Piracy in the Barbary – Part I

It will suffice to say that an extreme ignorance, a grossness without equal, and an inconsistency which disconcerts the most measured approaches are today the foundation on which the government rests. The dey is an imbecile who has outbursts of puerility like a child and who reflects on nothing, before or after giving his orders[1].

Thus French consul Andre Alexandre Le Maire described the dey[2] of Algiers in 1757. The underlying message of his description was that a great chasm separated the philosophies and cultures of Algiers and the rest of the Muslim Barbary Coast[3] from “Christian” Europe, a chasm that was readily apparent in the high-seas drama that played out over the course of some 300 years. Beyond cultural differences, this quote also offers an excellent example of the hypocrisy which characterized European attitudes toward the Barbary, for Europe was equally guilty of the vices it attributed to the Barbary regencies, and its “measured approaches” were as inconsistent as those of the Barbary.

The main actors in this 300 year conflict, which lasted from approximately 1500 through 1830, and which pitted Europe against the Barbary, were the “corsairs” – privateers who preyed on European shipping (Parker, 6). Referred to as “pirates” by both Europeans and Americans, these ships and their crews assaulted and seized the merchant ships of Europe, and later America, and the first-hand accounts of captives who were sold in North African slave markets terrified and intrigued the imaginations of Europeans and Americans alike (Baepler 7-8). In fact, the narratives, stage plays, artwork, and poetry in American culture at the time helped to convince American audiences that the U.S. was “locked in a struggle of liberty versus tyranny and good versus evil” (Lambert, 106). Ironically, the number of slaves brought to the Islamic realms was roughly one-third to one-half the number brought to America (Toledano, 5). What’s more, Salvatore Bono, in his work, Schiavi musulmani nell’Italia moderna, estimates that there were 40,000 to 50,000 Muslim slaves in Italy at any given time during the 16th and 17th centuries, a number only sustainable if 200,000 to 250,000 slaves were acquired by Italy per century (Parker, 10)! Additionally, there were two orders of “crusader monks” that preyed on Muslim shipping – the Knights of St. John[4] based in Malta and the Tuscan Order of St. Stephen[5] (Wolf, 42). Furthermore, the racial arrogance with which Europe viewed North Africa, their discriminatory commercial practices toward the North African merchants, their incompetent intelligence-gathering (both social and military), and their hypocritical trafficking in slaves, all contributed to the perpetual high-seas tensions and tragedies.

In this paper I will address the issue of how Barbary privateering managed to survive for over 300 years, despite continuously alienating the most powerful nations on earth. The focus of this paper will center on Algeria, as that regency was the most prominent actor in the period under discussion. This paper will progress as follows: Section I will give a brief historical and economic overview of corsair activity originating from the Barbary Coast, and Section II will detail the corsair interaction with European powers and the failure of these powers’ alternating strategies of treaty-making and naval bombardment in controlling the corsair activity.

Section I: The History of Barbary Privateering

Central to any discussion of the Barbary corsair activity is the need to address the terminology employed by the European powers of the day in describing these maritime antagonists as “pirates”. The term “pirate”, while perhaps an appropriate description of Barbary naval activity in the period immediately preceding Kheir-ed-din’s (Barbarossa) success in establishing the “Algerian Turkish Regency”, the term “privateer” is the more accurate term to employ when considering the 300 years under discussion (1500s-1830)[6] (Wolf, 12). The distinction between “pirate” and “privateer” is an important one to make: “pirates” were not authorized to engage in their activity by any government, and were as likely to prey on the shipping of their ‘home’ government as on foreign vessels; “privateers”, however, were in fact authorized by their government to attack foreign vessels and to sell captured goods and persons for profit (Parker, 6). The labeling of Barbary corsairs as “pirates” is inaccurate for another reason: the European nations themselves commissioned “privateers” to engage in the very same activity as the Barbary “pirates”; French privateers, for example, captured 10,871 merchant vessels in the 22 years between 1793 and 1815 (Parker, 6)! The reality is that the corsairs of the Barbary, and especially Algeria, operated in competition with corsairs under the command of the Knights of St. John, the Tuscan Order of St. Stephen, and those commissioned by the European governments (Wolf, 113). Furthermore, the corsairs sailing from Algiers were comporting themselves in accordance with accepted international practice at that time, a practice shared by other nations such as America, Britain, France as mentioned above, Holland, Italy and Malta, until the practice was made illegal by the 1856 Declaration of Paris (Parker, 6). Interestingly, the last privateers on record were in the service of the Confederate government and preyed on Union shipping during the U.S. civil war (Parker, 6).

