Joseph Pitts of Exeter (?1663 – ?1739). (1920)
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Author(s): Radford. Cecily; Year published: 1920; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 223-238
Topic(s): biography, exploration, Islam, and travel; Location(s): Exeter and Mecca
By Miss Cecily Radford. (Read at Totnes, 21st July, 1920.)
The seventeenth century appears to be regarded by many Devonians as a kind of anti-climax after the glories of the sixteenth. Drake and Raleigh, Hawkins and Grenville are household words to us all, but comparatively few remember General Monk and the great Duke of Marlborough, names which might make the reputation of a less fortunate county. It is therefore the less surprising that a seventeenth-century Devonian who is considered worthy of a place in the Dictionary of National Biography and several learned periodicals has never been mentioned in the Reports of this Association on Devonshire celebrities. Joseph Pitts of Exeter was the first Englishman to see Mecca, the holy city of the Mohammedans (whence no detected Christian may escape alive), and the first European to give an accurate account of the great pilgrimage thither. He was probably the fourth in the small company of Europeans (some fourteen in all) who made this dangerous pilgrimage before the opening of the railway to Medina in 1908.*
* Augustus Ralli, Christians in Mecca, 1909. In 1910 the pilgrimage was made by rail by another Englishman, Major A. J. B. Wavell, of Wavell’s Arabs, who was killed in East Africa 1916.
Of these fourteen, England contributes four, a larger number than any other nation. The first was one Ludovico de Bartema, an Italian gentleman, who made the pilgrimage disguised as a Mameluke in 1503, and wrote an account of his travels, a translation of which is given in Hakluyt’s Voyages. He is generally accurate in his observations, and it is probably the fault of the period rather than the individual that he saw two unicorns “of a weasel colour” in the temple at Mecca.
Some doubt has been cast on the veracity of the second pilgrim, a Frenchman, Vincent Le Blanc, who seems to have been impelled on his travels by his marriage at Havre “to one of the most terrible women in the world”. He states that he went to Mecca in 1568 with a friend of the inspiring but unusual name of Cassis.
Johann Wild, a Bavarian, taken prisoner by the Turks in Hungary, made the pilgrimage with his Turkish master in 1607, but his account is vague and meagre.
Joseph Pitts’ book (1704) certainly marks a great advance in our knowledge of the holy places of Islam. It may be that his change of faith “under extreme torture and for love of a Temporal life”¹ alienates our sympathy, but it should hardly forfeit his place in a list of celebrities that includes Bampfylde, Moore Carew, and Captain Avery the pirate. His book also describes his experiences during fifteen years of slavery in Algiers, a state of things now only kept in mind by the Prayer for Prisoners and Captives in our Church Litany. In the seventeenth century, however, capture by the Turks, as all Moslems were then called, was as common a misfortune as fire or pestilence. Whether these piracies were the direct consequence of the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, and how far they were helped by English and Dutch sailors, thrown out of work by the cessation of naval warfare in James I’s reign, cannot be discussed here, but it is certain that the ports of North Africa offered an asylum to ruffians of all nations who could handle a ship and would turn Mohammedan. Devonshire suffered more even than other maritime counties. In 1625 Turkish pirates took Lundy;² in 1630 the merchants of Exeter subscribed the then large sum of £500 for the suppression of Algerine pirates, and seven years later good Bishop Joseph Hall took counsel with Archbishop Laud as to a special service for the readmission into the Church of England of those “from the west parts” that had “become Turks, being captured in Marocco”.³
1. True and Faithful Account of the Mohammetans, by Joseph Pitts (Exon. 1704), p. 143.
2. Hist. of Lundy Island, by J. R. Chanter, Devon. Assoc. Trans., IV, p. 581.
3. Laud’s Works, V, p. 352, quoted in MS. note by A. A. Hunt on 1st ed. of True and Faithful Account in Devon and Exeter Institution.
