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Joseph Pitts (author)

Joseph Pitts (1663–1735?) was an Englishman who was taken into slavery by Barbary pirates from Algeria in 1678 at the age of fourteen or fifteen. Little is known about Pitts aside from what is revealed in his narrative concerning his time held captive in Northern Africa, during which time he went through three masters ranging widely in their cruelty towards him over the course of more than fifteen years, with whom he travelled to Cairo and Alexandria. Though he escaped between the years 1693 and 1694, it was not until 1704 that Pitts first published his account. Pitts's A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans, with an Account of the Author's Being Taken Captive includes descriptions of his capture and captivity, including some of the first English descriptions of Islamic rituals. Converting to the religion while a slave, Pitts was the first Englishman to record the proceedings of the hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. Pitts also describes the people of seventeenth-century North Africa (whom he calls Turks or Mohammetans) in detail, providing particulars on their manner of eating and dressing, the customs of their religion and marriage, and their economic and slave systems. Though its accuracy is debatable, Pitts’s narrative was the first and most detailed description of the religion of Islam and the manners of Muslims written by a European during the seventeenth century.

It was during Pitts’s time with his last master that he made his journey to Mecca to complete the hajj. Having converted to Islam under the urgings and tortures of his second master Ibrahim, Pitts departed for the hajj with his third master around 1685. His account described many of the aspects of the Islamic pilgrimage including the hajj caravans, the rites at Mecca, and the customary but not mandatory visit to Medina. Much of Pitts's account of the hajj can be verified as accurate, but there is debate as to the truthfulness of some of his relations.

As a pilgrim, Pitts participated in the initial rites upon arriving in Mecca. This time is filled with the pilgrims' first tawaf, cleansing and drinking at the Zamzam Well, and completion of the sa 'y or sa 'i. Scholars seem to disagree as to what brought about this tradition, whether a re-enactment of Mohammad's reclaiming of the temple for Islam or that of the seven planets rotating around the sun. Whatever the real reasoning or meaning behind the seven turnings around the Ka ‘ba, it became a part of the Islamic tradition of the hajj and was being performed by pilgrims immediately upon their arrival well before Pitts’s time. After this ritual is the cleansing at the Zamzam Well, something Pitts seems to have left out of his narrative. Peters describes the Islamic legend tracing the origins of this well to a time when Abraham’s wife Hagar was left in the middle of the desert with their son Ishmael who was dying of thirst. Desperately running back and forth in search of water between two low hills called Safa and Marwa, God brought forth water from a spot in the desert for Hagar to give to her child. An example of this interaction with the Zamzam Well shortly after the tawaf can be found in an account by Ali Bey al-Abbasi, a Spaniard who went on the hajj in 1807. In chapter 7 of his narrative, Pitts mentions the drinking of the water but not in connection with these initial rites. Whether this is due to a mistake by Pitts or a genuine difference in the order of the hajj of the 1600s is hard to determine. However, this initial water rite then brings pilgrims to what is called the sa ‘y, a recreation of Hagar’s desperate search for water which they complete by running back and forth between the same hills seven times. Today this is completed within the mosque in Mecca called Masjid al-Haram. During Pitts’s time and up until the 1950s, this was completed out on the street.

  • Physical trauma, when he was repeatedly beaten by his patrons.
  • Enslavement trauma, described by Orlando Patterson as a form of social death, wherein trauma is derived from the severance from any form of autonomy.
  • Adoption trauma, wherein there is a traumatic component to being separated from the parent and later adopted by another. Pitts's adoption, in emotion if not in law, by his third patroon had traumatic ramifications on Pitts' identity.


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