Privateering in the Barbary existed for the main purpose of profit. Proceeds from the sale of captured ships, humans, and cargo brought considerable wealth to the corsairs themselves as well as to the ship’s owner, and of course, to the Regency. Privateering was, in fact, an important source of revenue for the Regency of Algeria for quite some time, annual fluctuations in proceeds notwithstanding. While this practice was financially beneficial to the regencies and those who commissioned and funded the corsair missions, it had a powerful, negative impact on the countries whose shipping was being ravished. It has been calculated that in the period 1626-1642, 400 English ships and 8000 English citizens were captured in the Barbary, resulting in a “direct cost” to England of £1,000,000 – £1,300,000, not to mention the indirect costs of “disrupted trade” and losses to society from the capture of those who earned wages as well as those who were the primary providers of wages for the household (Parker, 9). Furthermore, when Algerian corsairs in 1640 captured the Rebecca of London, an English ship carrying £260,000 in silver, the value of the English pound actually dropped due to the withdrawal of funds by Dutch and other bankers who feared future such loses (Parker, 9).

The roots of the Barbary privateering date back to the early 1500s. When Spain began repressing its Moorish (Mohammedan) subjects, known as Moriscos, these subjects fled to the Maghreb and Levant where they advocated jihad against the Spanish kingdoms in revenge (Wolf 4). Having been subjected to ruthless Catholic treatment, these Moriscos endured forced baptisms, imprisonment and even execution by burning, all of which spread anti-Spanish fervor among the émigré communities (Wolf, 5-6). A number of these Moriscos went to sea and assaulted the coasts of their former homelands, raided Spanish fishing vessels and disrupted Spanish commerce, producing a tremendous outcry by Spanish citizens (Wolf, 4). Under Ferdinand, Spain attempted to “contain” such piracy, and thus in 1505 the Spanish captured Mers-el-Kebir and built a harbor for their ships; over the next six years, Pedro Navarro captured Oran, Bougie, Valez and Tripoli (Wolf, 5). After the death of Ferdinand, however, the Spanish presidios on the North African coast were taken back from the Spanish, with the exception of Oran and Mers-el-Kebir (Wolf, 5).

In the beginning of the 16th century occurred one of the most colorful episodes in the history of the Barbary Coast. A number of “adventurers” from the Levant appeared in the central Mediterranean, among whom were three brothers: Aroudj, Isaac, and Kheir-ed-din (Wolf, 6). Most of what is known of their early lives comes to us through myth: they may have had an ex-janissary[7] for a father, and the daughter of a Greek Orthodox priest for a mother, the boys being raised to be pious Mohammedans while the sisters were raised to be Christians (Wolf, 6). What is known is that Aroudj was once captured by the Knights of St. John at Rhodes and put to work onboard their ship as a galley slave. It is not clear how he was freed, whether by escape or ransom payment, but soon after he gained his freedom, he was commissioned as a corsair by an Egyptian prince (Wolf, 6). Arriving in Tunis together, the brothers began operating as corsairs, fighting the jihad against “Christendom” and, in the case of Arudj, fighting a personal war of revenge against the Knights of St. John who had enslaved him (Wolf, 6). By 1510, reports of the exploits of these corsairs had spread considerably, and Arudj’s capture of two papal galleys loaded with riches only added to his mystique (Wolf, 6). Soon, Arudj’s corsair flotilla grew as Levantine corsairs joined under his command (Wolf, 7). An ambitious man, Arudj was not content to spend his life simply as the commander of a corsair fleet; he set his sights on consolidating political power in the “amorphous” political situation in the Barbary Coast (Wolf, 7). Unfortunately for Arudj, his pursuit of this goal cost him dearly; his arm was taken off by a cannon ball during a battle against the Spanish at Bougie, and he lost his life attempting to subdue Terez and Tlemcen (Wolf, 7, 9). Arudj’s ruthlessness contributed to his enduring legend; on his way to Algiers, he made a stop at Cherchell where one of his former lieutenants had declared himself king, and beheaded him (Wolf, 8). At Algiers, Arudj strangled a sheikh after failing to expel the Spaniards, and when the baldi (the native Mohommedans of Algiers) petitioned the Spanish to help drive Aroudj’s force out of Algiers, he gathered the plotters into a mosque and executed several of them (Wolf, 8).