The lot of the prisoner so taken was hard indeed, depending as it did entirely on the caprice of his purchaser. In the seventeenth century sailing ships had largely taken the place of galleys among the Algerines, so the captive had not to fear unceasing toil at one of the great oars, a fate which still overtook the Moslem who fell into French or Spanish hands. Prisoners taken to Algiers were not usually forced to change their religion, as was the case with slaves in Turkey
or Egypt, nor did they suffer quite so much as those taken by the rovers of Sallee, who were employed in gangs on the endless building schemes of successive Sultans of Morocco. Andrew Brice in his Gazetteer (published at Exeter in 1759) quotes Dr. Shaw (chaplain at Algiers 1720–33, D.N.B.), who gives the population of Algiers as Christian slaves 2000, Jews 15,000 and Mohammedans 100,000, of which only 30(000) “at most are Renegadoes”. He adds the somewhat surprising statement that many of the slaves live better than ever they did in their own countries. It is true that a slave skilled in some trade, which Turkish arrogance or Moorish indolence prevented the native Algerine from practising, might amass considerable wealth, or a slave in private hands might be treated as one of the family, and either might ultimately gain his freedom, but this by no means implied liberty to leave Algiers. Collections for the redemption of captives were made in every English parish. Each of the great powers had a Consul in Algiers through whom negotiations were made, and Roman Catholics were also helped by the devoted efforts of various orders of friars, notably the order of the Holy Redemption. But negotiations were lengthy, the ransoms asked usually exorbitant, and but few of the many captives taken could ever hope to see their native land again.
Apart from his travels, we know very little of Pitts. His father, whose name was John, was a Nonconformist, probably the John Pitts who signed the petition of a church in Exeter to King Charles II.* Joseph was one of several children; he appears to have been born in Exeter about 1663, and to have received an excellent education.
* Professor Lyon Turner’s Original Records of Early Nonconformity under Persecution and Indulgence (1911), p. 204.
At the age of fourteen or fifteen, he tells us, “My Genius led me to be a Sailor, and to see Foreign Countries, much contrary to my Mother’s mind, though my Father seemed to yield to my humour”, and after two or three short voyages he sailed, on Easter Tuesday, 1678, on board the Speedwell of Lympstone, a fishing boat carrying six men, and owned by Mr. Alderman George Tothill, who had been mayor of Exeter ten years previously.* The captain (master) was Mr. George Taylor and the mate John Milton of Lympstone. They were bound for the West Indies and Newfoundland, intending to sell their catch of fish in Spain. Off the Spanish coast, however, they were taken by an Algerine pirate. The Speedwell was scuttled, and her crew chained with other slaves in the hold of the corsair, which took several other small ships, both English and Dutch, on the same voyage.
* Izache’s Antiquities of Exeter, 1681, p. 173. George Tothill died in 1700. He lived in St. David’s parish, and owned considerable property, much of it inherited from Mrs. Elizabeth Fleay, whose portrait is in Exeter Guildhall.
A plan was made for a rising among these captives and the slaves who had been brought from Algiers to work the ship, their leader being one of the latter, Mr. James Goodridge, “now of Exon”, says Pitts in 1704. He was probably the same “mariner” whose will was proved at Exeter in 1709, where he appears to have died a Quaker, and a man of substance.
A similar rising had succeeded in the case of the Exchange of Bristol in 1622,* but this came to nothing, as one of the Dutchmen lost heart at the critical moment.
* R. W. Cotton in Devon. Assoc. Trans., XVIII, p. 186.
Arrived at Algiers, the slaves were exposed for sale, one-eighth of their number being first chosen for the Turkish Government. Joseph fell to a private purchaser, one Mustapha, a shop-keeper and part owner of a pirate ship, who appears to have beaten the boy on all occasions for the pleasure of ill-treating a Christian. Three months of this treatment made Joseph glad to be sent to sea “to wait upon the head-gunner” of a corsair, and sorry to return safely to Algiers. But within a few days he was sold to a new master, a Turk of good family, the captain of a troop of horse who was commonly known as dilberre Ibrahim or handsome Abraham. He intended Joseph as a present for his brother at Tunis, but the latter not caring to accept the gift, kept him as one of his own slaves, though the British Consul (who had met Joseph in the streets of Tunis) was anxious to buy him, and the boy’s eagerness to serve an Englishman may be imagined.
