cairo and Alexandria. Though he escaped between the years 1693 and 1694, it was not until 1704 that Pitts first published his account. Pitts's A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans, with an Account of the Author's Being Taken Captive includes descriptions of his capture and captivity, including some of the first English descriptions of Islamic rituals.[1] Converting to the religion while a slave, Pitts was the first Englishman to record the proceedings of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. Pitts also describes the people of seventeenth-century North Africa (whom he calls Turks or Mohammetans) in detail, providing particulars on their manner of eating and dressing, the customs of their religion and marriage, and their economic and slave systems. Though its accuracy is debatable, Pitts’s narrative was the first and most detailed description of the religion of Islam and the manners of Muslims written by a European during the seventeenth century.


  • Pitts and the Hajj 1
    • Initial Rites 1.1
    • Mount Arafat 1.2
  • Trauma 2
  • Sexuality, Women, and Slavery in Pitts's Narrative 3
  • Pitts and his Masters 4
  • Controversy 5
    • Conversion 5.1
    • Physical Abuse 5.2
  • References 6
  • External links 7

Pitts and the Hajj

It was during Pitts’s time with his last master that he made his journey to Mecca to complete the hajj. Having converted to Islam under the urgings and tortures of his second master Ibrahim, Pitts departed for the hajj with his third master around 1685. His account described many of the aspects of the Islamic pilgrimage including the hajj caravans, the rites at Mecca, and the customary but not mandatory visit to Medina. Much of Pitts's account of the hajj can be verified as accurate, but there is debate as to the truthfulness of some of his relations.

Initial Rites

As a pilgrim, Pitts participated in the initial rites upon arriving in Mecca. This time is filled with the pilgrims' first tawaf, cleansing and drinking at the Zamzam Well, and completion of the sa 'y or sa 'i. Scholars seem to disagree as to what brought about this tradition, whether a re-enactment of Mohammad's reclaiming of the temple for Islam or that of the seven planets rotating around the sun.[2] Whatever the real reasoning or meaning behind the seven turnings around the Ka ‘ba, it became a part of the Islamic tradition of the hajj and was being performed by pilgrims immediately upon their arrival well before Pitts’s time. After this ritual is the cleansing at the Zamzam Well, something Pitts seems to have left out of his narrative. Peters describes the Islamic legend tracing the origins of this well to a time when Abraham’s wife Hagar was left in the middle of the desert with their son Ishmael who was dying of thirst.[3] Desperately running back and forth in search of water between two low hills called Safa and Marwa, God brought forth water from a spot in the desert for Hagar to give to her child.[2] An example of this interaction with the Zamzam Well shortly after the tawaf can be found in an account by Ali Bey al-Abbasi, a Spaniard who went on the hajj in 1807.[4] In chapter 7 of his narrative, Pitts mentions the drinking of the water but not in connection with these initial rites. Whether this is due to a mistake by Pitts or a genuine difference in the order of the hajj of the 1600s is hard to determine. However, this initial water rite then brings pilgrims to what is called the sa ‘y, a recreation of Hagar’s desperate search for water which they complete by running back and forth between the same hills seven times. Today this is completed within the mosque in Mecca called Masjid al-Haram. During Pitts’s time and up until the 1950s, this was completed out on the street.[2]

Mount Arafat

The vigil at Mount Arafat is another important aspect of the hajj which Pitts discusses. In chapter 7, Pitts says that they leave Mecca to visit “a certain hill called Gibbel el orphat (or el-Arafat), i.e., the Mountain of Knowledge.” Here he witnesses them perform Yawm al-Wukuf or the Day of Standing Together before God. Islamic legend explains that this hill was the place where Adam and Eve met after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden as well as where the Day of Judgment will take place. For pilgrims, it is “a place set aside for spiritual reunion, where pilgrims travel to re-form family ties, seek pardon, and re-collect their spirits.”[5] Though it is the “how, when, and where [pilgrims] receive this honorable title of hajji for which they are at all this pains and expense," Pitts claims that as to "why they so solemnly approach this mountain beyond any other place and receive from hence the title of hagges" he did not know, adding he gave "but little heed to these delusions."[6] He describes the times that they perform their preparations for the prayers and rites to be completed while at the hill, and how "they [beg] earnestly for the remission of their sins and [promise] newness of life using a form of penitential expressions and thus continuing for the space of four or five hours."[7]


Pitts was subject to numerous forms of trauma during his enslavement. These included:

  • Physical trauma, when he was repeatedly beaten by his patrons.
  • Enslavement trauma, described by Orlando Patterson[8] as a form of social death, wherein trauma is derived from the severance from any form of autonomy.
  • Adoption trauma, wherein there is a traumatic component to being separated from the parent and later adopted by another. Pitts's adoption, in emotion if not in law, by his third patroon had traumatic ramifications on Pitts' identity.