Barbary corsair operations were commonly a private business venture, however the government issued commissions to the corsairs which granted their activities official sanction (Wolf, 113). The corsair ships were owned either by the reis himself, wealthy individuals, or by associations of such individuals, forming a “corporation of ship-owners, who pooled their money” (Wolf, 140). There were even pashas or deys who owned such ships, although in this type of business venture they did so as private individuals, and not as government officials (Wolf, 140). The ruler, whether pasha, agha, dey or divan held the reis accountable for the well-being of the ship; if the reis exhibited cowardice or gross mismanagement and thereby failed to capture a vessel, he could be severely punished, including bastinadoing[8] (Wolf, 140). In this responsibility, fame was no guarantee of safety. Hamidou Reis, one of the more famous corsair captains whose riches at death included a beautiful villa, was put on trial and narrowly escaped serious punishment after his ship was lost in a storm (Panzac, 128; Wolf, 140). The ownership of corsair vessels in the 1700s, however, experienced a reversal; with the increased stability of the dey’s government in Algiers, the deylik[9] eventually took ownership of the vessels and positioned them under the minister of marine (Wolf, 140).

The corsair prizes were a significant part of the State’s treasury for at least part of the 300 years of corsair activity[10], and ranged anywhere from just under 5% to almost 26% of the revenues of the dey (Panzac, 131). In Tunisia, from 1800-1802[11], corsair revenues provided 15.7% of the total beylik revenue (Panzac, 130). Thus, while this revenue was rather unreliable due to years in which yields from prizes were low, treaties which placed profitable captures off-limits, and attacks against the Barbary corsairs…etc., it did represent at times a significant source of revenue in Algiers especially (Panzac, 131). In addition, it is important to note another substantial revenue stream for the regencies, one which was indirectly provided by corsairs: “protection” money paid by European powers to the regencies to guarantee the safety of maritime commerce from the corsair predations (Panzac, 131).

In terms of prizes, the booty seized in corsair raids – including slaves – had to be dealt with in a manner which was dictated by the government (Wolf, 113). The distribution of profits from the sale of slaves and booty in the 1630s as shown in Appendices B and C serves to illustrate the complicated profit sharing engendered in such raids. In addition to structures for dividing up the merchandise and treasure taken in corsair raids, there was also a structure within which slaves were divided. In Tunis for example, the bey[12] had the right to one-third the value of the captured ship, and could purchase as slaves anyone aboard the ship, for 300 piastres each (Panzac, 122). In Algeria especially, slaves were a highly valuable commodity, for the free labor they provided, and more importantly, for the money paid by their government, by private individuals and families, or by redemptionist monks[13] for their ransom. While certainly not all slaves were ransomed, the probability of a ransom payment was great enough that slave captures were an integral part of the corsair trade. There is no exact accounting as to exact numbers of slaves, however, it is estimated that in 1621 there were 20,000 Christian captives in Algeria and by the 1630s, roughly 25,000 male and 2000 female captives (Baepler, 3). This slave trade had an interesting side effect: a number of those who managed to leave their enslavement, whether by redemption or escape, wrote accounts of their experiences which, when published, must have proved a thoroughly engrossing read for Americans and Europeans in that era. Writing of his experience as a captive of the Moroccan “Emperor”, John Whitehead’s narrative is filled with the kinds of first-hand, horrific experiences that readers must have craved. Describing one incident in which the “Emperor” was enraged at a concubine for cursing him after he denied her an unspecified request, Whitehead relates: “She, as he was going from her, thinking him to be out of hearing, gave him a Curse, which he overheard and thereupon immediately caus’d his Eunuchs to pluck the Infant; tho[ugh] innocent and his own, from its Mother’s Arms; and to tear it Limb from Limb; and afterwards to strangle her” (Whitehead qtd. in Matar, 184-185).

