Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


The principal object of this dictionary is philosophy. It is not, therefore, as geographers that we speak of Algiers, but for the purpose of remarking that the first design of Louis XIV., when he took the reigns of government, was to deliver Christian Europe from the continual depredations of the Barbary corsairs. This project was an indication of a great mind. He wished to pursue every road to glory. It is somewhat astonishing that, with the spirit of order which he showed in his court, in his finances, and in the conduct of state affairs, he had a sort of relish for ancient chivalry, which led him to the performance of generous and brilliant actions, even approaching the romantic. It is certain that Louis inherited from his mother a deal of that Spanish gallantry, at once noble and delicate, with much of that greatness of soul — that passion for glory — that lofty pride, so conspicuous in old romances. He talked of fighting the emperor Leopold, like a knight seeking adventures. The erection of the pyramid at Rome, the assertion of his right of precedence, and the idea of having a port near Algiers to curb the pirates, were likewise of this class. To this latter attempt he was moreover excited by Pope Alexander VII., and by Cardinal Mazarin before his death. He had for some time debated with himself whether he should go on this expedition in person, like Charles the Fifth; but he had not vessels to execute so great an enterprise, whether in person or by his generals. The attempt was therefore fruitless, and it could not be otherwise.

It was, however, of service in exercising the French marine, and prepared the world to expect some of those noble and heroic actions which are out of the ordinary line of policy, such as the disinterested aid lent to the Venetians besieged in Candia, and to the Germans pressed by the Ottoman arms at St. Gothard.

The details of the African expedition are lost in the number of successful or unsuccessful wars, waged justly or unjustly, with good or bad policy. We shall merely give the following letter, which was written some years ago on the subject of the Algerine piracies:

“It is to be lamented, sire, that the proposals of the order of Malta were not acceded to, when they offered, on consideration of a moderate subsidy from each Christian power, to free the seas from the pirates of Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis. The knights of Malta would then have been truly the defenders of Christianity. The actual force of the Algerines is but two fifty-gun ships, five of about forty, and four of thirty guns; the rest are not worth mentioning.

“It is shameful to see their little barks seizing our merchant vessels every day throughout the Mediterranean. They even cruise as far as the Canaries and the Azores.

“Their soldiery, composed of a variety of nations — ancient Mauritanians, ancient Numidians, Arabs, Turks, and even negroes, set sail, almost without provisions, in tight vessels carrying from eighteen to twenty guns, and infest all our seas like vultures seeking their prey. When they see a man of war, they fly; when they see a merchant vessel they seize it. Our friends and our relatives, men and women, are made slaves; and we must humbly supplicate the barbarians to deign to receive our money for restoring to us their captives.

“Some Christian states have had the shameful prudence to treat with them, and send them arms wherewith to attack others, bargaining with them as merchants, while they negotiate as warriors.

“Nothing would be more easy than to put down these marauders; yet it is not done. But how many other useful and easy things are entirely neglected! The necessity of reducing these pirates is acknowledged in every prince’s cabinet; yet no one undertakes their reduction. When the ministers of different courts accidently talk the matter over, they do but illustrate the fable of tying the bell round the cat’s neck.

“The order of the Redemption of Captives is the finest of all monastic institutions, but it is a sad reproach to us. The kingdoms of Fez, Algiers, and Tunis have no marabous of the Redemption of Captives; because, though they take many Christians from us, we take scarcely any Mussulmans from them.

“Nevertheless, they are more attached to their religion than we are to ours; for no Turk or Arab ever turns Christian, while they have hundreds of renegadoes among them, who even serve in their expeditions. An Italian named Pelegini, was, in 1712, captain-general of the Algerine galleys. The miramolin, the bey, the dey, all have Christian females in their seraglios, but there are only two Turkish girls who have found lovers in Paris.

“The Algerine land force consists of twelve thousand regular soldiers only; but all the rest of the men are trained to arms; and it is this that renders the conquest of the country so difficult. The Vandals, however, easily subdued it; yet we dare not attack it.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01