Captivity Narrative

Joseph Pitts, from A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans (1704)

Joseph Pitts (1663–1735?) was, by his own account, around fourteen or fifteen years old when he became a sailor. Only a few short voyages into his career, Pitts and the rest of the crew of his ship, the Speedwell, were captured off the coast of Spain by Algerian pirates in 1678. The Speedwell, heavily laden with fish from Newfoundland, was unable to escape. The Algerians took her crew as their prize, sank her, then repeated this tactic with four other small English ships (each with 5- to 6-man crews) and one Dutch vessel, before sailing on to the city of Algier, where the majority of the captives were sold as slaves at public auction.

Joseph Pitts spent more than fifteen years in captivity. He served three successive Patroons, or owners, with whom he traveled to Cairo and Alexandria, as well as to sacred Islamic sites at Mecca and Medina. Unlike many English captives, Pitts was never ransomed by a British consul. After his escape from Smyrna in 1693, it took Pitts nearly a year to return to England (much of his European travel was done on foot), and his misfortunes did not end with his captivity: first, he was robbed by German soldiers, who accused him of being a French spy; then, on his first night back on English soil, Pitts was captured by an impressment gang, who threw him into prison for refusing to go to sea in the King's Service. It was only through the intervention of an aristocratic patron (Sir William Falkener, of the Smyrna Company) that Pitts was finally freed to return to his beloved Exeter.

A keen observer, Joseph Pitts is anxious to correct factual errors in earlier Westerners' reports of Mecca and Medina. However, he is not without significant religious and chauvinistic bias, and bears great personal enmity toward his captors. His narrative is not a straightforward memoir, but a curious mix of forms, including the travelogue, spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, and military commentary on various regions' garrisons, tactics, and capabilities.

Part of Pitts's authority as an observer comes from a source that is largely concealed from the reader until the book's second-to-last chapter — during his captivity, Pitts converted from Christianity to the practices of Islam. Despite his professions of guilt and anxiety over his temporary conversion, it is this insider perspective that allows him a view of Mecca, and which gives detail to his descriptions of religious practices.

The two pivotal moments in Pitts's book, A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohanmmetans (1704), are his description of a visit to Mecca, during which he attempts to conceal his position as a convert to Islam; and his later apology to English readers for what he represents, in a brutal account, as his enforced conversion to "Mohammetanism" at the hands of his second Patroon. Excerpts of both are given below.

From Chapter 7, "Containing an Account of the Mohammetans Pilgrimage to Mecca"

* * * [W]e came to a place call'd Rabbock, about four days sail on this side Mecca, where all the Hagges >> note 1 (excepting those of the Female Sex) do enter into Hirawem, or Ihram, i.e. They take off all their Cloaths, covering themselves with two Hirrawems, or large white Cotton Wrappers; one they put about their middle, which reaches down to their ankles, the other they cover the upper part of the Body with, except the Head, and they wear no other thing on their Bodies but these Wrappers, only a pair of gimgameea, i.e. Thin-sol'd Shoes, like Sandals the Over-leather of which covers only the Toes, their Inchsteps being all naked. In this manner like humble Penitentiaries they go from Rabbock 'till they come to Mecca, to approach the Temple: many times enduring the scorching heat of the Sun, 'till their very Skin is burnt off their Backs and Arms, and their Heads Swoll'n to a prodigious Size. Yet when any Mans Health is by such Austerities in danger, and like to be impair'd, they may lawfully put on their Cloaths, on condition still that when they come to Mecca they Sacrifice a Sheep and give it to the Poor. During the time of their wearing this mortifying Habit, which is about the space of seven Days, it is held unlawful, for them so much as to cut their Nails, or to kill a Louse or a Flea, tho' they see them sucking their Blood: but yet if they are so troublesome that they cannot well endure it longer, 'tis thought lawful for them to remove them from one place of the Body to another.

During this time they are very Watchful over their Tempers, and keep a Jealous Eye upon their Passions, and observe a strict Government of their Tongues, making continual use of a form of devout expressions. And they will also be careful to be Reconcil'd, and at Peace, with all such as they had any Difference with; accounting it a very sinful and shameful thing to bear the least Malice against any. They do not shave themselves during this time.

Now we come to Gidda, the nearest Sea-port Town to Mecca, not quite one days Journey from it, where the Ships disburthen themselves. Here we are met by Dilleels, i.e. certain Persons that come from Mecca on purpose to instruct the Hagges-, or Pilgrims, in the Ceremonies (most of them being ignorant of them) which are to be used in their Worship at this Beat-Olloh, or Temple, which they call the House of God, and say that Abraham built it; to which I give no Credit.