The ships of the Barbary corsair fleet were chosen both for engineering and nautical reasons as well as for the simple fact that some of them were captured European vessels. In the 16th century, a commonly used ship was the “frigate”[14] which was powered by anywhere from six to ten oar banks[15], and, unlike slave galleys where slaves did the rowing, the men who manned these oar banks were the same men who fought during raids (Wolf, 114). Due to the small size and armament of these frigates, the prizes they sought were small merchant traffic; however, the arrival of Levantine corsairs brought larger ships with better armament and better knowledge of naval tactics (Wolf, 114-115). These new ships – “brigantines”[16]- had ten to sixteen oar banks and brought to bear a knowledge of useful weaponry such as artillery and arquebus[17] (Wolf, 115). Thanks to French consular records, we know that after 1737, most of the corsair ships leaving port had less than sixteen cannons; other designs used were the chebeck, caravelle and frigate which carried between sixteen and thirty cannons, two or three masts for sails, and had a shallow draft which would prove a vital technological advantage in future engagements with larger, heavier warships (Wolf, 138). There were the rare instances of large ships in the Algerian inventory, such as the fifty-plus gun Dantzik, Gazelle and Chateau, but these ships were not in service very long, whereas the chebecks with sixteen to thirty cannons saw years of active service (Wolf, 139).

The Barbary corsairs were manned by several categories of sailors. In command was the captain, or “reis”. The reis were an odd assortment of ruthless individuals, a number of whom were actually former sea-faring citizens of European nations, which earned them the title “renegade”. One such example is the Dutch renegade Jan Jansen. Originally from Haarlem in The Netherlands, Jansen adopted the name Murad Rais (or Mourat Reis) and commanded a corsair out of Sale and then became part of the corsair community in Algiers (Parker, 8). These ‘renegades’ left their homelands for any number of reasons, and due to their knowledge and experience at sea, which was lacking on the Barbary Coast, were made captains of corsair ships (Wolf, 115, 141-142). Little is known about the background of the earliest renegades; some actually became renegades as children, the implication being that these were children captured by corsairs and brought back to Barbary (Wolf, 115). Others made the decision to convert to Islam and become renegades as adults. Such was the case of the famous Euldj Ali, a galley slave, who converted as an adult in order to take revenge on a Turk who had insulted him (Wolf, 115). Privateering was a truly risky enterprise for renegades; they faced almost certain execution in a hangman’s noose if they were ever captured by vessels of their former homeland, or ever entered a port controlled by their former homeland (Wolf, 161). By the latter half of the 16th century, these renegades comprised roughly 66% of the “commanding personnel” of corsair ships of more than fifteen oar banks (Wolf, 115).

The crews that served under the reis were as interesting as the captains themselves. Initially, the military ‘muscle’ of corsair crews was comprised of “marines” who had been recruited from the Levant and from among renegade Christians (Wolf, 59). These marines took part in actions such as the taking of the port city Mahdiya and its strategic harbor, under the command of the corsair reis, Dragut (Wolf, 34). Later, Janissary[18] militias became the military muscle of the corsairs. While most Janissaries were volunteers from various Muslim countries searching for position and fortune, there is evidence that, beginning in the late 1400s, many were taken against their will as children from their homes in the Balkans, and once pressed into service, became the property of the Sultan and were indoctrinated with professionalism and loyalty to the Sultan (“Janissaries”). Eventually, this Janissary militia grew to become one of the most powerful forces in the Ottoman empire (“Janissaries”). Early on, however, one of the main drawbacks of membership in the Janissaries was the prohibition against going on corsair cruises, and thus sharing in the profits from maritime prizes; until the late 1500s, their role was primarily a land-based military force, which caused hostility between the Janissaries and the corsair marines (Wolf, 59). In an effort to eliminate this hostility, Mohammad Pasha issued a decree in 1568 which allowed Janissaries to go on corsair missions, and which seems to have changed the composition of corsair crews; now the Janissaries were the military ‘muscle’ (Wolf, 59). Records indicate that once this prohibition was lifted, the ‘estates’ the Janissaries left after their death amounted to roughly twice that of Janissaries whose duty was solely land-based (Panzac, 125-126). The sailors who risked life and limb on corsair missions were also well rewarded: their ‘estates’ left after death were commensurate with the fact that they spent much more time at sea than the Janissaries, and amounted to more than four times that of Janissaries who served at sea (Panzac, 126).

