Piracy in the Barbary – Part II

Section II. Failure of European Powers to Suppress Corsair Activity

At the end of the 18th century the Barbary regencies had survived two centuries of pressure, of blockades and bombardments by the much more powerful European states. Better yet, they had known how to exploit the threat of capture to obtain regular presents and payments greater than an uncertain booty… [Panzac qtd. in Parker, 3]

When discussing the longevity of the Barbary corsair activity it is important to understand that a military victory doesn’t require the defeat of an opponent on a battlefield; sometimes simply surviving the engagement is all that is needed to legitimately claim political and military victory.  Such was the paradigm of the battles between the Barbary and Europe, yet this still begs the question: how, in the face of greatly superior, European military power, did the weaker Barbary states manage to survive these types of encounters and continue their corsair belligerency for so long?  The Barbary corsairs did, in fact, succeed in preying on European shipping for 300 years despite European threats, bombardments of their home ports, attacks on their vessels and a seemingly endless stream of treaties.  Furthermore, Algerian (and other Barbary) seizures of European slaves from both coastal communities and ships was a continual source of conflict, yet time and again, Europe failed to deal a decisive death-blow to this practice[i].  England, France, the United Netherlands and Spain all were negatively impacted by the Barbary seizures of ships, cargoes and crews, yet they responded alternately with ineffective bombardments, sparse naval actions against corsairs, and treaties which at times appeared more like a vanquished party suing for peace.  Even the fledgling United States of America, fresh from an ‘against all odds’ victory against the British empire ‘sued for peace’ with the regencies, sending tributes and money to help secure such treaties.  The reasons for these weak responses are varied, but two reasons are preeminent: 1) the countless wars and internal conflicts which continued to preoccupy the European nations throughout the age of the Barbary corsairs, and 2) the fact that the European nations didn’t have sufficient naval power to deal decisively with the Barbary predations.  Even when a European nation would make the decision to use military means to deal with the corsairs, a crisis would often erupt within that nation, or a European war would break out, which subordinated the comparatively minor, though persistently aggravating, Barbary depredations to the more pressing European issue.   At other times, when military action was taken against the corsairs, it was often in the form of either the threat of a bombardment or an actual bombardment, and Algiers was usually the target; yet even the bombardments were, with rare exceptions, surprisingly ineffective.  The Algerians simply patched up the holes in their buildings, buried their dead and went about their business as usual.  For the European nation, however, the failure of such a bombardment, usually resulted in even greater willingness to enter into treaty negotiations, which of course often included the payment of money and/or naval materials as an annual tribute.  This was the pattern that continued right up until France conquered Algeria in 1830.

Despite the frequent failures of military action against the Barbary coast, it is clear that when overwhelming, disproportionate force was brought to bear against the Barbary ports, the regencies were willing to negotiate with that European power on very favorable terms and suppress corsair activity with respect to that nation; however, it is worth noting that even after concluding a successful attack and resulting treaty and tribute, it was not long before the greed of corsairs, both Barbary and European, and/or the dishonorable actions of one or both parties to the treaty, shattered the peace.  Furthermore, due to the expense and effort involved with such overwhelming displays of power, European nations often opted for the more economic – and ultimately ineffective – approach: half-hearted bombardments, incompetent assaults and blockades on Algiers, and the occasional capture of a Barbary corsair ship –  all of which were interpreted by the regencies and corsairs as signs of weakness.  In analyzing the longevity of the Barbary Corsairs, it seems that brutal, unrelenting, military action was the only formula which would produce the desired suspension of corsair activity.

There were, to be sure, various external pressures on the Maghreb which made it difficult to resist the relatively easy money of privateering; some of these pressures were Machiavellian schemes crafted by France, and some were simply geographic prejudice.  In the latter half of the seventeenth century, France was deriving tremendous revenues by handling a portion of the maritime shipping for the Ottoman empire [Panzac, 148].  In order for this business to continue, French vendors of sea-transport needed European corsairs to continue to threaten Barbary shipping, making European, and especially French transportation the logical solution for the besieged Ottoman merchant; thus the French minister of the Navy pressured the leaders of the Order of Malta to attack the Barbary corsairs [Panzac, 148].  As if that wasn’t Machiavellian enough, French merchants who were protected from the Barbary corsairs by treaty, actually wanted the Barbary corsair activity to continue at a reasonable level because it would necessitate continued, reciprocal European corsair activity, thus perpetuating the need for the Ottoman empire to ship goods via protected French vessels [Panzac, 148].  These French merchants additionally calculated that the naval clashes between European and Barbary corsairs would prevent competition to France’s lucrative shipping contracts from other European states who were engaged in a corsair war with the Barbary regencies vis-à-vis their corsair fleets [Panzac, 148].

