Fantastic History #67: Pirates of the Mediterranean by Dawn Vogel

When many people think of pirates, they think of the Caribbean. But the roots of piracy go back into antiquity, and there were pirates in the Mediterranean many centuries before they pillaged the Caribbean.

As early as the sixth to fifth century B.C., the island of Cythera (alternately spelled Kythira, Kythera, and Kithira) was a favored location for piracy. Chilon of Sparta, a sixth-century B.C. philosopher, was said to have claimed “it would be better for Sparta that Cythera should be sunk in the sea.” During the Peloponnesian War, in the fifth century B.C., Sparta established a garrison at Cythera “to prevent its occupation by pirates, and to give security to merchantmen coming from Libya and Egypt.” In the centuries that followed, Crete and Cilicia became havens for pirates. With Crete only about 40 miles to the southeast of Cythera, the small island remained at risk for piracy

The rise of Maltese pirates was a later development, and came as a response to the Barbary corsairs. The term “Barbary” was generally applied to those from North Africa; the word “barbarian” is related. These pirates were of the Muslim faith, and their goal was typically the taking of Christians for enslavement. For centuries, they were the primary force in the Mediterranean, a fact that changed only with the Crusades, aimed at regaining what the Christians considered their Holy Lands from the Muslims.

After the Crusades, Christians maintained strongholds in a variety of locations, in an effort to maintain their control. In 1530, “[t]he crusading Knights of St John Hospitaller were granted Malta as the new home of the Order.” But in 1551, Turkish forces attacked Malta, leaving the Knights to realize the need for fortifications and militarization of their stronghold. While Turkish attacks continued on a regular basis, it was not until 1565 that the Knights reached a point in their defenses that the Turkish attack turned into a war of attrition rather than an easy raid.

However, the Knights were not only interested in fortifying the island they now called home. “In addition to building up a powerful naval presence on Malta, the Knights also encouraged and systematically organised of [sic] the island’s corsairs. A small corsair fleet predated the Knights arrival; indeed, Malta’s excellent harbour had often acted as a magnet for privateers and near-pirates, just as it had for legitimate shipping.” The Maltese had different classifications within their language for the types of piracy they practiced: “Being a pirate implied a certain lawlessness; sailors who took what they wanted from whomever they encountered on the seas. Being a furban or a kursar on the other hand made you part of a very well-regulated system. The closest translation in English would be corsair.”

Ultimately, what the Knights of St. John Hospitaller accomplished by encouraging the Maltese toward a life of piracy was a counterbalance to the Barbary pirates: “The Knights became God’s pirates, and their slave galleys swept across the seas to do battle with the ‘Infidel’ Barbary corsairs.” But the Maltese pirates did not only attack those of the Muslim faith—Christians and Greeks (who were not considered “proper” Christians) also found themselves victims of these Catholic-funded pirates.

Those who were taken by the Maltese corsairs could anticipate that they would be returned to their families, for a price. Ransom was a frequently used tactic for pirates of any faith. But it did limit the victims who could be released. “The relatives … could pay ransom, if they were rich enough. The poor ones were condemned to slavery.” Some prisoners of the Maltese corsairs were released from their servitude only by their deaths.

The Maltese corsairs maintained their dominance for a few centuries. “In the seventeenth century, the Turkish authorities did not allow Christians to come up the gulf of Corinth, through fear that the corsairs of Malta would get in under the guise of merchant-ships loading currants at Corinth,…” Ultimately, however, the Catholic Church turned to diplomacy rather than piracy to achieve its aims, “and by 1740 the corso was effectively extinct.” Nonetheless, even as late as 1814, when Napoleon was exiled to Elba, he still feared the possibility of being captured by Maltese pirates.


Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Fantastic History #66: Dueling–Bringing the Past Forward by Doug Engstrom

Back in 2013, I was thinking about what work would look like in the near future, contemplating a political movement that seemed determined to take us back to the Gilded Age, and planning to combine all that into vignettes of people in the mid 21st century talking about their jobs—sort of an SF-version of Studs Terkel’s Working. As often happens, none of this turned out as I expected, but it did produce my near-future thriller, Corporate Gunslinger.

