Western Muslims and Turn-Turks

Something which many people may not realize is that there were a number of westerners, mostly men, living freely in the Middle East as Muslims during the Regency. Though the majority of westerners in the areas of the Levant and northern Africa at that time were typically held as prisoners and/or used as slaves, that was not the case for all of those from either Europe or America. Most of those men found themselves in the Middle East for a number of different reasons, some by their own choice, others not so much. Any of those scenarios might be useful for a Regency author who plans to set all or part of a romance in that part of the world.

A brief survey of western Muslims in the Mediterranean basin during the Regency . . .

Europeans had traveled to the various countries of the Middle East and North Africa even before the Crusades began in the Middle Ages. However, the majority of these travelers, if they were not soldiers, were most likely to be merchants, spending time in the area acquiring merchandise to sell at a high profit in Europe. Few, if any, of them chose to convert to Islam or settle in the area. From the sixteenth century, one class of travelers to the southern and eastern Mediterranean Sea might occassionally choose, or be forced, to convert to Islam and take up life as a Muslim. These men were most often sailors, or occasionally passengers, aboard ships which may have been captured, or shipwrecked in the area.

The Barbary pirates operated throughout that area of the Mediterranean, and were always in need of experienced men to crew their ships. The more avaricious of them had ambitions to expand their hunting range and were eager to take on men who knew about the rich Christian ports of the northern Mediterranean. These pirates needed not only regular sailors, but navigators, shipwrights, and other men with skills in ship maintenance. In most cases, these men were given the choice of conversion and the tough life aboard a pirate ship, or the even more cruel and brutal life of a slave in Araby. Some of those who elected to become pirates bided their time and were eventually able to escape and return home. Others found they liked the pirate life and entered in to it wholeheartedly.

About a dozen years before the Regency began, Napoleon Bonaparte created yet another group of western Muslims when he abandoned the remnants of his army in Egypt. In 1798, Napoleon lead an army to Egypt, ostensibly to protect French trading interests in the area, but also with the intent to impede British access to their valuable trade with India. Though Bonaparte was initially successful, Admiral Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay destroyed the bulk of the French fleet, stranding the French army in the Levant. Napoleon marched his army through the region for nearly a year, achieving some notable victories. Eventually, however, he learned that political forces at home were turning against him. Always one to protect his own interests first, Bonaparte secretly departed Alexandria with a small entourage. Those of his troops who had not been killed, due to battle wounds or disease, were abandoned to their fate.

Some of the men had the financial wherewithal to pay or bribe their way back to France on their own. Others were able to find ships willing to allow them to work their way back to European shores. Even so, there were quite a number of men without money or other resources who were stranded, with no way to travel home. These men soon discovered that there were no jobs or other economic opportunities open to Christians in the area of Alexandria. In order to survive, they found it expedient to convert to Islam. One unwavering tenet of the Muslim faith required that all male members be circumcised. Those abandoned French soldiers who allowed themselves to be circumcised and embraced Islam found they were warmly accepted into their new culture. Many were able to find work to support themselves, a few were able to save enough to eventually buy their passage home. Still more were finally repatriated in 1803, during the Peace of Amiens. Others settled into the life of their adopted country, living out their lives as Muslims in Egypt.

Another class of westerners who became Muslims were European and American renegades, seeking asylum for a host of crimes. One of those was Peter Lisle, a Scotsman born in the port of Perth, who had shipped aboard the American merchant ship Betsey as a mate in the late eighteenth century. Lisle was caught stealing by his shipmates off the coast of North Africa, but before he had to face the consequences of his actions, the ship was captured by pirate ship out of Tripoli. As was the usual practice, the American sailors were taken prisoner, but they were soon released after the payment of a ransom. All but one. Peter Lisle, in order to avoid the punishment he had coming for his theft aboard the Betsey, chose to remain in Tripoli and convert to Islam. Lisle had made several voyages to the Levant earlier in his life, during the course of which he had become fluent in Arabic. Peter Lisle took the name of Murat Rais after his conversion, possibly as a nod to a famous seventeenth-century Algerian pirate of the same name. That earlier Murat Rais was also a western convert to Islam, a young Dutch sailor who was forced to convert when he was captured by a powerful Barbary pirate who developed a strong tendré for the young man. That young Dutchman had gone on to become one of the most famous admirals of the Ottoman Empire.

Scotsman Peter Lisle, the later Murat Rais, was a particularly opportunistic sailor, who made quite a name for himself in Tripoli. After his conversion, he shipped aboard the Betsey, which had been converted into an Arab privateer renamed the Meshuda. During his time as a Barbary pirate, Rais steadily rose in rank, ultimately becoming the commander of the Meshuda. He also accumulated a great deal of personal wealth as his share of the ships he had captured. He married the daughter of the Bashaw of Tripoli, Yusef Karanmanli, despite the fact he had a Christian wife and five children living in Wapping, London. In 1796, Rais was made High Admiral of the Barbary fleet in Tripoli. Imagine the surprise of the American commander, Commodore Richard Dale, in July of 1801, when he hailed a Tripolitan ship in the port of Gibraltar, only to receive a response in English, spoken with a Scottish accent. The ship was the Meshuda, commanded by Murat Rais. Commodore Dale was seeking news of the American Consul, James Cathcart, and verification of whether or not the United States and the Barbary pirates were enjoying a period of peace or were at war. Rais knew his ships were no match for the ships of the U. S. Navy, so he claimed peace prevailed until he could sail out of the port, despite the fact that a state of war existed between the two nations.