Another obstacle which the Barbary states faced as they attempted to transition away from corsair activity to legitimate commerce was European discrimination.  In the second half of the eighteenth century, European ports and Marseilles especially, harassed the rare North African merchant vessel that dared to enter, in violation of treaties guaranteeing reciprocal respect for each other’s merchant vessels,  with the end result that the Maghrebi merchants were prevented from selling in Europe [Panzac, 146-147].  Thus while the Barbary corsair activity would likely have continued despite these pressures, the machinations of certain European powers, especially France as mentioned above, as well as treaty-violating refusals to allow Barbary merchants to sell in European ports must be taken into consideration when considering the longevity of the corsairs of the Barbary states.

In his book The Barbary Coast, John Wolf breaks the era of Barbary activity into five main phases, each of which represents significant interaction with European powers and bears directly on the question of the longevity of the Barbary corsairs.  The first phase covers the period 1600-1630 and was characterized by the continued Barbary hatred of Spain, a concentration on the rich prizes of European shipping, and European powers experimenting with treaties and treaty observance with the Barbary regencies.   This period was also characterized the diminishing power of the Sultan which meant a diminishing ability of the Sublime Porte[ii] to control treaty observance among the corsair community in the regencies [Wolf, 180].  What follows is a brief discussion of the history of the interactions between Europe and Barbary during these phases, and a discussion of European responses to corsair depredations, all of which shed light on the question of how the Barbary corsairs managed to survive as long as they did.

A major element of the Spanish response to the Barbary corsair activity in this period was the state of affairs in their navy; the once mighty Spanish fleet had become so plagued with problems that it was unable to execute plans to assault Algiers [Wolf, 179].   In contradistinction to the Spanish decline, the French were embarking on a process of testing and probing to determine which strategy would best mitigate losses to Barbary corsairs.  In 1604 a crisis erupted between France and Algeria over a famine which affected both North Africa and western Europe; it was discovered that the French Bastion at Algiers was exporting precious grain to France which should have been used to feed Algerians [Wolf, 180-181].  The Algerian Janissaries along with the Dutch renegade Mourat Reis attacked and routed the Bastion [Wolf, 181].  After some negotiations, Sultan Amat and Henry IV entered into an agreement under which Barbary corsairs were prohibited from enslaving French citizens or seizing their possessions and ships; the North African reis, in return were guaranteed the right to enter French ports to refit their ships, and permission to purchase supplies in the markets of France [Wolf, 181].  Lacking a credible navy at this juncture, France thought it best to barter for protection, and this became a pattern that would be followed at various times by most of the nations impacted by corsair activity.  Unfortunately, though, these agreements and treaties usually met an untimely death through breaches by one or both parties.  In this particular case, there were pirates sailing out of Barbary ports not covered under this agreement and the French, in partnership with the Spanish Sicilian Mediterranean fleet attacked the Tunisian port of La Goulett, where they destroyed sixteen warships that carried over 400 artillery pieces [Wolf, 181].  While this incident did not affect the treaty with Algiers, it was not long until the Algerian and French had their own dispute.  A European renegade, Captain Danser, whose aggressiveness at sea earned him the title “Diable-Reis”, was granted a pardon by King Henry IV through the intervention of Jesuits seeking to repay Danser’s assistance in the rescue of six Jesuits from slavery [Wolf, 181].  With his ship loaded with treasure, Danser sailed to Marseilles and presented the governor, duc de Guise, a gift of two brass cannons[iii].  The only problem with this gift was that the cannons didn’t belong to Danser; they were on loan to him by the Algerian government.  The Algerians understandably demanded the cannons be returned, but Guise didn’t want to relinquish them.  Due to internal problems in France at the time, the issue was set aside, and the Algerian government used this incident to placate internal forces threatening rebellion, by authorizing a renewal of corsair activity against the rich French seaborne commerce [Wolf, 182].  The net effect of this conflict was the influx of French slaves in Algerian slave markets, and French ships and cargoes being sold by their corsair captors, all of which brought new prosperity to Algiers; thus the treaty between France and Algeria soon resulted in war once again [Wolf, 182].