The book is about Kira Clark, a young woman trying to make her way in a world that’s been transformed less by futuristic technology than by ideas imported from the 1800’s, including dueling’s comeback as a dispute-resolution mechanism. Since it portrays Kira’s career as a professional duelist, I had to consider what the institution would look like. Though clearly reaching into the past for legitimacy, dueling would also clearly be bent to serve the perceived needs of Kira’s time. As the quote says, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

For legitimacy, the duels in Kira’s world preserve certain trappings from the past. Dueling pistols are single-shot weapons, designated “seconds” watch over the preparations, and the combatants start back-to-back, walk ten paces, turn, and fire. As is often the case, these “historical” trappings don’t have a lot to do with actual history and everything to do with popular perception.

Although they are single-shot weapons, the pistols used in Kira’s day are far more accurate and deadlier than historical dueling pistols. Crucially, they retain the drama of deciding a dispute—and possibly a combatant’s life—in a single instant, which is a key to dueling’s popularity.

In historical duels, the seconds played a crucial role in attempting to negotiate the conflict and set the duel’s terms of engagement. In Kira’s day, those roles have been taken over by professionals who manage the special dueling facilities and provide the weapons and ammunition. When private individuals duel each other, the seconds mostly watch while the professionals act. On the field, seconds supply little more than moral support for the combatant they represent, and furnish agreement when the process is complete, in pretty much the same spirit as signing off on a complex, multi-page legal document while installing software.

The second’s role for a professional duelist like Kira is another matter. A professional’s second is usually their primary trainer and appearing on the field to offer advice and support is the final step in the rigorous, full-time preparation they’ve put their gunfighter through since long before the duel was scheduled. However, this role isn’t visible during the duel, and having both sides supported by a second on the field is another superficial trapping of “fairness”—another important key to dueling’s appeal.

The drama of “ten paces, turn and fire” appears to originate more in movies of our time than the dueling codes of prior centuries. Most codes I read left the distance and other details to be worked out by the seconds, based on field conditions and the combatant’s skills. Some even specified drawing lots to determine the order in which the participants would fire, which struck me as a testament to both the combatant’s courage and the inaccuracy of short-barreled, black-powder weapons.

So, if the “historical” elements merely cloak modern purposes in the trappings of time-honored tradition, what are those purposes?
When looking at the differences between our world and the world of historical dueling, a big difference, maybe the biggest difference, is the complete subordination of all societal goals to the perceived needs of business, especially large, publicly-traded businesses. Corporations have not only won the right to “personhood” but to more than that. Today, many firms insist that customers give up the right to seek redress in the courts as a condition of doing business, and that employees give up the right to speak via non-disclosure agreements. We no longer seem to believe that the economy exists to provide for society, but rather that society’s proper role is to serve as raw material for the all-important economy.

In Kira’s world, corporate dominance is even more complete. Borrowers can be compelled to offer their freedom as collateral, sacrificing their autonomy if they default, and enforcement squads roam the streets, tracking down indentured workers who have escaped their workplace. Burdened with debts incurred to earn an MFA in acting, Kira becomes a gunfighter to escape this fate.
So, when this society reaches back into the past to revive an institution that allowed rich white guys to “defend their honor,” what’s really going on?

Essentially, businesses have won the right to murder their most difficult and persistent critics. But, of course, they can’t come out and say that.

Instead, dueling functions as the last step in a multi-part system designed to ensure that in case of disputes, almost everyone will shut up and accept what’s the company wants to offer. First, most businesses have followed the lead of financial services and compelled customers to give up the right to sue if they want to do business. When disputes arise, they’re settled by a private arbitration system, which strongly favors businesses as “repeat customers.” When people are unhappy with that outcome, they’re offered a final out with ancient resonance—the dueling field.

The proceedings are overseen by the impeccably honest Association for Dueling, and everything from the pistols to the changing rooms are not only made as identical as humanly possible, they’re assigned at random to remove any possible hint of bias.
Except, of course, for the tiny little detail—just a technicality, really—that a flesh-and-blood person must represent themselves, while a business must choose an employee. And as it happens, this isn’t some random employee, but an employee who has trained for a year and spends all their working hours preparing to be a better gunfighter.

Somebody like Kira—aspiring actor, potential debt slave, professional gunfighter, and the protagonist of Corporate Gunslinger.


Doug Engstrom has been a farmer’s son, a US Air Force officer, a technical writer, a computer support specialist, and a business analyst, as well as being a writer of speculative fiction. He lives near Des Moines, Iowa with his wife, Catherine Engstrom.