Barbary Corsairs in Reverse. The Odyssey of al-Hassan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan

Most people know about the Barbary corsairs, the North African pirates who terrorized Mediterranean sea travelers from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth (the US fought two wars against the corsairs and their patrons, in 1801 and 1815). Fewer are aware that the corsairs were only one part of a vast war of raid and counter-raid fought for centuries across the Mediterranean between Christian privateers like the Knights of Malta or the Order of Santiago. Just like the Barbary corsairs took prisoners they sold on as slaves, so did their Christian opponents.

It was Don Pedro de Cabrera y Bobadilla, a commander in the Order of Santiago and the brother of the bishop of Salamanca, who made one of the most important captures of the era. In 1518, he seized a ship carrying al-Hassa ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, a diplomatic representative of the sultan of Fez. Carried back to Italy and offered up to Pope Leo X, al-Wazzan became an important asset to Rome’s humanists. Baptised as Joannes Leo (or Yuhanna al-Asad), he prepared an Arabic grammar, an Arab-Latin-Hebrew medical dictionary, and several biographies and histories. But his most important work was his Cosmography and Geography of Africa, a summary of his travels in North and sub-Saharan Africa and one of the only written texts describing Africa in this era. By 1532, he seems to have made it back to North Africa, where he returned to Islam and established himself in Tunis. Sources for al-Wazzan/Leo’s life are scarce. His story remains a tantalizing one (historian Natalie Zemon Davis, who brought medieval France to life in The Return of Martin Guerre, has a speculative book on the man called Trickster Travels).

Whatever the details we lack, we know that al-Wazzan/Leo is proof of the constant interchange between the parts of the medieval/early-modern world. (I mentioned another example, Italian merchants in Ethiopia and India, here.) Travelers like him might be rare, but they were always coming along: just like the Nestorian monk from Beijing (Rabban bar Sauma) in Paris in 1288, acting as a diplomatic representative of the Ilkhanid Mongols of Persia. However strange our inter-connected world appears, it seems we’re always stumbling over proof that it’s even more inter-connected and even stranger.

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