England fared little better during this phase.  The Algerians operated according to the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”; as long as England was an enemy of Spain, their shipping was relatively safe.  After England made peace with Spain however, their seaborne commerce was fair game for the corsairs.  In the first seven years of James I’s rule – after peace with Spain – it was claimed that 466 Englishmen were taken as slaves by corsairs, and the English navy was apparently too weak at that time to take any serious action in response [Wolf, 184].  In fact, the only response England could manage was to commission English captains to attack the “pirates” and keep whatever they captured as booty [Wolf, 184].  England did consider a joint naval action with Spain, however Spain decided against such a partnership with her former enemy [Wolf, 184].  It was at this point that an interesting proposal was put forward which would result in one of many humiliating reversals for European powers.   Sir William Monson, an Englishman with 50 years’ sailing experience and who had a great deal of knowledge about the Mediterranean, proposed that corsair reis could not be contained without the “cooperation of all the Christian European powers, both Protestant and Catholic” [Wolf, 185].  Ultimately, nothing came of Monson’s proposals, however the English did finally manage to partner with the Spanish [Wolf, 185].  The English fleet that sailed was commanded by Sir Robert Mansel and was comprised of six warships carrying 230 brass cannons, and 12 merchantmen carrying 243 iron cannons, more than enough fire power to counter the Algerian threat [Wolf, 186].  A number of amusing misunderstandings took place which reduced the entire venture to an embarrassing defeat for the English, and another ‘victory-by-survival’ for Algiers.   Even as the British appeared in the harbor and the Pasha tried to win Mansel with words, an Algerian reis brought into harbor two English ships he had captured, but the pasha quickly said all the captives from this raid would be freed [Wolf, 186].  A week or so later, the Spanish fleet of six warships arrived and furthered the European humiliation: they fired 74 cannon balls into the city, the harbor guns returned fire, and no damage was done to either side [Wolf, 186].   Mansel then sailed to Spain to resupply and to gather Spanish galleys and fireboats to help burn the Algerian fleet, but a squadron of Dutch ships arrived off the Spanish coast, prompting Spanish fears of a joint English-Dutch attack on Spain upon the expiration of a 12-year truce between the Spanish and Dutch [Wolf, 186].  The net effect was that neither nation helped Mansel, who proceeded to try to burn the fleet on his own, but a strong wind drove his ships away from their targets to such a degree that Mansel’s efforts were completely frustrated; he sailed away, his mission a complete failure [Wolf, 186].  The chaotic nature of this attempted united front against the Barbary corsairs was symptomatic of the European responses to the Barbary in this period.   The weakness of the English and Spanish navies and the weakness of their resolve was exposed through this misadventure, and the Barbary corsairs exploited it, quickly seizing 40 English ships and attacking the Spanish coast with great vigor [Wolf, 187].  England, recognizing her inability to counter the corsairs militarily, made a treaty through her ambassador to the Sublime Porte, Thomas Roe [Wolf, 187].  The significance of this treaty was that England was forced to recognize that Algiers was a de facto, independent government with respect to the Ottoman empire, and one with which it would have to negotiate, despite England’s disdain for the Algerians; other European states would be forced to this same conclusion [Wolf, 188].  Thus corsair activity and the regency of Algiers once again triumphed in the face of powerful European attempts to destroy its lucrative privateering.

The Dutch in this period were in a situation similar to the English; after 1609, they were engaged in Mediterranean commerce rather than warring against Spain, thus their ships became targets for corsairs, and Dutch citizens found themselves being sold in Tunisian and Algerian slave markets [Wolf, 189].  To counter these attacks on their shipping, the Dutch attempted a treaty with the Ottoman sultan in 1612, however, they were soon to realize that the Sultan’s control over Algerian corsairs was weak at best; in the nine years between 1613 and 1622, Algerian corsairs captured 447 Dutch ships [Wolf, 189-190]!  Thus in 1622, the Dutch embarked on the same course as had the English; they recognized that Algeria was a de facto, independent governmental entity separate from the Ottoman authority structure and thus made a treaty with the “City and Kingdom of Algiers” [Wolf, 190].   Despite this treaty, however, Algerian corsairs were unwilling to relinquish the valuable prizes the Dutch vessels represented and thus a confrontation was soon to materialize [Wolf, 190].  In 1624, a Dutch naval fleet seized a number of Algerian ships and then anchored off the coast of Algiers.  When the Algerians refused to release Dutch captives and negotiate a treaty, the Dutch hung these captured Algerians, then left to capture more Algerians and returned, but this time the Algerians agreed to release all Dutch prisoners and negotiate [Wolf, 190-191].  It is worth noting that the naval action of the Dutch could only produce a treaty with the Algerians, not a submission.

Like the Dutch and English, France too demonstrated the weakness of its military and resolve with respect to the Algerians.  After concluding a treaty ending the war over Danser’s gifting of the brass cannons to duc de Guise, the greed of Algerian corsairs shattered the peace [Wolf, 194].  While an Algerian delegation sailed to France to finalize the peace, an Algerian reis seized a French ship and massacred the crew; two crew members managed to survive to tell the story.  In response, a French mob in Marseilles slaughtered a forty-member Algerian peace delegation [Wolf, 194-195].  The Algerian government then threw all Frenchmen, including the consul, into prison and threatened them with an unpleasant death, while the guilty reis went back to work seizing French ships [Wolf, 195].  Cardinal Richelieu, in charge of French foreign affairs, decided in 1626 to negotiate with Algiers as the English and Dutch had done [Wolf, 196].  Thus, the French navy was still to weak to deal effectively with the Barbary corsairs, and the Barbary regencies triumphed once again by virtue of surviving European military confrontations, and by bombast.