Returning to Algiers he had to follow his Turkish master into the camp which set out every summer to collect the Dey’s tribute from the unwilling Kabyles and Berbers. Joseph gives a droll account of these mountaineers, who were struck by the flaxen hair and fair complexion of the English boy, whose appearance went to disprove the popular belief that Christians resembled swine rather than men.
Here in an unlucky hour Joseph met Ibrahim’s younger brother, who offered him great gifts if he would become a Mohammedan. Meeting with no response, this zealot suggested to his brother that the proselytising of a Christian would be an atonement for sundry murders and other peccadilloes of a wild youth, and at last so worked upon Ibrahim’s fears that he started to convert his slave in earnest, regardless of any pecuniary loss that might ensue. Milder measures having failed, he had Joseph’s bare feet tied up to the tent-pole and beat on them “with a great cudgel” and all the strength of passion. The poor boy held out long enough to increase his sufferings considerably; but at last his limit of endurance was reached, and he woke next morning to find himself unable to stand or walk, but a Mohammedan and beyond the reach of ransom. Shortly after this arrived the first letter from his father in Exeter, sent secretly under cover from the former captain of the Speedwell, now a slave in Algiers. In it the father said he would rather hear of his son’s death than of his apostacy. This was too much for poor Joseph. After some days of misery he showed the letter to his master, and told him that he was still a Christian at heart, only to hear that burning alive was the fate of renegades who recanted. There was nothing for it but to accept the position and write to his father, who in deep distress consulted most of the Nonconformist ministers in Exeter as to his son’s spiritual plight, and at last wrote him a letter of forgiveness by the advice of Mr. Joseph Hallett.*
* Joseph Hallett II (1656–1722), pastor of James’ Meeting, Exeter, 1688. He conducted a Nonconformist Academy as early as 1690, which later became famous as a nursery of Unitarianism. He was expelled from his ministry in 1718 because of his opinions. (D.N.B.)
A few years later Ibrahim lost his head in an attempt to become Dey of Algiers in the stirring times that followed the French bombardment of 1683 and the assassination of Baba Hassan. Joseph thus lost a chance of promotion, as he was to have been the Dey’s secretary or treasurer, his known honesty counterbalancing his doubtful orthodoxy. Instead of this he was sold a third time, and bought by one Omar (or as Pitts, giving the soft Turkish pronunciation, spells it, Eumer), an old bachelor of kindly disposition,who took him on the great pilgrimage to Mecca.
It seems clear that this must have been in 1684, not 1680, the date given by most of Pitts’ biographers. This alteration is more important than appears on the face of it, as the observations of a boy of seventeen could not be so valuable as those of a young man of twenty-one, who had spent the intervening four years in the East. Pitts also tells us that he was at Mecca at the time of the overflowing of the Nile in Egypt – August to November. This tallies with the period of the pilgrimage (which with the whole Moslem calendar recedes annually thirteen days) in 1684 or even 1685, but not in 1680.
Diversity of opinion on this point probably arose, because Pitts early lost count of the European calendar, and his habit of giving scraps of autobiography embedded in accounts of Mohammedan customs does not make for a clear chronology.
Joseph’s love of adventure and insatiable curiosity doubtless made him eager for the journey, but he cannot have known that he was the first Englishman to attempt it, any more than he can have foreseen that it would be one hundred and seventy years before another (Lieutenant, afterwards Sir Richard, Burton) should achieve it. The voyage was made by sea from Algiers to Alexandria with a party of pilgrims, among them an Irish renegade (possibly a survivor of the raid of Murad Reis on Baltimore, County Cork),* who had spent thirty years in the French and Spanish galleys, and was esteemed as a saint for his devotion to Islam. At Cairo they joined the great caravan which embarked at Suez for Jeddah. Joseph’s observations are everywhere interesting, and his accounts of Mecca and Medina most valuable, especially as the temple at the former had been destroyed by the Puritan Wahhabis and rebuilt before it was seen by another European, the Spaniard Badia y Leblich, in 1810.
