Lama Elsharif

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20242025 Forum on Keywords

Lama Elsharif


Purdue University, 2024

Lama Elsharif is a historian of the early modern and modern Middle East and North Africa. She received her Ph.D. in History from Purdue University in 2024. Her research deals with the intersections of environmental, economic, and maritime histories of the Ottoman regencies –Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers – in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her forthcoming book chapter on reconceptualizing Tunisian corsairing will be published in an edited volume by the University of Amsterdam Press. At Penn, she is working on her first monograph, Small Wars of Scarcity: North African Corsairs in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, which offers a unique perspective on North African sea raiders by linking their maritime activities to the region’s environmental crises and economic conditions. She looks forward to contributing to the forum on [Keywords] by exploring the terminologies used to classify and describe North African corsairs in Arabic, British, and French primary sources.

Small Wars of Scarcity: North African Corsairs in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

Small Wars of Scarcity delves into the surge of sea raiding activities by the Ottoman regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers from 1776 to 1816. It connects these raids to severe local environmental conditions, such as droughts, epidemics, and consequent famines. These recurring environmental challenges triggered economic decline, fueling revolts, and administrative turmoil across the three North African regencies. On the brink of losing power, the North African rulers deployed their corsairs to bustling maritime trade routes in a desperate bid to feed their people and regain control. While traditional historical narratives attribute this rise in corsairing to Europe’s distraction with the Napoleonic Wars, I argue that it was predominantly a strategic response by North African governments to address the environmental and economic challenges of their era and maintain their dominion.

Building on and contributing to my book project, I will analyze how the terms “corsairs” and “qarāṣinah” (corsairs in Arabic) have evolved within British, French, and North African discourses. Were North African corsairs merely profit-driven pirates as seen by European diplomats, or were they “ġuzat” / “mujāhidin” (holy warriors) as celebrated by North African rulers and their societies? Initially denoting state-sanctioned sea raiders, these labels shifted due to the corsairs’ blurred roles between lawful and unlawful actions. The political motivations of North African rulers and European diplomats further influenced how we perceive this terminology, adding to this ambiguity. By unpacking the etymological differences of these terms and exploring their usage in various historical contexts, I aim to illustrate the complex interplay of language, politics, and power in understanding Mediterranean maritime violence.