June 29, 2015

4 Observations of Umbar

Corsair Ship by John Howe
The people, culture and history of realms such as Gondor, Rohan, Rivendell and the Shire are well known to even the more casual Middle-earth fans, but Tolkien's world is much deeper and wider than those few nations.  One of these has a particularly interesting history in regard to the story of The Lord of the Rings, though the land itself is often cut off the map...

Instead of writing an encylopedia-type article about Umbar (which you can find on sites like tolkiengateway.net and/or lotr.wikia.com), I'd like to uncover four curious or interesting aspects of this little-known people that played a big part in the history of Gondor and the third age.

A little refresher...

Before I begin a quick geography refresher is in order.  The land of Umbar lay to the south of the Gondor on the edge of the Bay of Belfalas as seen in this picture from Karen-Wynn Fonstad's excellent book titled, The Atlas of Middle-earth.

While their time on screen was brief, their moment in the spotlight was memorable for many movie fans as Peter Jackson and other leading members of the production lent their acting skills to help serve as a pirate crew aboard one of the ships in The Return of the King.

Corsair ships as seen in The Return of the King

Peter Jackson as he was shot by Legolas in The Return of the King EE (with the assistance of Gimli)
After Aragorn captured the ships with the help of the Army of the Dead (and a host of Rangers from the North if you're a book fan) he completed the voyage up the Anduin and surprised the orcs besieging Minas Tirith.

Now on to my four observations...

It's all a family feud...

Like so many of the greatest struggles throughout history, the rivalry between Gondor and Umbar is a family affair.  Like its siblings Gondor and Arnor, Umbar started as a Numenorean colony settled in the Second Age.  It was one of the strongest ports held by this seafaring nation, providing a military base on the continent and a steady supply of money, goods, and slaves.  It was the prized jewel of Numenorean conquests and a symbol of the nation's power and strength,  After the corruption and demise of Numenor, Gondor and Arnor were established by the Faithful (those who were still friendly to the elves and the Valar) while Umbar was still held by the corrupted King's Men who worshipped Morgoth and Sauron.

Umbar - sketch by Turner Mohan
Over the course of the ensuing centuries the might and strength of Gondor increased while the power of Umbar waned. By the time of King Tarannon Falastur of Gondor (T.A. 830-913), Umbar acknowledged Gondor's position and power and diplomatic marriage was arranged between Tarannon and Beruthiel (yes, the same queen who had the spying cats).  Less than a hundred years later King Earnil I of Gondor captured Umbar in a surprise attack after a lengthy siege and made it a Gondorian harbour and fortress.

Relative peace ensued for the next 500 years and the port remained part of Gondor despite attempts made by escaped Black Numenoreans who had fled east to nearby Harad.  However, during the Kin-strife in Gondor (its Civil-war) in the years T.A. 1432-1447, Gondorians and people in Umbar supported the usurper Castamir, Lord of Ships.  Castamir was eventually defeated, but upon his death his sons still controlled the majority of Gondor's navy and fled to Umbar in the south.  There they (re-) established an independent state to rival Gondor...  

A nation of pirates...

With control of Gondor's navy the newly-named "Corsairs of Umbar" pillaged and raided Gondorian ships and coastal cities at every opportunity over the rest of the Third Age.  Allied with the Haradrim, the two southern nations launched repeated assaults upon Gondor. When Sauron openly declared himself in Mordor they were quick to rush to his side.

These rough, thieving, corrupt people were essentially a sea-faring nation, much like a weaker Numenor before its demise in the age before.  Some bit of a an agricultural industry was probably sustainable on the coast, but further inland only desert wastes lay before them.  Their main source of food and economic wealth came from raiding Gondor and capturing people to use as slaves.  According to notes in Unfinished Tales, they also established colonies further in the south.  Personally, I also think they launched vast expeditions to sail around the world, fulfilling the work of their Numenorean ancestors.

But, despite these possible advances in navigation and exploration, they were a wicked people who, throughout much of their history, worshiped Morgoth and Sauron.  Cruelty and slavery would be their trademark.

In many ways the Corsairs of Umbar resemble Muslim pirates from North Africa during the 9th through 19th centuries.  Over nearly a millenia Muslim pirates, bitter enemies of Christian nations in the north (much like Umbar and Gondor), sacked thousands of towns along the Mediterranean and European coasts and took millions of Christian prisoners as slaves to row their pirate ships.  Once captured, slaves would usually only last a few short miserable years, whipped until their life gave out.  These horrendous atrocities fueled rage in Europe and led to many wars and skirmishes with Muslim pirates in much the same way tensions and conflict would've escalated between Gondor and Umbar.

A different, yet similar kind of political system...

Considering the Black Numenoreans lived in and controlled Umbar for most of its history, those in Umbar probably viewed The Faithful and their Kingdom of Gondor as traitors and usurpers who tried to steal the line of Numenor after it was destroyed.  Thus, a situation akin to the Stewardship of Gondor could have been established where the people looked for the returning of the "true" King of Numenor (Ar-Pharazon) when he would re-establish his kingdom and destroy Gondor and the Valar, attaining immortality.  There isn't any direct evidence for this from Tolkien's works, but it's an interesting theory that I think is fairly plausible, especially during the early years of Gondor.

Also of note, only four Corsair rulers are ever named, but they always come in pairs. Herumor and Fuinur most likely fell with Sauron during the Last Alliance of Elves and Men at the end of the Second Age and Castamir's great grandsons, Angamaite and Sangahyando, executed raids upon Gondor during the Third Age.  This odd fact has led some Tolkien scholars to believe that Umbar was governed by a duumvirate, two equally powerful political or military leaders.  (A duumvirate is very similar to a diarchy, but unlike the latter, the term is usually applied to military leaders.)  If so, it would be another interesting addition to different types of political structures in Middle-earth.     

Destroyed by the hand of Aragorn... twice!

We all cheer every time we read or see Aragorn leap of the Corsair ships on the banks of the Anduin.  His capture of the Corsair fleet during the War of the Ring is well known to even casual Middle-earth fans.  However, his first victory against the pirates of the south is perhaps equally important. During his extensive travels 29 years earlier, Aragorn (under the name Thorongil), under the authority of Steward Ecthelion II (father of Denethor), led a taskforce of Gondorian soldiers south and burned the Corsair fleet, killing the Captain of the Haven in the process.  The surprise attack was devastating to the Corsairs and they were never able to fully recover by the time Sauron unleashed his armies three decades later.  Instead of being able to supply Sauron with a massive armada they could only send 50 "great ships" and smaller vessels to raid the Gondorian coast and support the orcs besieging Minas Tirith.  Without Aragorn's earlier victory their strength could have been overwhelming and the War of the Ring might have had a different ending.

City of Umbar - matte painting by Czech mattepainting.org user Scharb 

In conclusion, here are my four interesting observations of the Corsairs of Umbar:

  • They were bitter rivals and relatives of Gondor
  • They were a nation of cruel pirates
  • They might have been ruled by a duumvirate, two military leaders
  • Aragorn defeated their fleet twice - during the War of the Ring and nearly 30 years prior      

 Do you find any other aspect of the Corsairs interesting?  If so, share in the comment section below!

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