* Stanley Lane Poole’s History of the Barbary Corsairs, quoting Father Pierre Dan of the order of the Redemption, an eye-witness of the consequent sale in Algiers of 237 Irish men, women and children, “even from the cradle”.
Joseph seems to have passed everywhere unsuspected, though he was put to a singular test of the genuineness of his conversion by having to find blindfold a pillar, said to be the stump of the barren fig tree in the great mosque at Alexandria and at Mecca, and was publicly rebuked by a Turk for turning his back on the Bait Allah between the hours of prayer. After some four months in Mecca, Omar proceeded (as do about two-thirds of the pilgrims) to Medina to visit Mohammed’s tomb. Here Joseph is able to refute the old legend that it hangs in mid-air, and remarks on the zeal of the faithful who are allowed to pray thrusting their hands through the iron grating of the tomb. While in this posture his master was robbed of his silk handkerchief.
The return journey was made overland with the caravan, a romantic experience more familiar to the modern reader than the pack-horse traffic to which Joseph compares it. The plague raging in Cairo when they arrived, he and his master hastened on to Alexandria, and while Joseph was walking there on the quay he saw an English boat with a man in it, who when cautiously questioned proved to belong to the ship of one Mr. Bear of Topsham, on board of which was John Cleak of Lympstone, a friend and contemporary of his own. The two had a brief conversation together next day, and Joseph managed to send by him a letter and presents to his parents – a green silk purse for his mother and a Turkish pipe for his father.
The infection of the plague followed them on the return journey to Algiers ; Joseph himself sickened, but recovered. His master had given him his freedom at Mecca according to the usual Moslem custom, but the two were so sincerely fond of one another that they still chose to live together, Omar buying a Dutch boy to do the work of the house, and treating Joseph as his own son, promising him large sums at his death, offering him a wife, and advising him to mind his reading and writing with an eye to advancement in the Government. Joseph’s heart was secretly set on returning to Exeter, however, and he refused these offers as gracefully as he could. He became a soldier in the Turkish army, and served as a “Bombagee” against the Spanish fort at Ceuta, and the Emperor of Morocco, the terrible Muley Ismail.*
* Nick-named es-Semin = the stout. His energy, piety and cruelty kept him on the throne of Morocco for fifty-five years (1672–1727), and made the roads so safe that “a child could carry a purse of gold from Tangier to Taffillat”. When he appeared in a yellow robe his courtiers used to speculate on their chances of living out the day. (Adventures of Thomas Pellow, of Penryn, ed. by Dr. Robert Brown. Introduction and Notes.)
These expeditions appear on the whole to have been of a pleasant and picnic-like character, far less sanguinary than home life at Algiers with the French bombardments and consequent reprisals, or even the habitual executions too often of renegades who had attempted to escape.
These examples deterred Joseph from making the attempt without a reasonable chance of success. In 1693 he made the acquaintance of an English merchant, a Mr. Butler, to whose house he had gone to consult an English doctor (a slave) for ophthalmia. Mr. Butler introduced him to the English Consul, who proved to be the brother of Joseph’s old friend at Tunis. The Consul at Algiers gave him a carefully worded letter to his colleague at Smyrna, whither Joseph went in the Turkish Grand Fleet, having changed places with another Turkish soldier. English ships often came to Smyrna to trade, and he hoped to board one of them, but as ill-luck would have it the war with France (on the accession of William III in 1688) kept English ships away.
