Once again a set from Mars presents us with an immediate puzzle. What do they mean by barbarian pirates? You could argue that all pirates are barbarians, but from looking at the figures we think what Mars were trying to say is these are Barbary pirates. Note to Mars - get someone who speaks English to help you with your product names!
Piracy from the North African coast had always been a problem, but it was the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of Kemal Reis, coupled with the expulsion of many Muslims from Spain after the Reconquista, that brought what were termed the Barbary Pirates to prominence as a serious threat to shipping - particularly that of Christian nations - at the end of the 15th century. From then on the Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli were the base for numerous raids both on shipping and some coastal settlements, and were a major hazard for trade in the western Mediterranean until the pirates were finally suppressed in the 19th century.
While the box makes no mention of dates we have assumed that the intention is to complement the previous set of Algerian Pirates, so although in truth the costume of ordinary seafarers would change little for a very long time, this set is likely to be aimed at the heyday of the Barbary Pirates, the 16th and 17th centuries. This is largely based on the weapons on display here, which include a bow and a crossbow as well as the usual swords, knives and axes, but no firearms. This is quite appropriate for these centuries, since the pirates preferred such weapons for their favourite tactic of boarding ships rather than firing on them. Contemporary images of these men show the ordinary seaman stripped to the waist in baggy, comfortable breeches ending at the knee and barefoot, at least when at sea. This is what we find here, with various subtle differences such as in the style of turban. The officers such as the one pictured on the box wore more splendid clothing to advertise their rank and wealth, and when the climate demanded it men wore a loose tunic or coat, of which there are a few here. One man (last figure in the middle row) seems to have an animal skin as a sort of improvised cloak, which might also be a sign of wealth and rank.
Every figure here is handling at least one weapon, so this is a set of pirates fighting rather than handling their ship. There are a lot of men flashing blades about, and a good deal of movement, so we thought the poses were quite well chosen, and particularly liked the men with two weapons as this makes them even more frightening in appearance; they often successfully intimidated a victim into surrender before actually drawing blood. Surely the weakest pose is the man holding up a shield to his head, for you have to ask yourself what could he be possibly protecting himself from with the shield up against his ear like that! However the shield man is only one of several poses that suffer greatly from being very flat, with many arms being pressed against the head and one man sticking his sword into his turban. A few of the poses are nice and deep, but far too many are flat, showing the flat of their blade to the enemy rather than seriously looking like they are about to strike.
The standard of the sculpting you can judge for yourself from our photographs. The flatness of the figures is not apparent, but the quite ugly proportions certainly are. The folds in the loose clothing are quite well done, but musculature leaves something to be desired and the faces are pretty bad. On the samples we purchased there was relatively little flash, but two of the four sprues in the box were very seriously deformed, having failed to fill the mould properly, which meant a number of swords were much too short and one man was missing an arm and his head! So if you can, check whether you are getting the good ones before you buy - our photos are of the best ones we found in our box, which were fine.
Ignoring the incomplete figures we thought the quality of this set was much the same as that of the first, and the style certainly matches. However this set presented us with no concerns over accuracy - the clothing looks good and the weaponry is all typical of that in use at the time. Also there are no animal-like poses this time, so while we wouldn’t call any of these figures attractive we can at least see that they are all useful. What we need now of course is a set of terrified European sailors and merchants, but until then this is a fair representation of a terrible scourge on early modern trade in the Mediterranean, although Mars need to be more careful with their quality control.