The period 1630-1660 was marked by numerous cataclysmic events in Europe which impacted North Africa: wars such as the Thirty Years War and other European conflicts, peasant revolts, and the “Little Ice Age” which produced famine and illness [Wolf, 199].  Spain in this period experienced a marked decrease in shipping, thus the corsairs weren’t as great a nuisance to them [Wolf, 200].  Furthermore, Spain was preoccupied with troubles in Europe, therefore she wasn’t able to devote the naval resources to suppressing corsair activity on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar [Wolf, 200].  Lastly, even with the combined strength of the Spanish and Maltese fleets, Spain still was unable to deal decisively with the corsairs.

For France, 1630-1660 marked a period of naval build-up.   Richelieu understood that France needed a naval force that would be able to deal effectively with both the Spanish navy and the Barbary corsairs, so he began the construction of a French fleet [Wolf, 203].  This French naval build-up initiated a naval arms-race between England and France which planted the seeds of the eventual destruction of the Barbary corsairs almost 200 years later [Wolf, 203-204].  By 1631, England had constructed four ships of 800 tons, carrying anywhere from 34-40 cannons, and two at 500 tons.  Richelieu’s naval build-up included a warship weighing in at 1400 tons; the English then began construction of a triple-decker of 1500 tons (The Sovereign of the Seas) which carried 102 cannons.  The French, in response built the Couronne, a 2000 ton warship carrying 72 cannons [Wolf, 203-204].  The next focus in this naval build-up was the construction of frigates, which carried fewer cannons but were very maneuverable; thus a new naval race began in the construction of frigates, valued as a vessels for patrolling waters and as vessels for privateering [Wolf, 203-204].

In an example of poor intelligence-gathering and planning prior to a military action, one of Richelieu’s first uses of his new navy against the Barbary corsairs was far from the success he had hoped for.  In 1637 Richelieu ordered the fleet to Algiers to demand a treaty; ironically there was already a treaty with Algiers that France refused to honor [Wolf, 209].  A violent storm dispersed the French fleet to such a degree that only two warships managed to arrive; the Algerians, not surprisingly, laughed off the threat from this humble force and threatened to slaughter every French person in Algiers if the French initiated hostilities [Wolf, 209].  The French ships then sailed away; they either had not bothered to study their adversary well enough to have planned for this contingency or were so disconcerted by the Algerian threat that they didn’t know how to respond.  In any event, two days later another small French fleet anchored off shore with two captured Algerian ships, the Christian slaves having been freed and the Muslim crewmen chained to the oar banks in their place [Wolf, 209].  A riot broke out in Algiers in which all French personnel were thrown in prison and led to believe they were going to be executed.  The divan decided to burn the French consul but Ali Bitchin, who owned one of the captured vessels and happened to be the wealthiest and most influential member of the taiffe, argued that since he was the wronged party, he should rather be allowed to attack the French Bastion, which he did successfully [Wolf, 209].

England, like France, also drew first blood in violating their treaty with the Algerians [Wolf, 214].  Once at sea, the English privateers engaged in piracy, free from the watchful eye of the authorities, and English warships themselves also engaged in activities which violated the treaty [Wolf, 215].  On the Algerian side, the reis were not happy that they were forbidden by the treaty from seizing the profitable English ships, and were consistent in reminding the Pasah that Algiers was enriched by the capture of  seaborne commerce [Wolf, 215].  The English made a new treaty with Algiers under the direction of their consul to that government, Edmond Cassen, which was really just a new version of the existing treaty the English had failed to honor [Wolf, 219].  It was this ‘new’ treaty which would provide the opportunity for one of the first successful uses of naval force in suppressing corsair activity, as the Tunisians, not bound by this treaty, continued to prey on English shipping.  Cromwell sent Admiral Robert Blake to punish the Tunisian corsairs and thereby send a message to the Algerian corsairs that this type of behavior would not be tolerated; Blake was authorized to use all force “…to assault them either by land or sea and fight with, kill and slay all such persons as shall oppose you” [Wolf, 220].  Blake sailed to La Goulette, where, on his second attempt to come to an agreement, found the Tunisians even more unyielding; they denied his requests for water and opened fire on his ships [Wolf, 220].  He returned with his fleet and attacked the port of Porto Farina: nine Tunisian ships were sunk or burned while the English suffered 25 dead and 40 wounded.  After the attack Blake had second thoughts about the ferocity of his strike, but it had the desired effect; by the time he reached Algiers, the Algerians were sufficiently impressed by his show of force that they were willing to negotiate on terms favorable to the English [Wolf, 221].  This demonstration of English naval power proved the merits of maintaining a powerful fleet and signaled the strategy that would eventually end the age of the Barbary corsairs.