Due to these traumatic experiences Pitts developed a form of PTSD. Many scholars of memoir and PTSD have noted[9][10] that the memoirs of the traumatised often take the form of a "Working out" of the trauma, an examination of the causes and meanings of the trauma by a slow and steady examination of events to make sense of them. This reflects itself in Pitts's writing in the slow and steady buildup to the chapters that talk about the incidents of severe trauma, such as the beating received from his first and second masters and the emotional complexities of his conversion and later adoption.

Sexuality, Women, and Slavery in Pitts's Narrative

Pitts does not often mention women in his writings. It appears there are very few opportunities for him to be around women of any sort of status. However, the encounters he does write about give good insight into the Western views of Islamic attitudes about women. It is obvious that Pitts is not a stranger to violence. He is captured, enslaved, tortured, sold, and endures countless hardships throughout his journey. Pitts encounters violence against women several times in his account, most notably when describing the Imperial Turkish camps. He writes that the soldiers are "apt to drink, and are abominably rude, insomuch that it is very dangerous for any woman to walk in any by-place but more dangerous for boys, for they are extremely given to sodomy…" (236). In this passage, and in the context surrounding it, Pitts only mentions the danger to women once and focuses more acutely on the sin of sodomy amongst the soldiers. This shows that sexual violence is normalised for Pitts; he is much more concerned about the sin of sodomy than the sin of rape. He focuses intently on the immorality of sodomy but says nothing of the immorality of raping a woman.

In his discussion of marriage, Pitts describes how the marriage agreement takes place between the groom and the father of the bride. The woman's possible feelings or misgiving about the union are not mentioned at all. Pitts appears to perceive women as having little to no power in their relationships with men (242). He also discusses the idea of divorce and of Muslim men having multiple wives. According to Pitts, divorce is fairly common in the Islamic world and both parties are free to remarry afterwards. Multiple wives are not as common though; Pitts reports that very few men have multiple wives except out in the rural areas (243). These notions of power in relation to females are very much based in English ideas. Women in England gave up their property and dowries to their husbands upon marriage. Divorce was not common nor easy in England, although Pitts never details if a woman is allowed to ask for a divorce. Multiple wives were not as common among the middle and lower class of Muslim society; if Pitts did not rub elbows with the elite he would not have seen this phenomenon.

Pitts details a visit to a slave market in Cairo while he is on the hajj with one of his masters. In the market place, Pitts observes the selling of women and men. While men are forced to act out tricks to show off their strength and abilities like a horse show, the women are treated in a different manner. Women would be dressed in fine clothing when being exposed in markets, in hopes of catching a buyer's eye.[11] Pitts says that while the women's faces were veiled, men were allowed to freely view their faces, to feel the inside of their mouths and teeth, and to caress their breasts. If a woman's virginity was questioned, slave traders would sometimes permit a potential buyer to escort the she-slave into a private tent, allowing the customer to discover the answer to the question themselves.[11] He notes that many of the slaves are women and children as the men are kept as rowing slaves aboard ships. He also describes many of the people as "Muscovites and Russians, and from those parts and some of the emperor of Germany's parts" (270). These slaves have lighter skin, and they are dressed in fine clothing so they will fetch a higher price at auction. The slaves are examined much like animals; buyers are allowed to checked their teeth, muscles, and stature to get an idea of the overall health of a slave.

Pitts and his Masters

Pitts served a total of three masters, with varying degrees of treatment. Not very much insight is given of his first master, but we do know that his second master, Ibrahim treated him very poorly (318).[11] At the beginning of Pitts' capture, he mentions the poor diet that they were fed was equal to the treatment they received. When planning a mutinous revolt, Pitts describes how the rebellion was discovered. A man who was suspected of the idea of the uprising was brought forward in front of his fellow captives. Pitts states: ‘The captain, with a great rope, gave him about an hundred blows on his buttocks, but he would not confess the fact, generously choosing rather to suffer himself than to bring us all under the bastinadoes also’ (228). Ellen Friedman points out that the free Muslim man’s diet was no better than the captives’.[12] Friedman also addresses that captives were treated harshly to make certain that they were kept in line and knew their place. Their self-worth was often undermined and the captives would be humiliated in front of their companions. Robert Davis, in the book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, says that ceaseless beatings and humiliation are established at the beginning of the capture to not only frighten new slaves, but to ensure silent obedience as well. Many slaves watched as their companions were reprimanded into bloody unconsciousness.[13]

Pitts’ narrative then turns to the forcing of converting to Islam. He states: ‘It hath been affirmed by some that the slaves that are sold in this country are never compelled to turn to the Mohammetan religion.’ While this is deemed true, there are rare cases like Pitts who have been forced into conversion. His second master, Ibrahim, had hung Pitts upside down, revealing the bottoms of his bare feet and dealing out 300 blows with a cudgel. Though Pitts had changed religions, Ibrahim treated him just as maliciously as he had before, beating Pitts until his blood poured onto the ground. This type of treatment was unusual. The Qur'an instructs masters to treat their slaves with firm kindness. Though they might not have shared the same expectations about work and life, master and slaves mutually understood and shared “a bundle of mutual obligations.” [14] Slaves were meant to be kept healthy to work efficiently. If slaves were unproductive in their line of work, then they would be punished.[15]

