Corsairs and dangerous men

Lord Byron, the author of The Corsair, was himself something of a Byronic hero.

Lord Byron, the author of The Corsair, was himself something of a Byronic hero.

The stubble on his chin was rough against her face, and she realised she’d never seen him unshaven before. Ludicrous as it seemed after the night they’d spent together, she felt an even higher level of intimacy, as unexpected as it was thrilling.“You look like a corsair,” she said, running her hand along his cheek.  (Recompromising Amanda)

A corsair was a pirate – often an ex-privateer – also known as a Barbary Pirate. Corsairs operated out of North African ports such as Algiers and Rabat, which were on the Barbary Coast, hence their name. Although they ranged as far as Iceland they concentrated most of their efforts in the western Mediterranean, raiding coastal towns in Italy, France and Spain. As well as general looting and pillaging they captured slaves for the Ottoman empire and were thought to have taken over a million people from the sixteen to the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the build up of European navies and the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars that the Barbary Pirate threat diminished, spurred by Britain’s anti-slavery mandate.

Amanda, however, probably had a much more romanticized image of a corsair than the more realistic one of a slave-taking, looting rapist. A number of corsairs were European renegades, privateers who couldn’t settle down in peacetime. In 1814 Lord Byron published The Corsair, a long poem in heroic couplets so popular it sold out its initial run of 10,000 copies on the first day. It tells the tale of Conrad, a renegade English corsair who, according to Byron was: ‘linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes’. Women of the day swooned over the image of Conrad (as well as over Lord Byron). The Corsair was a typical Byronic hero which Lord Macaulay described as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.”

No doubt it was this image of someone dangerous but irresistible that Jason’s tousled appearance brought to Amanda’s mind. It’s a prototype that still lives in modern romantic fiction in the form of billionaires, cowboys and other wild types who, according to the conventions of the genre, just need a woman to tame them.

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