Barbary pirates

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Generations of mainly Muslim corsairs who operated from the coast of northern Africa and were notorious for their ferocity and the skill. The name Barbary comes from the Berber tribes who occupied most of the coast, and the Muslim corsairs' motives for attacking Christian shipping were fuelled as much by religious hatred as by pecuniary gain. Originally under Turkish suzerainty, the African coastal towns from which corsairs operated broke free of Turkish rule in the mid-17th century and became military republics, choosing their own governors and living by plunder. The principal ones were Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Bône, and Salli, where they were commonly called Sallee pirates. Although piracy on this coast had existed more or less permanently from the time of the decline of Roman power, it found new recruits after Granada was captured by the Catholic forces of Spain in 1492. This drove many Moors into exile, who were thus ever ready to revenge themselves on Christianity in general and Spain in particular.

Originally conducted in oared galleys, this Mediterranean piracy entered a new phase in the 17th century when a Flemish renegade, Simon Danzer, introduced the sailing ship to the corsairs, and so hugely increased the range of their operations. Using ships like the xebec the Barbary pirates were able to reach into the Atlantic, and were seen as far away as Iceland. In 1631 they sacked the town of Baltimore in Ireland and carried off over 100 men, women, and children who were sold in the slave market in Algiers. Indeed, the slave trade was very lucrative for them, and during the first half of the 17th century more than 20,000 Christian slaves were sold in the market of Algiers alone. Estimates vary as to the total numbers taken, but in his book Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters (2004) the American historian Professor Robert Davis has calculated that between the years 1500 and 1800 over a million European Christians were captured by Barbary pirates and sold into slavery. However, it was not entirely one-way traffic, as the Muslim corsairs ‘had their exact Christian counterparts who attacked ships with Muslim passengers or goods aboard and raided the coasts of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean in a search for Muslim captives to sell into captivity, and these attacks continued until Napoleon captured their base, Malta, in 1798’ (P. Earle, The Pirate Wars (2003), 46).

The Muslim corsairs attracted many renegades from most European nations, dazzled by the ease with which fortunes could be made. One notorious turncoat was an Englishman named Verney, a member of the distinguished Buckinghamshire family of that name; another was a Fleming, who took the Arabic name of Murad Reis. It was he who led the raid on Baltimore and became famous as one of the most successful and savage of the corsairs. But perhaps the most notorious, and certainly the most feared, of the Mediterranean corsairs were known by the collective name of Barbarossa.

Many naval expeditions against the pirate centres were carried out by various European nations from the 17th century onwards, and though piracy declined during the 18th century, none was completely successful in stamping it out for more than a year or two until the French finally eliminated it in 1830 when they captured Algiers and annexed Algeria. Before then one of the more notable of these expeditions was mounted by Admiral Blake in 1655, whose fleet of 24 ships had been sent out to conduct reprisals for the injuries done to English shipping. When his demands for redress were refused by the Dey of Tunis, Blake attacked the forts and burnt the nine pirate vessels that were in Port Farina, situated about 40 kilometres (25 mls.) north of Tunis. Other expeditions included several sent by King Charles II (1660–85) in conjunction with the Dutch. The French also sent two, in 1682 and 1683; there were American operations in 1801–5, when the USS Constitution was in action, and again in 1815; and a combined British–Dutch expedition in 1816.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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