The Tenth Gift

By: Jane Johnson

Driven by religious fervor, the corsairs plundered far and wide to the extent that one corsair fleet was able to raise its skull-and-crossbones flag over Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel in the early summer of 1625, from which they launched innumerable raids on southwest shipping and coastal towns.

The historical document prefacing this novel, that is, the letter from the Mayor of Plymouth to the new king’s Privy Council in the spring of 1625, warning of the likelihood not only of corsair raids (which had become a regular summer threat to shipping) but for the first time of attacks on coastal settlements, does not, in the usual bureaucratic fashion, appear to have resulted in raised security.

The attack I have described on the church in Penzance is based on a reference in the state papers to an event in July 1625 when “sixtie men, women and children were taken from the church of Munnigesca in Mounts Bay” (my italics). No one to this day is sure what “Munnigesca” refers to; some have speculated that it is the church on St. Michael’s Mount, but I cannot believe that to be true, because it would have meant that Sir Arthur Harris, who was the Master of the Mount at the time, and his family would have been included in those sixty captives, since only if they had been in residence would a congregation of sixty have been likely, and they never suffered such a fate. Sir Arthur died in 1628 at Kenegie Manor; his last will and testament is included in the local parish papers. The only two large enough settlements likely to generate a sixty-strong congregation at the time, according to Carew and Leland, would have been Marazion, then known as Market-Jew (a corruption of Marghasewe) or Penzance. I decided on the church at Penzance, which would have stood where St. Mary’s does today—on a promontory overlooking the bay. It would have been clearly seen from the sea, thus presenting a clear and attractive target for attack. It is curious that the Mount did not see and fire upon the corsairs (there is no mention in the CSP of any attempted defense), but Sir Arthur Harris had indeed been lobbying for funds to rearm the Mount for several years.

The smuggling, however, of four cannons destined for the rearmament of Pendennis and St. Michael’s Mount by Sir John Killigrew to the Sidi al-Ayyachi is my own invention, though given the nature of the man and his forebears, it is not a large step of speculation.

While I am no great expert on embroidery, I have researched the methods and styles of the time as thoroughly as I could, and am greatly indebted to the works of Caroline Stone, who knows a great deal more about the embroidery of North Africa, and specifically Morocco, than I shall ever know.

It was a great disappointment to me to discover that no records of the captives taken by the Sallee Rovers in 1625 remain in Morocco. A number of firsthand accounts of English captives’ misfortunes and experiences have, however, survived, although few from as early as 1625 and none by a woman of that time. However, I have read many of those accounts and borrowed details here and there for authenticity, though I’ve taken them with a healthy pinch of salt, since the temptation for captives to embellish their hardships with lurid detail was great, commercial pressures in the seventeenth century being all too similar to those of the twenty-first century.

I have listed below some of the key texts that proved invaluable to me in my research. I must also thank a number of individuals without whom I could never have written this novel. First, my mother, for reminding me of this long-buried family legend; second, my climbing partner Bruce Kerry, who accompanied me on my first and crucial research visit to Morocco; third, Emma Coode, friend and colleague, who read the text chapter by chapter as I wrote and provided me with both encouragement and the perfect audience. I must also thank my wonderful editors, Venetia Butterfield and Allison McCabe, for their invaluable support and suggestions. Finally, and most important, I want to thank my husband, Abdellatif Bakrim, who has been the most extraordinary source of Berber, Arabic, and Moroccan history, culture, and language. He has helped me with the translation of foreign texts and provided me with a sounding board for all the Moroccan material. He was also, before I knew him well, the inspiration for the raïs. Since I have come to know him, I cannot imagine him making a ruthless corsair captain or zealot, and for that I am profoundly grateful.

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