The period 1660-1688 was characterized by continued build-ups in the English, French and Dutch navies to the point that corsairs could no longer counter this new naval threat [Wolf, 223].  By this time, Algeria was considerably worse off than Tunisia: Algeria’s economy was largely dependent on proceeds from the sale of corsair captures, whereas Tunisia had “considerable, legitimate commerce” not dependent on corsair activity, as well as a sizeable agricultural sector [Wolf, 223].  In fact, with the decline in Spanish shipping, the Algerians found they had to be “at war” with other European powers to stay afloat financially, and this fact was not lost on the European consuls [Wolf, 223].  Prior to 1660, Algeria felt little threat from Europe; the Algerians had little concern about being in a state of war simultaneously with one or more European powers as they could always count on wars or civil uprisings to distract European responses to their predations [Wolf, 223].  After 1660, however, each new decade saw an increase in European naval power with which the corsairs could not compete [Wolf, 223].

This period also saw identifiable behavior patterns in the way European powers dealt with the Algerians, which did not yet rely primarily on overwhelming military force and invasion: the Dutch believed that treaties were always the preferable political currency when dealing with the Algerians, even if this meant paying “tributes”; the English and French considered this cowardly in that the Dutch tributes always included munitions and materials used in the construction of naval warships: masts, guns, sails, powder and shot [Wolf, 224].  The English also relied on treaties, but their treaties did not include tribute payments [Wolf, 224].  For the roughly 150 years prior to 1660, the French had been “tacit or even open allies” of the corsairs of the Barbary coast against the common enemy Spain, however after Henry IV made peace with Spain, what immunity French shipping in the Mediterranean had, disappeared [Wolf, 224].  Furthermore, French shipping represented relatively easy prey to the corsair community in that the French transported their merchandise in “small coasters” that were unable to defend against predators [Wolf, 225].  Interestingly, a simple solution to the corsair problem for these French merchants would have been for the French ships to travel in a convoy system, but ironically the French merchants themselves rejected this idea on the grounds that if numerous ships were to appear in port simultaneously, the prices they could expect to get for their products would plummet, and conversely, the prices for goods they intended to purchase to take back to France would skyrocket [Wolf, 225].

Once Colbert was put in charge of France’s commercial and naval affairs, he changed the government’s relatively easy-going policy toward Algeria to one of force and aggression [Wolf, 226].  France decided it needed a North African port to counter the English presence there, and settled on the Algerian coast as the best location, believing the Berber population would assist them in their efforts against a common enemy, the Turks [Wolf, 226-227].  When the French did finally arrive in the small port of Djidjelli in 1664, the Berbers asked the French why they were landing.   After hearing the reason, the Berber answered:

I am astonished that rich men, well nourished, well clothed come to a land where there is nothing good, where you have nothing to gain. Half naked, scarcely enough to eat and yet we are men of war… you will not get peace.  Leave. . . seek another country where you can make war more advantageously [Wolf, 227].

The French foolishly chose not to heed the advice; the Berbers fought along side the Turks rather than side with “Christians”, and thus the French were pushed back into the sea, lost all the cannons they had landed (35 brass and 15 iron), all their luggage, and 400 men were taken prisoner [Wolf, 227].  This provides yet another example of European incompetence rooted in arrogance in its dealings with the North Africans; the poor planning and poor intelligence led to poor execution which not only humiliated France but, contrary to the reasons for embarking on this mission, must certainly have emboldened the corsair community.  Furthermore, French efforts over the next two years to avenge this loss at Djidjelli yielded very promising results, yet once again, the effort was stopped short of final victory due to French obligations to a war in Europe, in this case assisting the Dutch in a new war against the English [Wolf, 228].  What’s more, while the English-Dutch war was still being waged, France prepared for war with Spain which necessitated yet another treaty with Algiers, this one concluding in 1666, and providing yet another reprieve for the Barbary corsairs [Wolf, 228].  Despite this treaty, however, the issue of the return of slaves proved problematic yet again: the French breached the contract, choosing to send back only the old and sick to avoid disrupting teams of slaves trained on the oar banks [Wolf, 229].

The inconclusive French pursuit of revenge notwithstanding, it was clear that the French were growing bolder as their naval power increased.  The English too, were growing bolder in this period. After another dispute between Algiers and England erupted, Sir Thomas Allen commanded a fleet of “ten warships of the line” and attacked the ships anchored off Bougie, successfully destroying seven Algerian ships [Wolf, 235].  The success of the English mission led to a revolution in Algiers in which the dey was killed and a new form of government installed, with a reis becoming dey [Wolf, 235].

The naval buildup of the French, Dutch and English from 1665 onward once and for all signaled the impending end of the Barbary corsairs’ freedom on the high seas.  Ships built in 1650 carrying 40 cannons was a formidable warship; by the 1680s, however, advances in construction enabled Europe to build ships carrying 110 cannons, which thus relegated these earlier warships to the status of “third-rater” [Wolf, 236].

