Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitts, Joseph

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PITTS, JOSEPH (1663–1735?), traveller, was born at Exeter in 1663, and in the spring of 1678 sailed as an apprentice on board the Speedwell, a merchantman bound for the West Indies, ‘Newfoundland, Bilboa, the Canaries, and so home.’ On her return journey the vessel was captured off the Spanish coast by an Algerine pirate, commanded by a Dutch renegado. Pitts was taken to Algiers and sold to a merchant, by whom he was treated with great barbarity. Beyond a formal summons to change his faith, however, no attempt was made to convert him to Islamism. In 1680 Pitts changed hands, and his second master, or ‘patroon,’ was of a different mind. He tortured the unfortunate Pitts by belabouring his feet with a cudgel until they were suffused with blood, and choking his cries by ramming his heel into his mouth, until his victim repeated the required formula of submission to Mahomet. A few months afterwards, in attendance upon this patroon, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, sailing to Alexandria, thence by caravan to Cairo (of which he gives a very graphic account) and Suez, and so by ship to Jeddah, the port of Mecca. At Alexandria the genuineness of his conversion was tested by his being blindfolded and told to walk a distance of ten paces to the stump of a tree, said to be the fig-tree that was blasted by the curse of Jesus Christ. He succeeded in stumbling against the tree, and was accounted to have passed the ordeal with credit. Shortly after his return to Algiers, he went to Tunis, where he heard news from England and sought to obtain the means of ransom from the English consul. The latter was prepared to advance 60l., but his patroon would take no less than 100l. Later he passed into the hands of a third master, by whom he was kindly treated and finally manumitted. He remained in his service as a supercargo until 1693, when he succeeded in effecting his escape in a French vessel to Leghorn, through the agency of William Raye, the English consul at Smyrna. From Leghorn he accomplished the journey home on foot by way of Florence, Augsburg, Frankfort, Mainz, Cologne, Rotterdam, and Helvoetsluys. From Helvoetsluys he sailed to Harwich, where, upon the first night of his return, he was impressed for the navy. He obtained his release with difficulty through the agency of Sir William Falkener, a prominent Turkey merchant, with whom he had had dealings in the Levant. He then proceeded to Exeter, where he was welcomed by his father early in 1694, and was greatly relieved to find that his opportunism in adopting the creed of Islam had been condoned by his father's spiritual advisers, among them his old preceptor, Joseph Hallett (1656–1722) [q. v.] He was living in Exeter in May 1731, aged 68; but the date of his death has not been ascertained.

In 1704 Pitts published, in 8vo, at Exeter, ‘A Faithfull Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mahometans, in which is a particular Relation of their Pilgrimage to Mecca.’ This work (of which Gibbon seems to have been ignorant) is the first authentic record by an Englishman of the pilgrimage to Mecca. It gives a brief but sensible and consistent account of what the writer saw. A second edition of the ‘Faithful Account’ appeared at Exeter in 1717, 12mo; and a third, dedicated to Peter King, first lord King [q. v.], with additions and corrections, in 1731, 12mo. To this edition were added a ‘map of Mecca’ (more exactly a plan of the temple and Ka'abah) and ‘a cut of the gestures of the Mahometans in their worship.’ Pitts's narrative was also reprinted in vol. xvii. of ‘The World displayed’ (1778), and as an appendix to Henry Maundrell's ‘Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem’ (London, 1810).

[Pitts's Faithful Account; Burton's Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1893, ii. 358 sq.; Crichton's Arabia, ii. 208; Quarterly Review, xlii. 20; Dublin Univ. Mag. xxvii. 76, 213; Athenæum, 1893, ii. 697.]

T. S.