After much weary waiting both at Smyrna and Scio, beset by fears as to the horrid fate that awaited him if he were discovered, and tempted to give up all hope of escape by his expectations at Algiers and his real affection for his former master, Joseph’s passage was paid on board a French ship by a Mr. Eliot of Cornwall, who, with the English Consul, Mr. Ray, had done all in his power to help the fugitive. Pitts at last went on board “Apparel’d as an English Man with my Beard shaven, a Campaign Perrywigg, and a Cane in my Hand”. We can imagine his joy in these somewhat embarrassing trappings of civilisation. A Campaign periwig, we learn from Holne’s Armoury, 1688, is a Travelling Wig, and “hath Knots or Bobs (or a Dildo on each side) with a Curled Forehead”.
The French ship was bound for Leghorn, and arrived safely, in spite of chase by a privateer. Pitts tells us how he prostrated himself and kissed the earth, thanking God for his arrival in the “European Christian part of the Earth”, and found himself in quarantine for twenty-five days, where he was hospitably entertained by a party of Jews. During this time a ship put in from Algiers with some redeemed Dutch slaves on board, who recognised Joseph and proposed he should join their party to walk across Europe, to his great content, for a sea voyage always held a possibility of recapture. At the Austrian frontier, however, Joseph’s “left leg failed him”, and he had to be left behind, the others not having money enough to wait for him. He soon recovered and started again on the march, but never rejoined his party, being always a day behind. He met with many adventures on the way, being on one occasion robbed and beaten by four or five German soldiers as he was going through a wood, “and I have since been told by one of that Country that I had a very narrow Escape, because the Germans seldom rob without committing Murder”; but they did not find the bulk of his money which was in a belt under his clothes on the Eastern plan.
Arrived at Frankfort, he found the city gate closed and not a house outside the walls (doubtless a great contrast to seventeenth-century Exeter). Joseph had no passport, and his story was met with incredulity. Snow was on the ground, and night was coming on. The poor wanderer “sat down upon the Ground and bewailed my hard Lot”. Some soldiers who were keeping guard “in a little Hutt or Tent” outside the gate took compassion on him, and called him in to share their fire and food. Joseph still had a little money, and one of the soldiers was dispatched to a neighbouring village and returned with wine in a bucket, and a friendly corporal undertook to get Joseph into the city next day, and if possible take him to an English merchant. The nearest he could find, however, was a Frenchman who had spent some years in England. He received Joseph most kindly, got him a passport and a passage down the Rhine, with an introduction to a brother merchant at Mayence. Through the rest of Germany and Holland Joseph’s journey was as pleasant as possible, everyone eager to show kindness to one who had been so long in Algiers, and anxious for news of friends and relatives still in captivity.
He crossed from Helvoetsluys to Harwich to meet with very different treatment, being “pressed” for the Navy on the very day of his arrival. Explanations were of no avail. He was sent to the prison at Colchester, and thence to the Dreadnought man-o’-war to proceed against the French.
While there Pitts’ name was called, a letter having come for him. This proved to be from Sir William Falkener, a Turkey merchant, to whom he had written while in prison at Colchester, and to contain a “Protection” from the Admiralty Office. “I could not forbear leaping upon the Deck, and the Ship’s Crew were highly pleased with the news”. Joseph hastened home to his “dear Exeter”, stopping in London to thank Sir William.
Arrived at Exeter, he did not dare to go straight to his home lest the shock should be too great for his parents, but going to a public-house near by inquired for some of his playmates of fifteen years before. Benjamin Chapel, he was told, still lived close at hand. Sending for him, Joseph asked him to break the joyful news to his father, and the story ends with the “godly joy and pious mirth” of an unhoped-for meeting.
