Piracy probably started to appear shortly after mankind first began putting to sea in ships, it is with us today, and it probably always will be. The Romans attempted to clear the Mediterranean of pirates, but they resumed their activities, particularly after the fall of the Western Empire. The spread of Islam in North Africa made no difference to them operating out of that coastline, but two events in the 15th century were to provoke a rapid rise in their activities. First, the expanding Ottoman Empire took over much of the coastal region, and second, the final victory of the Christian forces in Spain was followed by mass expulsions of Muslims to North Africa - men who were not surprisingly keen to extract their revenge on the new Christian state for their treatment. From the late 15th century onwards pirates operating out of what were known as the Barbary States - Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli - became ever more of a menace, taking ships, stealing cargos and particularly capturing Christians either as slaves or for ransom. The pirates became state sponsored - the rulers of each Barbary state effectively accepting protection money from European states to allow their merchantmen to pass unmolested. Their peak was in the early 17th century, but they remained a problem for Christian shipping until well into the 19th century, when French troops started a European conquest of the states and ended their activities.
The box gives us no idea of where in this long period of activity these figures are supposed to sit. There are some clues, but the most obvious comes from the most bizarre figure in the set - the woman in our bottom row. Why she is there we cannot guess. Certainly she is no pirate, and pretty unlikely to be Algerine either (the term 'Algerian', despite the name of the set, was a later invention), which just leaves the role of one of their victims. Women would have been rare on board a merchant ship of course, but she could have been a passenger. Also the pirates often raided coastal areas in Southern Europe and even as far away as Ireland and Iceland, so women certainly did fall into their hands. However none probably looked like this one, by which we mean none were dressed like this. She is in a full-length dress with a typical cap and quite a wide ruff around the neck. The ruff became fashionable during the 1560s, and fell out of favour in the West about 50 years later, but remained in parts of the East for another 50. Since Barbary pirates did not raid Poland or anywhere like it, this places our figures in the latter half of the 16th century, and as we shall see the other clues in this set agree with this date. However, while we are on the subject of this surprise figure, she also has what looks a lot like another, larger ruff round the waist. The large neck ruff, flattened chest and very slim waist are all typical of the period, but references to a ruff-like item round the top of the skirts are very hard to find. We found one engraving suggesting something similar, but on the whole must cast considerable doubt on this particular feature. Also, exactly why would she be dressed this way? Apart from the waist item the dress is typical for the ruling classes, but mainly for formal engagements like appearances at court. The ruff was a difficult thing to wear and keep respectable - even with the discovery of starch and the use of wires, a ruff remained highly susceptible to wind and rain, leading one commentator to observe "If wet or blown, could be lye upon their shoulders like the dishclouts of a slut" - hardly practical every day wear. Such costume was expensive and awkward, and if such a wealthy woman were captured by pirates then she would very quickly be relieved of such things. In short, this is a very nice if not entirely accurate figure, but completely out of place in this set, and we can’t imagine what the designer was thinking of in including her.
It is about time we started talking about the pirates in this set, of which there are 11 poses. Pirates of course wore what any sailor wore - comfortable, practical clothing for a hard, outdoor existence. For the most part we had no problem with these men’s costume. They all wear the Arab turban and other items typical of Berber dress, with several stripped to the waist and bare-foot, as any sailor might be. Three are a bit more fully dressed, which is fine as it is not always warm even in the Mediterranean, never mind on a voyage into the north Atlantic. However three of the figures wear nothing but a breechclout, and this did give us cause for concern. Did they strip down this far? Perhaps, and we could find no suitable evidence to say they did not, but they are generally represented with trousers to the knee, so we are not sure on this point.
Nautical weapons were generally the sword, pistol and half-pike, although of course any weapon could be used. Although pirate ships carried ordnance Barbary pirates were not known for good gunnery and much preferred to board and fight. There are no guns or crew in this set, which is OK because it allows room for a lot more fighting poses. Given the date of the 16th century we were surprised there were no pistols or muskets, and the javelin seems a bit unlikely, however bows and arrows were certainly used well into the 18th century, so the archer here is fine. Several of the men carry axes, which is perfectly likely, but four of the poses carry the sword - probably the most common weapon in the pirate’s arsenal. Unfortunately none of them look a lot like the scimitar, which was the usual form of sword in the Islamic world. Instead, two are straight and two have only a very subtle curve which is not all that convincing. Christian Europe and elsewhere used straight swords, and naturally any pirate might avail himself of a captured or imported weapon, so these swords are not wrong, but we would have preferred mostly scimitars here. Several of the figures also carry shields - either round or the classic adarga shape, and both are suitable for these men.
The sculpting is very poor and some of the poses are dreadful. The musculature of some of the men is very badly done, while some of the faces are horrific and barely human. Several of the poses are very awkward, and few look particularly natural, while the last figure in the second row would only be possible by dislocating his shoulder. Having arms that are pressed against the head is something we see a lot in Mars sets, but as with the first figure in that middle row it always looks bad. The poses are also very flat - particularly noticeable with some of those carrying a shield, which is pressed flat to be body and again carried very awkwardly. The first pose in the top row looks more like some sort of monkey than anything human, and we cannot imagine what he is supposed to be doing, but he also demonstrates the very poor finesse of this set as his dagger is crude in the extreme and anything but threatening. There is no flash, which is at least one positive, but two of the figures in the top row have been given absurdly small bases for no good reason; they do stand, but are easy to knock over.
Not all the Barbary pirates were native to North Africa - European 'renegades' of all nationalities also joined in - but these figures are specifically identified as Algerine, and while we were uncomfortable with the men just in a breechclout and the weapons could have been a better mix, there is perhaps little wrong with the accuracy here. The woman, with her dubious style of dress, sticks out like a sore thumb, and if Mars had wanted to portray a victim of the pirates then there are a great many more suitable figures than this they could have chosen. For all of them however the sculpting is very poor and some of the poses more comical than anything else, making this an unsatisfactory collection of figures.