As soon as we come to the Town of Mecca, the Dilleel, or Guide, carries us into the great Street, which is in the midst of the Town, and to which the Temple joyns; and after the Camels are laid down, he first directs us to the Fountains, there to take abdes; >> note 2 (Note, that before they'll provide for themselves they serve God in their way.) which being done, he brings us to the Temple; into which (having left our Shoes with one who constantly attends to receive them) we enter at the Door called Bab-el-Salem, i.e. the Welcome Gate; after a few Paces entrance, the Dilleel makes a stand, and holds up his Hands towards the Beat-olloh (it being in the middle of the Temple or Mosque) the Hagges imitating him, and speaking after him the same Words. At the very first sight of the Beat-olloh the Hagges melt into Tears; then we are led up to it, still speaking after the Dilleel; then we are led round the Beat-olloh seven times, and then make two erkaets. >> note 3 This being done, we are led out into the Street again, where we are sometimes to run, and sometimes to walk very quick with the Dilleel, from one place of the Street to the other, about a Bow-shoot. And I profess, I could not chuse but admire to see those poor Creatures so extraordinary Devout and Affectionate when they were about these Superstitions, and with what Awe and Trembling they were possess'd. Insomuch, that I could scarce forbear shedding of Tears to see their Zeal, tho' blind and Idolatrous (79–82).

From Chapter 9, "An Account of the Author's turning Mohammetan, through the barbarous Cruelties and Tortures which he suffered. Of the Concern and Remorse he had thereupon"

The Reader, I suppose, will expect an Account, how I became qualified to write such an History as this (though it may be guessed at by what has gone before) and how I was let into the Secrets of the Mohammetan Religion, so as to be able to give such an exact Description, as is herein publish'd, of their Religion, particularly of that at Mecca; why truly I will not dissemble, but (undervaluing all the Censures of the World) freely and particularly declare the whole Matter; and herein I will deliver nothing but naked Truth, as I protest I have hitherto done (i.e., what I speak as of my own Knowledge) in this whole Relation.

I spake something before of the Cruelties exercised upon me by the Turks, but now shall give a more particular Account of them; which were so many and so great, that I being then but young too, could no longer endure them, and therefore turn'd Turk to avoid them.


* * *

[O]n a certain Day, when my Patroon's Barber came to trim him, I being there to give Attendance, my Patroon bid me kneel down before him, which I did; he then ordered the Barber to cut off my Hair with his Scissers; but I mistrusting somewhat of their Design, strugled with them; but by stronger Force my Hair was cut off, and then the Barber went about to shave my Head, my Patroon all the while holding my Hands: I kept shaking my Head, and my Patroon kept striking me in the Face. After my Head, with much-adoe, was shaved, my Patroon would have me take off my Cloths, and put on the Turkish Habit: I told him plainly I would not. Whereupon I was forthwith hal'd away to another Tent, in which we kept our Provision; where were two Men, viz. the Cook and the Steward; one of the which held me while the other stript me, and put on me the Turkish Garb. I all this while kept crying and weeping; and told my Patroon, that although he had chang'd my Habit, yet he could never change my Heart. The Night following, before he lay down to sleep, he call'd me and bid me kneel down by his Bed-side, & then used Entreaties that I would gratifie him in renouncing my Religion. I told him it was against my Conscience; and withal, desired him to sell me, and buy another Boy, who perhaps might more easily be won; but as for my part, I was afraid I should be everlastingly damn'd if I complied with his Request. He told me, he would pawn his Soul for mine; and many other importunate Expressions did he use. At length I desired him to let me go to bed, and I would pray to God, and if I found any better Reasons suggested to my mind than what I then had, to turn, by the next Morning, I did not know what I might do; but if I continued in the same mind I was, I desired him to say no more to me on that Subject. This he agreed to, and so I went to Bed. But my Patroon (whatever aild him) having not Patience to stay 'till the Morning for my Answer, he awoke me in the Night, and ask'd me what my Sentiments now were. I told him they were the same as before. Then he took me by the Right-hand, and endeavoured to make me hold up the Fore-finger, as thy usually do when they speak those Words, [viz. La illabi illallah Mohammet Resul-allah] which initiates them Turks (as I have related before) but I did with all my might bend it down; so that he saw nothing was to be done with me without Violence; upon which he presently call'd two of his Servants, and commanded them to tye up my Feet with a Rope to the Post of the Tent; and when they had so done, he with a great Cudgel fell a beating of me upon my bare Feet. He being a very strong Man, and full of Passion, his Blows fell heavy indeed; and the more he beat me, the more chafed and enraged he was; and declared, that, in short, if I would not turn, he would beat me to death. I roar'd out to feel the Pain of his cruel Strokes; but the more I cry'd, the more furiously he laid on upon me; and to stop the Noise of my Crying, he would stamp with his Feet on my Mouth; at which I beg'd him to dispatch me out of the way; but he continued beating me. After I had endured this merciless Usage so long, 'till I was ready to faint and die under it, and saw him as mad & implacable as ever, I beg'd him to forbear and I would turn. And breathing a while, but still hanging by the Feet, he urg'd me again to speak the Words; yet loath I was, and held him in suspence a while; and at length told him, that I could not speak the Words. At which he was more enrag'd than before, and fell at me again in a most barbarous manner. After I had received a great many Blows a second time, I beseech'd him agin, to hold his Hand, and gave him fresh hopes of my turning Mohammetan; and after I had taken a little more Breath, I told him as before, I could not do what he desired. And thus I held him in suspence three or four times; but at last, seeing his Cruelty towards me insatiable, unless I did turn Mohammetan, through Terrour I did it, and spake the Words as usual, holding up the Fore-finger of my Right-hand; and presently I was had away to a Fire, and care was taken to heal my Feet (for they were so beaten, that I was not able to go upon them for several Days) and so I was put to Bed (129–130; 138–140).

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