Joseph Pitts was two or three-and-thirty when he returned from the East, and though he lived in Exeter for the next forty years his career is hard to trace. He gives us no clue as to which of the twenty odd parishes of Exeter was his, besides as a Nonconformist it seems only too likely that he was baptized at James’ Meeting, of which all records previous to 1707¹ have been lost, and buried in the Free Cemetery at Friernhay,² of which the City authorities have no records before the nineteenth century. There is nothing to show what trade or profession he followed, nor did he ever become a freeman of the city he loved so well, being probably disqualified as a dissenter; he owns he was in a better way for preferment in Algiers than he could ever hope to be in England. It is possible that his skill in writing and figures got him some kind of clerkship, or he may, like so many Exonians at that date, have been engaged in the great woollen trade. He made the journey to London more than once, as he tells in the preface to his third edition (1731).
1. MS. history of Nonconformist churches in the West of England, now in Baptist College, Bristol. Information kindly supplied by Mr. Edward Windeatt.
2. I am indebted for this suggestion to Mr. Lloyd Parry, Town Clerk of Exeter, whom (with his subordinate Mr. Gay) I desire to thank for help in searching the City Records.
“The late Mr. Lowndes,* who was so long Secretary to the Treasury, had a great desire to see and converse with me. Accordingly when I was some Years since in London, Consul Baker” (of Algiers) “took me to him. Amongst other Discourse he told me, He was proud that he could say he had seen an English-Man who had been at Mecca; and withal assured me if I would accept of some Place, he would use his Interest to procure it for me. But I waved it in the best Manner I could, for some private Reasons”. It seems probable that the private reasons included a wife and family at Exeter. One thing Joseph certainly did in his later life, and that was to write his book: “A True and faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohammetans, in which is a particular Relation of their Pilgrimage to Mecca, the Place of Mohammet’s Birth; And a Description of Medina, and of his Tomb there. As likewise of Algier and the Country adjacent: And of Alexandria, Grand Cairo, &c. with an Account of the Author’s being taken Captive, the Turks’ Cruelty to him, and of his Escape. In which are many things never Publish’d by any Historian before. By JOSEPH PITTS of Exon. EXON. : Printed by S. Farley for Philip Bishop and Edward Score in the High-Street. 1704.”
* William Lowndes, Secretary to the Treasury 1696-1724, M.P. for St. Mawes and East Looe, credited with originating the phrase “ways and means”. (D.N.B.)
The title is sufficiently ponderous, and may well have deterred readers to whom the adventures would have appealed strongly; but the book is none the less a remarkable achievement. The late Dr. Robert Brown of Edinburgh, who possessed a unique collection of the autobiographies of “Captives” among the Moors, speaks* of the general sameness of such works written for the most part by sailors, who even when they could write had forgotten their native language in captivity and were helped by the local parson or schoolmaster, who added flowers of speech and moral reflections to taste. Another type was the apochryphal voyage, made popular in Grub Street by the wonderful success of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. But “The True and Faithfull Account” is in neither of these categories. It would be vain to claim for it a high place as literature, the style is certainly crabbed, especially in the first edition. Neither is it in any sense a complete account of the Mohammedan religion, nor indeed was Pitts at all qualified to write such from a doctrinal point of view. Ibrahim would have doubtless scorned to explain the religion he advocated so forcibly, and his convert hated his new religion so heartily that he was probably content with the smallest performance of prayers and ablutions that his fellow-worshippers would tolerate, and an avoidance (wherever possible) of discussion of its tenets. This must account for his mistranslation of one of the simplest forms of prayer, and for his ignorance on so simple a point as that “A Mohammetan may have as many wives as he pleases”, errors which are duly corrected in the third edition. Pitts also, it should be remembered, never pretended to a knowledge of Arabic. Turkish was spoken by the ruling class in Algiers, and the lingua franca, a hotch-potch of Mediterranean dialects, by slaves.
* In the Introduction to the Adventures of Thomas Pellow of Penryn, (Fisher Unwin, 1890).
As a record of manners and customs, however, his book is most accurate, and as a relation of strange things seen, done and suffered by a shrewd, observant man, who had doubtless told his story many times with force and a certain dry humour, it is more pleasant to read than many more pretentious works. There seems no reason to doubt, too, that it is as substantially truthful in what relates to his own experiences as it has been proved to be in his observations at Mecca and Medina, which no one then living in Europe had the power of verifying.
