15/08/2006 - 22:00

A history of brutal converts

15/08/2006 - 22:00


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For State Scene, the biggest surprise about Islamic jihadism’s onslaughts upon the Western world is that so many people still find aspects of this conflict surprising.

A history of brutal converts

For State Scene, the biggest surprise about Islamic jihadism’s onslaughts upon the Western world is that so many people still find aspects of this conflict surprising.

The latest came with three of the 24 men arrested across southern England over Heathrow Airport’s shutdown being described in media reports as “white converts to Islam”.

The first, now called Abdul Waheed, was Don Stewart-Whyte, whose father was a British Conservative Party official.

The second is 25-year-old east Londoner, Oliver Savant, now Ibrahim Savant, and the list apparently includes Umar Islam, who was reportedly known earlier as Brian Young.

The main reason so many were surprised by this far-from-unprecedented occurrence is that we in the West have forgotten too much.

A good place to begin jolting memories that this migration between faiths is far from unusual is to consider a bloody event in Western Australian history that occurred 377 years ago, 200 years before Captain James Stirling arrived off Garden Island to establish a colony in New Holland.

To help appreciate this it’s worth visiting the Batavia Gallery at Fremantle’s Cliff Street Maritime Museum to see the partially rebuilt stern of the Dutch East India Company’s flagship, Batavia, that sank on June 4 1629 on the Abrolhos archipelago near Geraldton.

The Batavia story of mutiny, murder and deprivation has two parts, although only the bloody one is ever highlighted.

For reasons unknown to State Scene the second, which relates to the mutineers’ longer-term intentions, is ignored.

It’s well-known that the Java-bound Batavia was commandeered by a religious fanatic, Jerome Cornelius, and his followers.

Because Cornelius’s mutineers made a grave navigational error they entered WA waters well ahead of expectation, and at night, so smashed into a low-lying Abrolhos reef.

Some perished, others survived.

Among the survivors was a senior East India Company official, Francis Pelsaert, who, with a tiny crew, made an epic open boat voyage and reached Java.

Pelsaert returned to the Abrolhos where he wreaked bloody justice upon the mutineers, who, during his absence, had massacred large numbers of Batavia’s survivors.

Rarely highlighted, however, are Cornelius’s intentions, what he intended doing with Batavia if it hadn’t sunk off WA.

There’s certainly no documentary evidence suggesting he intended establishing Australia’s first Dutch colony near Geraldton.

And Cornelius never intended sailing to the Dutch East Indies, since his fate would have been that which Pelsaert eventually visited up him – painful execution.

So where was he headed? China, India, South America? Unlikely.

Longer ago than State Scene cares to recall, I quizzed University of WA historian, the late Dr Philip Tyler, a Batavia expert, on why Cornelius and his gang perpetrated this seemingly pointless mutiny.

Since State Scene cannot recall Dr Tyler’s exact words, here instead are lines from an article he’d just published which considered precisely that question. (‘The Batavia Mutineers: Evidence of an Anabaptist fifth column within 17th century Dutch colonialism?’ Westerly. No. 4, December 1970, pp. 33-45.)

“From the snippets of information recorded in the [Pelsaert] Journal, it seems that the original plan was to reduce the ship’s company to 120 sailors and soldiers, revictual probably in Mauritius and then use the Batavia for piracy,” Dr Tyler wrote.

“Taking into account the size of the vessel and the number of her cannon, this was virtually a skeleton crew, and unless additional men were recruited in Mauritius or elsewhere, the Batavia would have stood little chance against the Dutch convoys.

“Probably the plan was to pick off stragglers and whatever native ships came their way.

“Once sufficient booty had been amassed, the mutineers intended to sail back to Europe, pass through the Straits of Gibraltar and reach the ‘Barbary Coast’.

“There they would have joined many of their countrymen already in the service of the Bey of Algeria.