Pitts’ third and last master was more of an ideal master. While Pitts wanted nothing to do with his master from the beginning, he soon became affectionate towards him when he saw that the master intended to give him a letter of freedom (323). Pitts describes his master treating him like a son, seeing as he had no children or relatives to love. Pitts also saw him in a fatherly light and, after given the letter of freedom, continued to stay with him for he was so kind. Freeing a slave was looked at as a great act of piety, and the act could allow the slave master to be forgiven of his sins. Even serious sins such as murder could be forgiven by the freeing of a slave. When Pitts makes the decision to leave, escaping back to his native homeland, he becomes conflicted with the situation of whether or not he should leave his fatherlike master who had made promises of leaving all of his belongings to Pitts after his death (332).



At the time period in which Pitts's narrative was written, many other writers of slave narratives were claiming, like Pitts, to have been forced or tricked into converting to Islam. However, research suggests that such claims were likely to be false. Research suggests that North Africa was religiously very tolerant at this time and that Christian captives who converted were likely to benefit from lying about having converted because the English Christians—their own families included—would have persecuted them.[16] This research suggests that Pitts might have done the same and that Pitts's alleged experience of having been forcibly converted would have been a special case, if true at all. More research, suggesting that Islam and renegades were often vilified in British culture and media, gives Pitts another reason to have lied about his conversion. Researchers describe the way, in English theatre at this time, renegades were often considered to be on par with Satan-worshipers and atheists, and traitors to their countries.[17] In direct reference to Pitts's writings, some research brings up the way that Pitts admitted to having been tempted to remain a Muslim, as well as admitting to the advantages offered him by doing so.[18]

Physical Abuse

There is controversy within the academic community as to the veracity of the abuse that Pitts, and many of his fellow captives, received at the hands of their masters. Many scholars cast doubt on Pitts’s account. Claire Norton posits various reasons why beating a slave as a form of prostelytisation would have been illogical.[19] A slave beaten into conversion would be of no economical value as Muslims were socially pressured to free their slaves once they converted. The Barbary Coast was also very egalitarian in its religious diversity, Christian services being held in various places, decreasing the likelihood of that a Christian would have no place in Islamic Society.

Other scholars, such as Robert Davis, also doubt the validity of many slave narratives while allowing that the use of violence against one slave served “as a warning to all the other slaves who might witness or hear of it to be on their best behavior.”[20] Pitts himself discredits the forced conversion trope, stating that this was a rare occurrence, “though it was my hard fortune to be so unmercifully dealt with.” However, Pitts provides a reason why his masters would have used violent force against him, namely that one of his masters had a sordid past and hoped to unburden his sins by forcing Pitts to convert and then freeing him, a holy rite within Islam.[21]


  1. ^ Pitts, Joseph. A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans, with an Account of the Author's Being Taken Captive (1704) reprinted in Piracy, Slavery, and Redemption: Barbary Captivity Narratives from Early Modern England, ed. Daniel J. Vitkus (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 218–340
  2. ^ a b c Inside Mecca. Dir. Taghi Amirani & Anisa Mehdi. National Geographic Television, 2003. DVD; Wolfe, Michael. One Thousand Roads to Mecca. New York: Grove Press, 1997. xxii–xxiii.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Wolfe, Michael. One Thousand Roads to Mecca. New York: Grove Press, 1997. 146 & 149; Peters, F.E. The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. 197 & 199.
  5. ^ Wolfe, Michael. One Thousand Roads to Mecca. New York: Grove Press, 1997. xxii–xxiii.
  6. ^ Pitts, "A True and Faithful Account", Chapter 7.
  7. ^ Pitts, A True and Faithful Account, Chapter 7.
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^ Friedman, Ellen G. "Christian Captive at Hard Labor." The International Journal of African Historical Studies 13.4 (n.d.): 616-32; Clissold, Stephen. The Barbary Slaves. 1st ed. Totowa: Rowman Littlefield, 1977. 86–101
  16. ^ Norton, Claire. "Lust, Greed, Torture, and Identity: Narrations of Conversion and the Creation of the Early Modern Renegade." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 29.2 ( 2009): 259–268. Project MUSE. Web. 1 March 2013.
  17. ^ Matar, Nabil. "The Renegade in English Seventeenth-Century Imagination." Studies in English Literature 1500–1900. 33.3 (1993): 489–505; Clissold, Stephen. The Barbary Slaves. 1st ed. Totowa: Rowman Littlefield, 1977. 86–101; Colley, Linda. Captives. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. 99–134.
  18. ^ Colley, Linda. Captives. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2002. 99–134. Print.
  19. ^ Norton, Claire. "Lust, Greed, Torture, and Identity."
  20. ^ Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters. 1st ed. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003.
  21. ^ Pitts, A True and Faithful Account, Chapter 9

External links

  • Travel, Trade and the Expansion of Empire
  • National Geographic- Inside Mecca on YouTube
  • Pilgrims from Islamic lands, The British Museum
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