He tells us that it was with great reluctance that he published his book, doubtless from shame at his apostacy, but he was induced to do so in 1704, ten years after his return. The printer, Samuel Farley, is famous as the publisher of Prince’s Worthies of Devon and the Exeter Journal. Philip Bishop was living in 1703 at the sign of the “Golden Bible” over against the Guildhall.*
* R. N. Worth in Devon. Assoc. Trans., XI, p. 501.
The book sold well, for in 1717 M. Bishop (probably, as Dr. Brushfield in his Life of Andrew Brice, p. 10, suggests, the widow of Philip)* printed a second edition, to the great annoyance of the author. “The second edition”, says he in the preface to the third, “was printed without my consent; nay I knew nothing of the Matter till they had gone about half-way. I have wish’d since I had then published an Advertisement that I would in a little Time print a second Edition with Additions. This might perhaps have put a stop to the Press; for I scarce ever saw a Book printed on worse paper, and so incorrect: But this must not lie at my Door”. A copy of this edition is preserved in the British Museum library, and the author’s criticism is certainly justified.
* Devon. Assoc. Trans., XI, p. 500.
His own corrected edition did not appear till 1731, when it was published by “J. Osborn and T. Longman at the Ship in Pater Noster Row, and R. Hett at the Rose and Crown in the Poultry”. “Several have been very urgent with me to have it printed at London”, says the author’s preface, “assuring me it would meet with good Acceptance. Upon this I endeavoured to recollect some Things which had slipt me in the first Edition, and many soon ocur’d”. In the preface to the first edition he had said: “I might have contriv’d it so, as to have made a much bigger Book of it, if I had thought fit, but I was willing that it should be for every bodies reading; and therefore I was unwilling to make the Price too great”. Certainly the third edition contains much more matter than the first, often just those picturesque details that a man writing his first book would consider beneath the dignity of literature, such as his sale from his first to his second master, the test of his conversion in Alexandria, the episode of the silk handkerchief stolen at Medina, the presents he sent his parents, his life with his third “patroon”, and the detailed accounts of his being “pressed” for the Navy and his home-coming, which add so much to the interest of the third edition. It is a duodecimo with two illustrations, “the gestures of the Mohammedans in their worship” and the temple at Mecca. The print is large and pleasant to the eye, and this with the improvement in the style makes this edition quite the pleasantest for reading.
But not all the additions and improvements appear to be Joseph’s own. The spelling of Arabic words is more conventional but less correct, Mohammet for Mahomet and Ollah for Allah in the first edition giving the Turkish pronunciation. Provincialisms too, such as “pooks of hay”, have been carefully altered.
Another difference between the first and third editions is to be found in the Dedication. Mr. Ray, Consul at Smyrna, had probably died in the intervening twenty-seven years, for the later edition is dedicated to “the Right Honourable Peter, Lord King, Baron of Ockham, Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain”, the famous Exonian who owed his great advancement, as even his enemies admitted, entirely to his ability and knowledge of the Law (1669–1734 D.N.B.). King had in early life attended the academy of Mr. Joseph Hallett, the Nonconformist minister who was such a good friend to Joseph Pitts.
Professor Thomas Seccombe in the Dictionary of National Biography hazards the year 1735 as that of Pitts’ death, but in the absence of other evidence it seems probable that the will of a Joseph Pitts proved at Exeter in December, 1739, is his, though the identity of names can hardly be conclusive. There was a Joseph Pitts, a clergyman of the Church of England, who published several sermons at London and Ipswich in the first half of the eighteenth century, and an Aaron Pitts, a Nonconformist divine at Topsham, whose father (also a minister and also named Aaron) died at Chard in 1738.
