‘It is Not Halal to Raid Them’: Piracy and Law in the 17th-Century Ottoman Mediterranean

Joshua M. White - Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Virginia



This paper explores the efforts of the Ottoman central government in Istanbul to regulate the corsairing activities of the perennially disobedient port cities of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli and to define what constituted a legally permissible (halal) raid. From the late 15th century onward, the diplomatic instruments that regulated peaceful relations between the Ottomans and the Venetians, the ahdnames, contained clauses prohibiting piracy and the enslavement of each other’s subjects. Similar articles made their way into the ahdnames subsequently concluded with France, England, and the Netherlands. By the 17th century, however, the sultan’s nominal subjects in North Africa were regularly violating these provisions, with Tunisian and Algerian corsairs routinely attacking Venetian ships and raiding Venetian shores in contravention of the treaty and over the objections of Ottoman officials in Istanbul.

Even as the Atlantic powers concluded treaties directly with the North African port cities beginning in the 1620s, meant to spare them from attack and redirect it towards their rivals, Venice continued to seek redress exclusively from Istanbul.

Drawing on an array of Ottoman and Venetian archival and manuscript sources, this paper surveys the damage done to Venetian interests in the Ottoman Mediterranean by piratical attacks in the first half of the 17th century, and it explores the ways in which Ottoman jurists and administrators attempted – through fatwas and decrees rather than by force – to counter the claims of Tunisian and Algerian corsairs that the principles of retaliation, custom and Islamic law gave them the right to attack Venetian targets, irrespective of what the sultan’s ahdname promised.




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