The forty-something, heavily bearded, reddish-blond Scotsman, Murat Rais, was still High Admiral of the fleet in Tripoli in October of 1803. On behalf of Bashaw Karanmanli, he interrogated the American sailors who had been taken prisoner when the U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground in the harbor there. He also repeatedly threatened them with torture and death simply because he enjoyed it. Of the more than 270 sailors captured on the Philadelphia that fall, four became what their comrades called "Turn-Turks." These men converted to Islam, then accepted positions as wardens and overseers of their shipmates who had elected to remain Christian, and thus slaves. Murat Rais remained High Admiral of the fleet of Tripoli until 1815. Sometime after that, Rais, who was described as hot-tempered, seems to have had a falling out with Bashaw Karanmanli, and lost his position. However, he does appear to have remained in the Bashaw’s sphere, frequently serving as an interpreter with British and American officials for at least another ten years. After that, the second Murat Rais disappears from history.

During the Regency, the majority of the Europeans and Americans living in the Levant and North Africa were Christians or Jews, working in the area, usually temporarily, most often involved in commerce or diplomacy. However, there were some westerners living there who had converted to Islam, either voluntarily, or by force, and had made the area their permanent home. The majority of those converts were men who made the change in order to survive and/or to avoid legal action which might be taken against them for crimes they had committed elsewhere. Such men often actively worked against the interests of other westerners and became known as rinigados or renegades. However, the most pejorative term was "Turn-Turk," because at that time, "Turk" was synonymous with "Arab." But there were a few westerners who converted to Islam voluntarily simply because the faith truly appealed to them and they were attracted by the culture.

Dear Regency Authors, should you choose to set all or part of one of your stories in the area of the Levant or North Africa, might one or more of these Islamic converts find a place in your tale? Perhaps a ship on which some of your characters are traveling are captured by Barbary pirates? Is the ship captained by an Englishman who now lives as a Muslim? Will he be the hero or the villain of the romance? Mayhap the hero will find himself having to deal with the powerful High Admiral, Murat Rais, a man of low morals, with a fondness for drink, despite his new religion, and a dangerously hot temper? How will that play out? Or might the heroine be captured by Barbary pirates who intend to sell her into slavery at Alexandria, only to be saved by a former French soldier who converted to Islam after having been abandoned there by Napoleon? There are nearly as many unique stories of conversion as there were those who converted, so an author can craft nearly any history for any character that serves the plot of their story.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Western Muslims and Turn-Turks

  1. A highly interesting post, thank you very much for sharing.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you, it was a fascinating topic to research.

      Though I particularly enjoy Regency romances set in England, there was a much wider world at that time in which I thought at least some authors might want to set a story. I also like surprise twists to a story and when I learned about the many westerners who had converted to Islam, for such a wide range of reasons, I thought there could be some promising plot bunnies based on those historical facts.



  2. a richness of potential plot bunnies, fascinating, thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are quite welcome! I agree about the plot bunny options.

      I was very surprised to learn about Peter Lisle/Murat Rais and the many other westerners who had converted to Islam and had taken up life in the Levant and North Africa at that period. It was considered such an exotic part of the world during the Regency that I thought authors might like to know about these men, who could make either good heroes or villains in a Regency romance.



      • and the incidental sub- plot arising from someone who became Muslim and has changed his mind and wants to escape, and begs/blackmails/coerces the hero & heroine to take him with them because he can’t live any longer without a glass of brandy and a bacon sandwich.
        You can keep the brandy but no more bacon…. it’s more inhuman than having taken the pledge re chocolate for the sake of the diabetic hubby.
        Actually I’ve got a vision of a sort of Regency Raffles, out to steal a king’s ransom of jools from some Sultan, who saves his skin when almost caught by pretending an ardent desire to convert, until he discovers it means certain surgery, when he runs away with the help of the Sultan’s daughter, who thinks him romantic, and she is rescued by the real hero who helps the thief to escape on condition that he never gets to see him again…

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          OMG!!! That is an amazingly convoluted plot, but most appropriate for the Levant, where most negotiations were also quite complex, with multiple twists and turns.


  3. June says:

    So glad I found this entry! I’m a Regency romance fan and I have dabbled a bit in writing for that era. But what I really wanted was to incorporate my Muslim beliefs as well. This post is opening up avenues for me. Particularly about that pirate! Lol. Thank you very much!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you found the entry inspiring! I think there is a lot of latitude for you to incorporate your Muslim beliefs into a Regency story, whether set in the Middle East, in Europe or elsewhere.

      The area historically known as the Levant, which comprised most of the eastern Mediterranean, was a fascinating cross-roads of many rich cultures during the Regency period. Muslims, Europeans, Americans, and people from a wide range of other cultures, traveled to the area, or lived and did business there. And many of the city states which flourished along the northern coast of Africa in the western Mediterranean at that time also had a very eclectic mix of residents and visitors. It was a very exotic and vibrant culture which would make a rich setting for a Regency era story. And, there were also people native to that area who traveled to Europe, America and beyond. So, you have many options for settings and plot points in your stories.

      In case you do not know, I have a standing offer to any Regency author that they are welcome to post a comment with a link to any book they have published which drew on information in any of my blog articles. You are more than welcome to post a comment to your book here, when it is published. I wish you much success!



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