It must be admitted, however, that the will is a disappointing document. It is undated, and there is nothing to show the testator’s station in life or where in Exeter he lived. No inventory was exhibited, but his social status was not high, or he would have appeared as Mr. Joseph Pitts in the notice of probate. He leaves to his daughter Elizabeth Skutt £100 to be paid her at his wife’s decease, “provided my Wife do not want in her life time”; his wife Hannah Pitts being sole executrix and residuary legatee, and the effects at her death to be divided among the children “as their circumstances shall require and behaviour deserve”.
Something of the fate of the proverbial prophet seems to have overtaken Joseph Pitts in his own country, in spite of his recognition by Sir Richard Burton and other nineteenth-century writers. All his biographers mention that his book was not known to the learned and painstaking Gibbon, but it is even more remarkable that Andrew Brice, whose Gazetteer was published in Exeter within twenty years of Pitts’ death, should be content to take accounts of Mecca and Medina from writers whose errors Pitts had exposed, and to make no reference to the latter, unless a hit at “Christian Renegadoes who have been to visit (Mohammed’s) Tomb and afterwards escaping home turn’d Christian again as good and firm as they were before” be intended for him.
As to the personal character of Joseph Pitts we can learn nothing beyond what appears in the course of his narrative. He certainly had great powers of observation and endurance, and a very fair measure of resolution and will-power. It would seem, too, that one who received kindness from so many people of widely different nations and characters (adopted as a son by a Turk, entertained free of charge by Jews and succoured in distress by a German corporal) must have had something peculiarly attractive in character or address.
A fourth edition of the True and Faithful Account was issued in 1738 by Messrs. Longman. A copy is preserved in Dr. Williams’ Library, London, and it appears to resemble the third exactly. Sir Richard Burton states that he had a copy of the fourth edition, but gives the date as 1708. He describes it as an octavo, and observes that the engraving headed “the most sacred and antient Temple of the Mahometans at Mecca” is the reverse of the impression. (Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madina and Meccah, Vol. II, Appendix V, note 1.) This is not the case with the copy in Dr. Williams’ Library.
The parts of Pitts’ narrative that relate to Mecca and Medina with most of his adventures were reprinted in 1798 in Vol. XVII of The World displayed, or a curious Collection of Voyages and Travels selected from Writers of all Nations, etc. London: T. Carner and F. Newbery, Junior; and the third edition was reprinted practically verbatim with Henry Maundrell’s Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter, 1697, and A Journey from Grand Cairo to Mount Sinai and back again in 1810.
Authors who have written on Joseph Pitts of Exeter are:
(1) Andrew Crichton devotes an interesting footnote to him in his History of Arabia (1830).
(2) An anonymous writer in the Quarterly Review of 1830 gives a brief account of Pitts in relation to Burckhardt’s Travels in Arabia, then just published.
(3) A most interesting article (unsigned) in the Dublin University Magazine of 1846 is based on the first edition of Pitts’ book.
(4) Sir Richard Burton in the appendix of his Pilgrimage gives extracts from the True and Faithful Account describing Mecca and Medina and the ceremonies observed there and a brief life of Pitts with explanatory notes of great value for Pitts’ Arabic and Turkish words learnt orally and afterwards transliterated into English, complicated by a Devonshire accent, need a master of languages to decipher them.
(5) Mr. G. Townsend in Vol. IV of the Western Antiquary (1884–5) has an article reprinted from the Exeter Gazette Telegram of 19 February, 1884, on “Joseph Pitts of Exeter, the Mecca Pilgrim”, in which he compares the different editions of his book and gives quotations.
(6) Professor Thomas Seccombe, in the Dictionary of National Biography, has a most valuable life of Pitts, but makes the curious mistake of saying that it was with his second “Patroon” that he made the Pilgrimage.
(7) The Rev. S. Baring-Gould, who includes Pitts in his Devonshire Characters and Strange Events (1908), gives a delightful account, abridged from the first edition of Pitts’ book.
(8) Augustus Ralli, in his Christians at Mecca (1909), gives a life of Pitts, in which he follows Sir Richard Burton and Professor Seccombe.