I’m writing about the “Barbary Coast.” I’m interested in the corsairs who were roaming the coast of North Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries since I’m interested in non-territorial ways of organizing politics. The corsairs were nomads of the sea, as it were.
I put a twitter feed on this page and one of the first tweets that popped up was this:
— Sue Sherrill (@SueSherrill) April 5, 2017
I couldn’t help myself. I had to point out to Sue that it’s called the “Barbary coast” because it’s the part of North Africa where the Berber people live. “Barbary,” that is, refers to “Berber” not to “barbarian.” Few people realize this but North Africa is still predominantly Berber, not actually Arab.
— Sue Sherrill (@SueSherrill) April 6, 2017
My new friend Sue is consequently wrong: there are some 50 million Berbers in the area.
A second question, and this is more interesting, is why the Berbers got their name. The reason it seems is that the Arabs who arrived in North Africa in the 7th century called them bárbaros. This was the generic label which the Greeks applied to all foreigners. They were “barbarians” since they stuttered and spoke incomprehensible gibberish — ba, ba, ba, ba. “Barbarian” to the Greeks was not necessarily a pejorative term, but it was at the same time obvious to them that foreigners were not quite human. For one thing they had no poleis, no city-states.
“Barbarian” as a term applied to people who loot, destroy and in general fail to respect the lives of others caught on in Europe in the 18th century when it came to serve as the antithesis of “civilization.” Yet the Europeans, as already Michel Montaigne pointed out, were often greater barbarians than the alleged barbarians themselves. I wrote a book about this.