This period also saw the Dutch formalize “tributes” to the Algerian regency in the treaty concluded in 1679 [Wolf, 241].  This tribute included cannons, masts, balls, muskets, bullets, powder, cables, sails…etc, and was to not only serve to facilitate the successful conclusion of the treaty but also as a continuing annual gift [Wolf, 241].  The English and French objected to the gifting of such naval supplies for obvious reasons [Wolf, 241].  This treaty was significant for another reason: it set the standard for all future treaties with Algiers; even the fledgling United States would have to pay such tribute to ensure the safety of its shipping, although it was this tribute which ultimately motivated the U.S. to both build its navy and to use the navy to end corsair predations on its commercial ships [Wolf, 241].

In 1682, one of the more colorful episodes between the French and Algerians took place.  At Colbert’s suggestion, Louis XIV sent his new navy to completely destroy the Algerian “pirate nest” [Wolf, 258-259].  Under the command of Admiral Dusquesne, the fleet sailed with the intention of razing Algiers to rubble; the French even employed a new weapon – a mortar which could launch large, explosive shells roughly 1350 meters [Wolf, 259]. The first round of attacks killed about 500 Algerian residents and leveled about 50 buildings; when the fleet returned the next spring, the ensuing bombardment was even more effective, and the de facto dey, Babba Hassen, agreed to meet any terms [Wolf, 260].  However, after Mezzo Morto – one of the French hostages who was himself an influential reis – was released on his promise to bring a settlement to the crises,  Morto elected himself dey and warned the French he would shoot from Algerian cannons all Frenchmen in Algiers unless Duquesne  ceased his bombardment [Wolf, 260].  True to his word, French priests and other French citizens were blown to shreds as the French re-commenced their attack [Wolf, 260].  When the dust finally settled, Algiers once again triumphed by virtue of the fact that its government was still in tact; according to the English consul Rycaut, the French launched approximately 6,000 bombs and destroyed about 800 shops and houses, yet the Algerians remained defiant [Wolf, 261].  Not only did Algiers survive, and by extension, the corsairs, but the French were forced to make yet another treaty with Algeria due to an erupting conflict with Germany and Spain; thus in 1684, the French concluded a peace with Algiers, the bombardments having convinced the Algerians that a treaty would be wise [Wolf, 262-263].  Ironically, this treaty was said to be written to survive “one hundred years”, yet due to the French unwillingness to honor its own treaty, Algeria declared war three years later in 1687, and the corsairs, which had survived the worst Europe could throw at them, began capturing French ships once again [Wolf, 265].  On June 13, 1688, a sizeable French armada stationed itself off the coast of Algiers; the French again bombarded Algiers, and Frenchmen were again being blasted from the mouths of cannons [Wolf, 265].  As the situation intensified, the French slaughtered captured Turks and floated their bodies ashore on rafts; the Algerians would respond by shooting more Frenchmen from cannons [Wolf, 265].  Tragically, this bombardment destroyed about one-third of Algiers, and an Algerian merchant lamented, “twenty years wont make ye towne soe beautiful as it was before” [Wolf, 266].  Amazingly, after what could have been parlayed into a favorable situation for the French, events in Europe again required France’s attention, with the end result that in April 1689 the French sent a delegation to conclude yet another treaty with Algeria – on terms favorable to the Algerians [Wolf, 267]!  Unfortunately for the Algerians, their corsairs suffered serious setbacks as a result of the bombardments, and the two great wars between 1689 and 1714 would produce a new balance of power which would bear directly on the eventual demise of the Barbary corsairs [Wolf, 267].

The period 1688-1714 saw European attitudes toward the Algerian regency shaped by the French experience; the bombardments were very expensive and ineffective, and effective naval opposition to the corsairs required great expenditures of money to maintain a fleet of sufficient strength [Wolf, 272].  Thus the English and Dutch decided that the best policy was one of “firmness, oiled by bribery”, and the Dutch strategy added to this the payment of tributes [Wolf, 272].  Moreover, at this same time these European powers were clamoring for an end to the activity of the Barbary corsairs,  they  were also seeking to secure their aid in European conflicts; the English attempted to pay the Algerians 10,000 Dutch dollars to secure their support against the French, and the French responded by sending dredging equipment for the improvement of the Algerian harbor [Wolf, 273].  Thus Europe played both sides of the corsair coin – alternately fighting them and courting them according to the dictates of European interests.

