Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Judith Tucker on Globalization 18th Century Style

Judith Tucker on Globalization 18th Century Style

Judith Tucker, Professor of History at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar and former editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, gave the April 7, 2010 Monthly Dialogue lecture on the topic of “Globalization 18th Century Style: The Adventures of Salim the Algerine.”

Tucker introduced her biographical research on the elusive historical figure, Salim, and noted that the project was still in progress as she sifts through a variety of historical data, chronicles, travelogues, letters, among other eighteenth century materials in order to construct a narrative of the man’s life. Tracing records of Salim’s various forced and unforced journeys across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, Tucker said that she was captivated by this extraordinary “drama of connections among far-flung regions and the displacement of what we might consider a hapless victim of globalization eighteenth century style.”

Tucker first came across Salim, who has gone down in the historical record as “Salim the Algerine,” by examining a collection of Appalachian tales and privately owned records. According to Tucker, the records tell of a man who was born the son of an Ottoman official and a local woman from Algiers. On his way home to Algiers from time spent studying in Istanbul, Salim was abducted by Spanish pirates in the western Mediterranean in the mid-eighteenth century, transferred to a French cargo vessel heading to the port of New Orleans, and then sold into slavery to work on a local plantation. Within a year, Salim escapes and flees northwards, only to be captured by the Shawnee in the Ohio valley. He escapes once more and comes close to perishing in the woods before he is rescued by an English settler on a hunting expedition. The English settler takes Salim in and lodges him at his home in West Virginia until he recovers his strength and learns enough English to tell his story and express his desire to return home to Algiers. His hosts sent him to Williamsburg, the local colonial capital, and he receives the patronage of local gentry, who help sponsor his repatriation, and he makes his way to London. At this point in the historical narrative, Salim disappears for a few years but resurfaces again back in Williamsburg after returning from time spent in Algiers. Tucker explains that he is now recorded as a changed man who has suffered great disappointments. He settles in Virginia, is again taken under the wing of the local gentry, and acquires the reputation of a harmless eccentric who hovered on the edge of sanity and then drifts into obscurity. “The story seems to have it all,” Tucker said, “piracy, slavery, captivity, and redemption.”

One chapter of the story that puzzled her, Tucker said, was “why Salim enjoyed a certain social success among the Virginia gentry.” The reason, she said, was probably due to the fact that Salim was well educated and had knowledge of Greek, which was a sign of gentry, elitism, and nobility.

Tucker noted that there is no doubt that Salim existed, but much of the story remains obscure and its truth may never be determined. She argued, however: “whether I find additional material about the historical Salim or not – and I’m still looking – I think that this is a story well worth telling, particularly for today’s audiences, because it brings the history of eighteenth century globalization into a different focus.” If globalization is “more the subject of multiple conversations than it is of systematic or fixed lines of contestation,” Tucker said, then globalization is not merely a modern-day phenomenon based on virtual networks of instantaneous communication and technological feats, but is evident through the global connectivities traced through stories such as that of Salim. “Historians,” she said, “have found globalization a useful concept for understanding longer-term transformations” and, indeed, “the eighteenth century was a very important period for shaping the global as we inhabit it today,” she said.

Globalization, Tucker argued, can be defined as having three broad dimensions. The first of these is material, which is defined by the physical movement of goods and people through increasingly efficient transportation systems that “shrink the globe.” The second dimension is what can be defined as the spatio-temporal, which refers to the intensity and speed of global connectivities enhanced by new infrastructures, institutions, and norms. The third is cognitive and cultural, which is defined by the flow of ideas, tastes, and desires into a global imaginary leading to “the dominant understandings of the design and destiny of the world as a whole.” But, Tucker said, it is important to note that “the globalization debate, in fact, to date, as has often been pointed out, is Eurocentric in a variety of ways. It has often been told as the story of European expansion at the expense of other perspectives.”

“Viewing the story of Salim through the lens of globalization,” Tucker argued, “lends nuance and complexity to the eighteenth century globalization narrative in all its dimensions – its material, spatial, temporal, and cultural.” Indeed, “the story of Salim is unthinkable outside of the global frame” she said. “If the phenomenon of globalization is about the physical movement of people and goods on a global scale, then Salim is surely an excellent example of both: a person who is transformed into a good and then catapulted out of his Mediterranean world into a global transatlantic space.” However, Tucker argued, the story complicates the norms of European expansion as “Salim was not incorporated into the global economic system as part of the established patterns of labor recruitment, but rather as the by-product of a struggle for regional control that has to do, ultimately, with the contested globalization of the Mediterranean.”

Tucker argued that “the complex situation in the Mediterranean in the time of Salim reminds us that the material patterns of globalization were established in ways more far more fluid, contested, and uncertain in outcome than we sometimes think.” She noted that “the Salim story of globalization is a far cry from the tale of the benign spread of Enlightenment ideas.” Rather, “it could be told as the story of a major displacement and marginalization of the cosmopolitan Arabo-Islamic heritage, to which Salim was an intellectual heir.”

During her research, Tucker encountered different versions of the Salim story, each re-told towards a specific cultural project. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the story becomes one of Salim’s conversion to Christianity and is tailored to fit within the specific “global imaginary” of the time, lending to enhanced dichotomies and conflict between Christianity and Islam. “The revised Salim story serves to bring him into line with what looks like a global imaginary of the spread of Christianity – an adjustment of the Salim story that signals a transition in the nineteenth century to a less eclectic and a more parochial engagement with the global,” Tucker concluded.

Judith Tucker (PhD, History and Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University) is Professor of History and former Editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.

Her research interests have focused on the Arab world in the Ottoman period, women and gender in Middle East history, and Islamic law, women, and gender. She is currently working on a project that explores globalization and the Middle East in the eighteenth century. She is the author of many publications on the history of women and gender in the Arab world.  

Article by Suzi Mirgani. Mirgani is the CIRS Publications Coordinator.