My great great uncle captured by pirates

Jonathan Jones thinks the Hajj “one of the most brilliant exhibitions the British Museum has put on”. I often agree with what he writes, and I’m looking forward to seeing the show, though as I’d suspected that will have to be next week. Meanwhile, here’s a story about an English man who went to Mecca. He’s called Joseph Pitts (a likely relative, but unproven – hence “great uncle”). He is the first known English citizen to have made that journey, in around 1685, having, by his account, converted to Islam under torture.

He wrote one of those wonderful travel books when he was back in England, typically done by people we would never otherwise have heard of who ended up in some corner of the world in ways they had never planned. Another such is William Mariner, who wrote about Tonga in 1817, as I mentioned elsewhere on this blog. My friends Mike Parker Pearson and Karen Godden wrote a book about Robert Drury, who was shipwrecked in Madagascar and wrote about it in 1729.

Joseph called his story A True & Faithful Account of the Religion & Manners of the Mohametans, published in 1704. Little is known about the man, and until now the best report was a short 1920 paper by Cecily Radford (image above). Soon we will have Paul Auchterlonie’s Encountering Islam: Joseph Pitts: An English Slave in 17th-Century Algiers & Mecca, the first modern critical study of Joseph’s book.

And what a book! It begins with his capture. He was about 16 when a fishing ship he was working on, approaching Spain on her way back from Newfoundland, knew she was entering waters plagued by pirates. Yet the crew could do almost nothing about it. One morning the mate watching out from the top masthead spotted a sail in the distance. They must have known what it was as it slowly caught up. Around midday the ship was nearly upon them, and they decided they had no option but to surrender. So they hauled up their sails and waited.

The pirates took what they wanted (mostly just the men), and sunk the English ship. But that wasn’t the end of it. Over the next 10 days or so, a further three English ships and one Dutch one were captured and treated in the same way. So when they finally made land in Algeria, there were some 30 would-be slaves to take to market.

You can imagine why people who survived such experiences, with the right education and contacts back home, were persuaded to write about them.

I’m mentioning this here partly because so little is known about Joseph Pitts, and maybe we’ll be able to unearth some new information. His father John was a nonconformist, and Joseph was one of several children born in Exeter around 1662. He’s said to have been baptised at James’s Meeting (but the records are lost) and buried in Free Cemetery at Friernhay (where there are also no relevant records). If an undated will has been correctly identified, he married a woman called Hannah, they had at least two children, including Elizabeth who married a Mr Skutt, and he died around 1739. I’ve known about Joseph for some time, but only now have I started to look into his history – and excitingly with the help of an old friend may already have tracked down Elizabeth Skutt. We shall see.

2 thoughts on “My great great uncle captured by pirates

  1. So did you have any luck tracking down Elizabeth Skutt? Asking because I think there is a family connection between Joseph Pitts and myself, but lack of documents is making it very difficult to verify.

  2. Hi Megan, I’m afraid I haven’t taken this much further yet. My instinct with these things (and experience) is that if you work hard enough you turn up something new. The initial digging at least needs to be in Devon. It clearly doesn’t help that Joseph’s family were nonconformists, which means there are fewer obvious records than we would otherwise have. What makes you think you may have a connection? My own suspicion comes just from the surname, which is relatively uncommon with an S. That branch of my family came up from Devon in the 19th century, from the area of Joseph’s family… so very much a hypothesis, but one I’d like to explore.

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