“From 1600 onwards Dutch renegade seamen had played a major part in transforming a galley fleet into an ocean going striking force capable of reaching as far north as southern England and Ireland.

“Most probably the Batavia mutineers would have had the choice of entering the Bey’s service or of continuing their piratical careers, giving up a portion of their booty in return for the use of Algiers as a refuge and base…

“Had the flagship of the Dutch East India Company passed into the hands of the Barbary pirates, the United Provinces would have become the laughing stock of Europe.”

State Scene was stunned to learn this, so searched for confirmatory information.

That eventually led to Michael Oppenheim’s 1896 book, A History of the Administration of the Royal Navy and Merchant Shipping in Relation to the Navy.

It says at page 198: “In 1616 the weakness of the [English] Crown was shown by a warrant to two London merchants to prepare a ship to go pirate hunting with permission to retain for themselves three-quarters of the goods seized.

“About this time there was a fleet of 30 Turkish ships in the Atlantic, and another, Salleeman, had recently been captured in the Thames [estuary].

“Between 1609 and 1616 the Algerines had captured 466 British ships and reduced their crews to slavery.”

So Barbary piracy, upon which Dr Tyler focused in relation to Cornelius’s mutineers, was a formidable force in northern European waters, and into the North Atlantic where pirates terrorised European cod fishing fleets.

Chapter seven of Stephen Clissold’s book, The Barbary Slaves, titled, ‘Renegades’, specifically focuses upon Europeans – Christians – many of whom were “in the service of the Bey of Algeria”, so operated in European waters as pirates with some converting to Islam.

“The early rulers of Barbary, whether or not themselves renegades, relied heavily on the latter as administrators and Corsair captains,” Clissold writes.

“Of the 23 Algerine qaids – governors – listed by [Diego de] Haedo in the 1580s, more than half were renegades (including one Englishman); of the 33 leading rais, 25 appear to be renegades or the sons of renegades.

“According to a Spanish report of 1568, there were about 10,000 renegades in Algiers, two-fifths of them Corsicans.”

Now, Haedo was a cleric and it’s believed he was a captive in Algiers.

In 1612, after being released, he published a three-volume treatise on the history, geography and customs of Algiers titled, Topographía e historia general de Argel.

Quoting Haedo, Clissold writes: “‘There is no nation in the world without its renegades there’, he declares: besides men from all parts of Spain, Italy, and Greece, he mentions Russians, Poles, Bulgars, Hungarians, Albanians, Germans, French, Scottish, English, Danes, Mexicans, Brazilians, Indians and Abyssinians of Prester John.

“We even hear of Christian slaves, after they had been ransomed, deciding to apostatize, or – like the French writer Thomas d’Arcos, captured in 1625 and released soon afterwards – returning to settle permanently in Barbary.”

There’s no reason to doubt Haedo’s claims.

Even though what Haedo told Europeans nearly 400 years ago now certainly has relevance we’ll never know for sure whether Cornelius was Barbary-bound as Dr Tyler contends.

But it’s certainly a highly likely possibility.

Clearly, a long historical tradition precedes Abdul Waheed, formerly Don Stewart-Whyte, and Ibrahim Savant, formerly Oliver Savant. And not only with Barbary but also with Ottoman Constantinople.

In later centuries British colonists referred to this as ‘going native’.

Let’s also not forget that, before Waheed’s and Savant’s photographs were published, the US had its own Taliban, John Walker Lynd, captured in Afghanistan in 2001 fighting against the Americans, while Adelaide’s David Hicks awaits trial in Guantanamo Bay and Perth’s Jack Roche, like Lynd, is incarcerated.

Thousands of 17th century Europeans were not simply Barbary slaves but converts to Islam and Barbary’s causes, like piracy and marauding, then in vogue since European navies were either non-existent, too weak, or unwilling to combat this.

Let’s hope today’s Western leaders show greater willpower in protecting their citizenry against all comers – most especially the Islamic world’s new breed of suicidal converts and its cohorts of jihadists.


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