Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Way It Was In Tripoli, 1817

by Stephen J Gertz

Tully (Richard). Narrative of a Ten Years' Residence at Tripoli in Africa.
London: Printed for Henry Colburn..., 1817

In 1816, Tripoli was one of the pirate Barbary States, collecting tribute from the U.S. in exchange for  protection of America's maritime commerce in the Mediterranean. The first and second Barbary Wars had been fought by the U.S. against the Pasha's demands for increased amounts of extortionate baksheesh.

The English-speaking public had little knowledge of Tripoli. That would change in 1816 with the publication of Narrative of a Ten Years' Residence at Tripoli in Africa, still, rare book or otherwise, a key behind-the-scenes source. This singular collection of letters relating to Tripoli contains valuable information on the court of the city's Pasha and remains one of the few public accounts  of the private world of the North African despot.

Officers of the Grand Seraglio regaling.

As admitted in the Preface, the letters were actually written by Miss Tully, the sister-in-law of Richard Tully, British Consul in Tripoli (1783-1793) yet, curiously, Edwards, in his Catalogue of books on Africa, attributes the letters to Tully himself. All of Tully's female relations were, it seems, on very intimate terms with the family of the Pasha, which gave the author entre-nous opportunity to collect a huge amount of exotic information.

Sidy Hassan, late Bey of Tripoly.

First published in 1816, the letters detail every aspect of life at the Pasha's court and the daily world  of the ordinary person, containing exact descriptions of houses, mosques, clothing, mores, manners, and customs. The work contains a list of the names of the Royal Family of Tripoli, and an appendix with Moorish vocabulary.

An Egyptian Puppet Shew.

"It contains the only exact account which has ever been made publicly known of the private manners and conduct of the Bashaw of Tripoli. It has also been the object of the author to present a faithful picture of the manners, ideas and sentiments of the Moors" [Vorwort].

A Bedouin Peasant Woman.

So faithful, indeed, that the book has found a place in English literature, providing descriptive source material for many works by authors who had never been to Tripoli - or any other  Arab land - and/or borrowed from this book, not the least of whom was Byron, who admitted to plagiarizing it

Arabs recreating in the Desert.

"Almost all Don Juan is real life, either my own, or from people I knew. By the way, much of the description of the furniture, in Canto Third, is taken from Tully's Tripoli (pray note this), and the rest from my own observation. Remember, I never meant to conceal this at all, and have only not stated it, because Don Juan  had no preface, nor name to it" (Lord Byron to John Murray, publisher, August 23, 1821).

It is unlikely that any Romantic poetry will be written about Tripoli under the rule of Mohammar Quadaffi [fill-in alternative spellings], nor about his furniture. That he made his bed and now has to sleep in it, however, does have its lyric possibilities.

Tully (Richard). Narrative of a Ten Years' Residence at Tripoli in Africa, published from the originals in the possession of the family of the late Richard Tully, Esq., the British consul: comprising authentic memoirs and anecdotes of the reigning Bashaw, his family, and other persons of distinction; also an account of the domestic manners of the Moors, Arabs, and Turks. London: Printed for Henry Colburn..., 1817.

Second edition. Quarto. xvi, 376 (incl. index), [2] pp. Folding engraved map,  seven hand-coloured aquatint plates. Contains three additional plates not found in the first edition.

Abbey, Travel 301; Atabey 1241; Blackmer 1682; Tooley 494. 

Image courtesy of Antiquariat Forum, with our thanks.


  1. Could you kindly tell me, if kown, the name of the author of the plates reproduced in the book, namely Bey Hassan's one on the first page? Thanks a lot.

    1. That plate, along with most in the book, is, alas, unsigned. A few of the plates are signed, "R. Havell, engr."


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