With the advent of the eighteenth century, a further rift develop between the dey of Algiers and the Sultan, with the dey obeying dictates from the Sultan only when it served his purposes to do so [Wolf, 291].  This century also saw a paradigm shift in the ownership and operation of the corsair fleet; initially owned by private individuals and controlled by the taiffe, the ships of the corsair fleet were now mostly owned by the dey or other government officials and under the Vek-al-Khardji[iv], thus the government had better control over the actions of the corsairs with respect to treaty obligations [Wolf, 293].  Furthermore, the corsair fleet experienced a decline due to a lack of “competent” reis, resulting from a shortage of renegades, and more importantly, due to the fact that English and French commerce was off limits to the corsairs, as was the Dutch, Swedish, Hamburger, Danish, American and Venetian commerce after agreeing to pay for immunity; even the Spanish concluded a treaty with the Algerians in this period[Wolf, 294]!  The income from this ‘protection money’ amounted to about the same as the Algerian government could have expected from corsair prizes, without the same perpetual conflicts;  thus the profitability of corsair activity plunged [Wolf, 294, 309].  Yet another reason for this decline in corsair activity can be found in the corsair conversion to chebecks, which, while fast and maneuverable, couldn’t hope to compete with the European warships; American ships, however, were a different matter [Wolf, 294].

In the late 18th century, Spain and Portugal made peace with Algiers which freed the corsair chebecks to roam the Atlantic and prey on U.S. shipping [Wolf, 312].  This corsair activity, while troublesome to the United States, actually played an important role in U.S. history: the marine hymn contains the lyrics “…to the shores of Tripoli” in reference to U.S. action against the Tripolitan corsair community, and the U.S. navy itself was created by Thomas Jefferson to deal with the corsair threat to U.S. commerce [Wolf, 312].  In terms of U.S. response to this Barbary threat, there was initially a difference of opinion among U.S. leaders as to which strategy would be more advantageous – payment or war; John Adams, then ambassador to London recommended payments like European nations whereas Thomas Jefferson, then ambassador to Paris recommended the construction of a navy to enforce U.S. policy [Wolf, 312].  The U.S. initially decided to conclude a treaty in 1795 which cost the treasury $642,500, plus annual tributes in the form of naval supplies [Wolf, 313].  Later, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Ghent, the U.S. navy was freed to engage the corsairs, and in June, 1815 occurred one of the most decisive victories against the Barbary corsairs in their long history [Wolf, 313].  Stephen Decatur with three ships sailed into the Mediterranean and engaged Algerian Admiral Hamada Reis in battle; the final results included Hamada Reis and numerous Algerian sailors dead, and roughly 500 sailors and janissaries captives [Wolf, 313].  The treaty that followed was very favorable to the U.S.: the U.S. shipping was guaranteed immunity from attacks and no payment of tribute was necessary [Wolf 313].

The 18th century also saw improvements between France, England and Algeria.  Despite the numerous problems that arose between the regency and England and France, none of them broke off relations [Wolf, 319].  The primary reason for this Algerian cooperation is fairly easy to discern: the naval might of France and England, combined with English naval bases around the Mediterranean and French bases as close as Toulon and Marseilles were a very potent incentive to Algeria to remain on good terms with these powers [Wolf, 319].  Yet despite the cordial relations between these three primary actors in the 18thcentury, the corsairs continued their activity [Wolf, 320].  Several reasons account for this: first, the English and French in the 18th century were very often either at war with each other or making preparations for such a war; therefore, dealing with Barbary “piracy” was usually postponed; second, bombarding Algiers was always expensive and yielded ambiguous results, and third, England and France chose to bribe Algerian officials to deal favorably with them rather than confronting them militarily [Wolf, 320].

