Biology Lab


Associate Professor of History
Josh White

I’ve long been fascinated with borders and boundaries, with how they are constructed, crossed, and transgressed. As a historian of the Ottoman Empire, that interest in boundaries, both territorial and legal, was what first led me to the phenomenon of piracy, which was endemic in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mediterranean. I figured that focusing on piracy would provide an engaging way to explore the social, legal, and diplomatic history of the Ottoman Mediterranean world. But one of the things you quickly learn when you study piracy is that there’s a lot of ambiguity and rather less agreement over definitions. What is piracy, and perhaps more important, who gets to decide? Even tougher to answer: Who is a pirate? Historically speaking, few of those we might choose to call pirates would have embraced the title. Many received (or believed that they had) license from rulers or their faith to attack and plunder enemy shipping and were (and still are) celebrated for their actions in their home countries. Others only dabbled in piracy, well-armed merchants engaging in a little opportunistic free trade. Regardless, the majority of “pirates,” whether of ships or of intellectual property, whatever they have called themselves, have sought ways to justify their activities. But can piracy be ethical? When does taking something become piracy, and what does (or should) that mean for both pirates and buyers or receivers of pirated goods? The questions are as relevant today as ever, the ethical considerations no less pressing in the internet age as in the age of sail. That’s why I’m so excited to be navigating them together with students in the Engagements. After all, thanks to the internet, it’s never been easier to be a pirate. Now we must all contend with the implications.

Since joining the UVA faculty in 2012, I have taught courses at all levels on the history of the medieval and early modern Middle East and North Africa, the Ottoman Empire, and the Mediterranean. My first book, Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean, examines the impact of and Ottoman response to maritime violence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I am currently working on a number of projects, including studies on illegal enslavement and freedom suits in the Ottoman Empire and the role of Islamic law and religious-legal authorities in Ottoman foreign relations.