Captain Timberlake’s Travels

I don’t often do book reviews but have just finished this extraordinary book by Joan Taylor. The Englishman, The Moor and The Holy City is about London merchant, shipbuilder and captain Henry Timberlake who sailed to Cairo in 1601.

On arrival he was too late in the season to sell his heavy woollen cloth so rather than wait with his ship and crew, he went to Jerusalem.

This is bizarre on so many levels. England was unknown in the region so most had to pretend to be French. He knew nobody there so was very much alone. He must have been used to danger, but here much was unknown and out of his control. The closest to a universal language was a hybrid called Frank which was common in Mediterranean ships.

On arrival at Jerusalem Henry refused to pretend to gain entry as a Greek like his fellow Englishman, so was thrown into prison as a heretic at risk of execution. But he was miraculously rescued by al Fessi, a man from Morocco who had been on his ship en route to Mecca for the hajj.

They returned to Cairo together when al Fessi again risked his life to protect him. Why would a stranger do this?

Maybe he was grateful for himself and other pilgrims having arrived safely at Cairo. Maybe his behaviour was part of the hajj. Maybe he took pity on such a foolish stranger.

Or maybe he knew about Drake’s fame against the Armada. England and North African states were both at war with Spain. But there was more.

In 1600 a Moroccan delegation went to London to suggest the 2 nations joined forces to defeat Spain. Barbary cavalry and English naval power seems like a suitable match, to defeat Spain in Europe snd the West Indies. It is mind boggling to consider what might have been.

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