As always, dear readers, welcome.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about Gondor’s neighbors—not Mordor, with its hordes of orcs and even-more-unspeakable things, or heroic Rohan, but Harad, whose lands stretch far to the south, off the usual maps, and particularly about the city of Umbar.
Umbar is usually associated with its pirates, or corsairs, which I, in turn, always associate with the Barbary Pirates
(A romanticized view by the Danish artist, Niels Simonsen, 1807-1885.)
who made the western Mediterranean (and beyond), a dangerous place for merchants and travelers alike from the Middle Ages into the 19th century.
(I got my first taste of them from a children’s book written by, of all people, the author of the Hornblower novels, C.S. Forester.)
I wondered, however: pirates tend to be parasites, not builders–had Umbar always been a refuge for corsairs, a place whose harbor was always packed with their ships?
A little research was clearly in order.
If we were looking to find out more about a real pirate den, of which there are historical records, we would have libraries with shelves full of books written by numerous authors over several centuries. Because this is an imaginary place, the creation of a single man, our sources are much more limited, however, and, as I began to try to provide myself—and you, dear readers—with more on Umbar, I found that I really had only three main ones: the obvious The Lord of the Rings,
but then The Peoples of Middle-earth,
and what I’ve always seen as a kind of odd-book-out, The Silmarillion.
One of the most remarkable elements in Tolkien’s work is the depth of Middle-earth’s history, although often recorded only in the form of either annalistic or chronicalistic entries. Derived from the Latin word annus, “year”, annals are lists of events, year after year, rather like a kind of basic timeline. Chronicles, ultimately from the Greek word, chronos, “time”, may be seen as a kind of more developed annal, in which the events can be described in greater detail.
I find these definitions a bit fuzzy, and JRRT himself uses the word “annals” in the title of Section A of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”, although there is so much description that “Chronicles” might be more appropriate. Annals or Chronicles, the first entry for Umbar appears in Appendix B, “The Tale of Years” under The Second Age:
“[SA]2280 Umbar is made into a great fortress of Numenor”
It is clear, however, from a reference in Appendix F, I, “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”, that Umbar is, in fact, older than this fortifying:
(about place names) “A few were of forgotten origin, and descended doubtless from the days before the ships of the Numenoreans sailed the Sea; among these were Umbar, Arnach, and Erech…”
After this reference, things become a little hazy. Sauron, who always seems to be lurking nearby, was aware that things were not well in Numenor. Ar-Pharazon had forcibly married his first cousin and taken the throne, so:
“Now Sauron knowing of the dissension in Numenor thought how he might use it to achieve his revenge. He began therefore to assail the havens and forts of the Numenoreans, and invaded the coast-lands under their dominion.” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, “The Tale of Years of the Second Age”)
Ar-Pharazon, in response:
“…prepared, and at last he himself set sail with a great navy and armament, the greatest that had yet appeared in the world.”
This was not what Sauron had expected:
“And Ar-Pharazon landed at Umbar, and so great was the splendour and might of the Numenoreans at the noon of their glory that at the rumour of them alone all men flocked to their summons and did obeisance; and Sauron’s own servants fled away.”
Slippery as ever, Sauron thinks that, if he can’t obtain what he wants by force, he can do it by trickery, and surrenders to Ar-Pharazon in SA3262. (“The Tale of Years”, The Second Age)
Things go out of focus again for a while as Numenor collapses, but it appears that a kind of subset of the Numenoreans, the Black Numenoreans, continued to hold the city, perhaps with the aid of the local people, the Haradrim. (For an extended version of how Sauron ruins Numenor from within, see the “Akallabeth” in The Silmarillion.)
Things become clear again early in the Third Age, when the Gondorian king Earnil I, led an expedition to retake Umbar in TA933 (Appendix B, The Third Age). Having done so, he and much of his fleet were then lost in a storm off the coast (Appendix A, “Gondor and the Heirs of Anarion”), but worse was to come as:
“…the Men of the Harad, led by the lords that had been driven from Umbar, came up with great power against that stronghold, and Ciryandil [Earnil’s son] fell in battle in Haradwaith.”
The subsequent siege of Umbar lasted for 35 years (“The Tale of Years”, The Third Age: “1015 King Ciryandil slain in the siege of Umbar”; “1050 Hyarmendacil conquers the Harad”), but:
“could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor.”
In TA1050, Ciryaher, Ciryandil’s son:
“…came down from the north by sea and by land, and crossing the River Harnen his armies utterly defeated the Men of the Harad, and their kings were compelled to acknowledge the overlordship of Gondor.”
From that time, Umbar was part of Gondor, but, as history in Middle-earth so often seems to have a roller coaster effect,
in TA1432, there begins the civil war called “the Kin-strife”, which continues to TA1448, the losers
“…sailed away, and established themselves at Umbar. There they made a refuge for all of the enemies of the king, and a lordship independent of his crown. Umbar remained at war with Gondor for many lives of men, a threat to its coastlands and to all traffic on the sea. It was never again completely subdued until the days of Elessar; and the region of South Gondor became a debatable land between the Corsairs and the Kings.”
And this answers my question: the Corsairs of Umbar postdated the fortification, if not the founding, of Umbar by 2609 years.
As I was working on this, I found, as I often do, a suggestion of something which might have influenced JRRT. Before he was drawn away by Germanic, Celtic, and Finno-Ugric, Tolkien had begun his academic life as a classicist, and those words referring to the 35-year siege of Umbar, that the city “could not be taken because of the sea-power of Gondor” immediately brought back another city and another long siege.
After the defeat of the invading Persians at the battle of Plataea, in 479BC,
some of the victorious Greek cities, including Athens, wanted to continue the war by carrying it to the Persian-occupied Greek colonies of Asia Minor. These cities formed a collective called the “Delian League”, from its headquarters on the island of Delos. After some initial success, the League gradually seemed to lose its purpose and soon the leading state, Athens, had taken over the League, gradually turning it into the Athenian Empire.
There were some cities, however, which became increasingly anxious about Athens’ growing power, the leader among them being Sparta, a military state in southern Greece. In time, this would lead to a long war, the so-called “Peloponnesian War”, 431-404BC, (named for the southern part of Greece, where some of the fighting took place), Sparta and its allies on one side, Athens and its empire on the other.
In this war, the two sides were both powerful, but their power lay in different directions: the Spartans were heavy infantry, drilled intensively to fight in a massed formation called a phalanx.
The Athenians, as a nation of merchant/seafarers, were a naval power, possessing a large professional fleet of warships called triremes (meaning having three banks of oars).
As well, although Athens, unlike Umbar, was not situated directly at its port, it had constructed solid fortifications which joined the city with its not one, but three ports.
Each year, in the early years of the long war, the Spartans would send an army to the countryside outside Athens, block entry to the city, and destroy farmlands. To any other place, this might have been fatal, but Athens, like Umbar, “could not be taken because of the sea-power”, so, as long as that sea-power had no rival, then Sparta, like the Haradrim, could march outside Athens’ walls every summer, yet neither deter the defenders nor penetrate the walls.
Gondorian Umbar survived its 35-year siege, being rescued by a king and his armies. Athens was not so fortunate. Sparta gave in to Persian influence and Persian money, and built a fleet which destroyed the Athenian fleet at the battle of Aegospotami, in 405BC.
The next year, Athens, no longer able to guarantee supply by sea with its naval power so reduced, surrendered and, as a token of that surrender, was forced to knock holes in her long walls. She was allowed to survive, but never owned an empire again.
Lay in plenty of provisions (and arrows),
And remember that, as ever, there’s