The final death-throws of the Barbary corsairs came in the early 19th century, when events began converge on the regencies that would result in the end of Barbary privateering.  The Americans, armed with a new navy, took bold actions on a number of occasions,  even fighting a war against Tripoli from 1801-1805 over the privateering (or “piracy”) originating from those ports.  During this war, one of the boldest actions of the U.S. navy thus far took place.  In 1803, the American frigate Philadelphia, commanded by William Bainbridge was sent to blockade Tripoli, but on October 31, the Philadelphia ran aground on a reef while pursuing a Tripolitan vessel [Dearden, 157-158].  Due to her list, half her guns were pointed at the water while the guns on the opposite side were pointed skyward, thus her crew was not able to mount a defense and opted to try to scuttle the ship, which failed [Nash, 228-230].  Striking her colors, the captain and crew were taken captives of Tripoli [Dearden, 158-160].  A plan was quickly drawn up whereby American sailors, under the command of Stephen Decatur would row up to the Philadelphia under cover of darkness and plant explosives to keep the ship from falling into Tripolitan hands; the bold plan succeeded and gave American moral a boost [Dearden, 161, 165].  Further victories followed; in 1815, the U.S. was able to dictate its own terms to Algiers after a decisive naval victory against the Algerian fleet commanded by Hamidou Rais [Parker, 127].   Fresh from their victory and after negotiating a very favorable peace with the Algerians, the Americans, led by Stephen Decatur, sailed on to Tunis and Tripoli where they demanded, and received, favorable terms from those governments [Parker, 128-129].   In 1816, it was England’s turn.  After negotiations between the English and Algerians broke down over the issue of slaves and corsair activity, Lord Exmouth returned to Algiers, joined by a contingent of Dutch ships, arriving the morning of August 28 [Panzac, 274,284].  While negotiations were taking place ashore,  the warships subtly moved as close as possible to their targets; upon expiration of the deadline and with no answer to their demands, the British opened fire in murderous volleys [Panzac, 286].   In the maelstrom that followed, the nine “principal” British warships expended 84 tons of gunpowder, “36,912 pieces of shot, 810 heavy mortar shells and around 500 rockets” [Panzac, 286].  The battle continued into the night, with the fires from the Algerian ships and port illuminating the action [Panzac, 286].  The final results of this overwhelming force was an Algiers ready to negotiate on English terms, an end to the Barbary corsairs’ predations and a resultant paradigm shift in the balance of power between Europe and the Barbary Coast [Panzac, 291].  From 1816 onward, the virtual end of corsair activity meant that the main disputes between the major European powers and Barbary would be over details in the maintenance of peace, not the corsair seizure of ships.  In 1824, the English confronted Algiers over the slave issue, but the harbor defenses kept the warships from sailing close enough to do significant damage [Panzac, 288].  Once again, the attacking European nation – in this case England –  withdrew, the bombardment proving yet again too expensive and too ineffective, with the end result that the English yielded to Algerian demands [Wolf, 333].  Ironically, this ‘victory-by-survival’ emboldened the Algerian government to assume that Algiers was invincible as long as Europe did not attack as a unified force, a belief that would be tragically shattered in 1830 when the French invaded and made Algeria a French colony [Wolf, 333].  In what could be termed a culmination of painful lessons learned, the final French attack on Algiers was executed properly, even if for the wrong reasons.  Seeking a distraction from internal problems, and perhaps wanting to erase Napoleon’s memory with a Bourbon military victory, Algiers’ fate was sealed with the discovery of very detailed and accurately prepared invasion plans that had been drawn up by M. Boutin for Napoleon [Wolf, 335].  On April 30, 1827 disagreements between the French and Algerian dey precipitated the crisis [Wolf, 334].  After three final ruptures developed in the French-Algerian relationship including: 1) an unsuccessful blockade of Algiers; 2) an incident in which two French ships wrecked off the coast of Algeria and the surviving sailors were beheaded and their heads sold to the dey by their Berber “rescuers”, and 3) the serious political turmoil in France, it was decided on January 31, 1830 to invade Algiers [Wolf, 334-335].  With the surrender of Algiers, the long and troubled age of Algerian corsairs drew to a ignominious close.

In conclusion, it is clear from the French, English and American examples in the early part of the 18th century that overwhelming, disproportionate force was one of the most effective tools for dealing with the Barbary corsairs, issues of morality aside.  The question of the longevity of the Barbary corsairs, therefore, must be answered by stating that only when a firm commitment was made by European or American powers to initiate hostilities and follow through to the ‘bitter end’, were the regencies of the Barbary coast willing to negotiate on terms favorable to the attacking nation, including the suppression of corsair activity and slaving.  In fact, in can be argued that the half-hearted and wavering military actions taken prior to the latter 18th and early 19th centuries actually prolonged and increased the suffering on both sides of the conflict, and enabled the activity of the Barbary corsairs to survive the roughly 300 years in question.  Had the parties to this conflict acted in better faith, as they claimed, perhaps naval bombardments which marred the skyline of Algiers, such as it was, might not have been considered necessary, and the taking of slaves, and the economic and personal hardships engendered in such a practice might not have persisted.  From a more macro vantage point, this conflict had more far reaching implications than just Mediterranean commerce; the navies of England, France and the United States were built, in part, to deal with the threat posed by the Barbary coast, and the political considerations of Europe, and later America, were in part guided by events in the Barbary for the 300 years of Barbary corsair activity.

[i] While Europeans and Barbary corsairs both captured slaves, the French continuously violated treaties by only returning old and sick slaves, not the young and healthy slaves expected per their treaty obligations; whereas, on several occasions, the Algerian regency, in good faith, fulfilled their treaty obligations by returning the requested contingent of slaves.

[ii] The Sublime Porte was the Sultan and his administration.

[iii] Brass cannons were highly preferred over iron cannons due to the latter’s tendency to rust and explode as a result of impurities in the iron.  Brass cannons did not share these negative characteristics [Wolf, 185].

[iv] See Appendix E

Part I – https://scholarhubs.com/2017/02/barbary-pirates-part-i/

Kevin Banks

Geopolitical analyst with extensive background in languages and information technology.

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