The rituals surrounding the departure and return of corsairs are quite interesting. Because the Qur’an forbade piracy, those involved in corsair missions took great pains to promote the ‘holiness’ of their mission, even after the religious motivations for such activity had given way to the profit motive (Wolf, 142). The reis would consult his marabout, or holy man, to inquire about omens, and to ask for divine blessing; sheep’s blood was then poured over the prow of the ship to remind all that their mission was a jihad to kill Christians (Wolf, 143). Upon a successful return, the ship’s guns and those of the harbor and the mole[19] erupted in celebration, and the captives – now slaves – were paraded through the streets amid great fanfare to the pasha or dey (Wolf, 144).

To understand the corsairs and their trade, one must first understand the basics of Algerian government[20], since the government was an integral part of corsair activity. In the period 1671 to approximately 1799, the structure of the Algerian government was as follows: at the top was the “dey”. Alternately called “Pasha”, “Commander” or “Malik”, in the beginning years the dey was chosen from the ranks of the Janissaries, by fellow Janissaries, and was subordinate to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (Parker, 18). The office of dey was only for those for whom the exhilaration of power outweighed the risks; of the 28 deys who ruled from 1671 to 1830, half were murdered by their “companions in arms” (Parker, 18). Reporting directly to the dey were five ministers, each responsible for a different aspect of government (Parker, 18-19). Under the deys were the “beys” who were appointees taken from the Ojak[21] (Ocak). The beys ruled over the Dar al-Sultan – the territory of Algeria excluding Algiers and the surrounding areas, and were responsible for paying taxes and tributes to the dey; the beys had their own military and military commanders, their own staff, and thus a great deal of autonomy in the administration of the territory under their jurisdiction (Parker, 20).

Corsair activity over the course of its life was varied, but its primary goal was profit. A somewhat less persistent goal, though still a powerful motivator, was the “patriotic-religious obligation” of raiding the vessels and coastal towns of Christian nations and, as mentioned earlier, killing Christians (Parker, 5). The governments in the Barbary settled on a policy whereby ships belonging to countries with which the Barbary states had no peace agreement were fair game, as were ships belonging to governments which the Barbary states considered to be in breach of such an agreement (Parker, 7). The corsairs of Algiers and Sale, Morocco were the most troublesome and they did not restrict their business to the Mediterranean; they were known to prey on shipping as distant as England, Ireland and Iceland. In addition to shipping and fishing vessels, the corsairs also raided distant coastal towns for slaves; 302 men, women and children from Iceland were taken captives by Algerian corsairs in 1627, and 109 men women and children were captured from Baltimore, an Irish village near Cork, in 1631. In 1798, Tunisian corsairs captured 900 persons, primarily women and children, from Carloforte, a village on the island of San Pietro, near Sardinia (Parker, 9). It is little wonder that the European imagination at the time was filled with fear of the ‘barbarians’ from the Muslim world (Wolf, 145). In America of the 18th century, this same fear was present due to Barbary captures of Americans on the high seas; at one point there was even a rumor that Benjamin Franklin was taken captive after Algerian corsairs captured two American vessels, the Maria and the Dauphin. (Baepler, 7-8).

While the risk of capture, injury and death for the corsair men and ships was great, the rewards for a successful mission made privateering attractive enough to captains, crews and ship-owners that the practice persisted well into the 19th century, despite European attempts to suppress it. Ironically, Algiers had a vast but untapped natural resource which could have provided considerable wealth, perhaps even an alternative to privateering – it’s fertile land (Parker, 21). French Admiral Joseph de Bauffremont who, along with four warships under his command, paid Algiers a “protocol visit” in 1766 commented that “nature has given them a beautiful, large country where everything would grow in abundance if these miserable people knew how to exploit it. But they abandon the land so fertile to scour the sea in search of slaves” (Parker, 2-3). The Algerian population suffered greatly from this lack of agricultural foresight – 90% of the approximately 3,000,000 Algerian inhabitants “lived on the edge of subsistence” (Parker, 21).

Read Part II here: http://scholarhubs.com/2017/02/barbary-pirates-part-ii/

Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.
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