The Barbary pirates, sometimes called Barbary corsairs or Ottoman corsairs, were pirates and privateers who operated from North Africa, based primarily in the ports of Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers. This area was known in Europe as the Barbary Coast, a term derived from the name of its Berber inhabitants. Their predation extended throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa's Atlantic seaboard and even South America, and into the North Atlantic as far north as Iceland, but they primarily operated in the western Mediterranean. In addition to seizing ships, they engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns and villages, mainly in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, but also in the British Isles, the Netherlands and as far away as Iceland. The main purpose of their attacks was to capture Christian slaves for the Islamic market in North Africa and the Middle East.
While such raids had occurred since soon after the Muslim conquest of the region, the terms Barbary pirates and Barbary corsairs are normally applied to the raiders active from the 16th century onwards, when the frequency and range of the slavers' attacks increased and Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli came under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, either as directly administered provinces or as autonomous dependencies known as the Barbary States. Similar raids were undertaken from Salé and other ports in Morocco, but strictly speaking Morocco, which never came under Ottoman dominance, was not one of the Barbary States.
Corsairs captured thousands of ships, and long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants, discouraging settlement until the 19th century. From the 16th to 19th century, corsairs captured an estimated 800,000 to 1.25 million people as slaves. Some corsairs were European outcasts such as John Ward, Zymen Danseker and Henry Mainwaring. Hayreddin Barbarossa and Oruç Reis, the Barbarossa brothers, who took control of Algiers on behalf of the Ottomans in the early 16th century, were also famous corsairs. The European pirates brought state-of-the-art sailing and shipbuilding techniques to the Barbary Coast around 1600, which enabled the corsairs to extend their activities into the Atlantic Ocean, and the impact of Barbary raids peaked in the early to mid-17th century.
The scope of corsair activity began to diminish in the latter part of the 17th century, as the more powerful European navies started to compel the Barbary States to make peace and cease attacking their shipping. However, the ships and coasts of Christian states without such effective protection continued to suffer until the early 19th century. Following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna in 1814-5 European powers agreed upon the need to suppress the Barbary corsairs entirely and the threat was largely subdued, although occasional incidents continued until finally terminated by the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.
Piratical activity by Muslim populations had been known in Mediterranean since at least the 9th century and the short-lived Emirate of Crete. Despite the animosity generated by the Crusades, the level of Muslim pirate activity was relatively low. In the 13th and 14th century it was rather Christian pirates, particularly out of Catalonia, that had been the constant threat to merchants. It was not until the late 14th century that Tunisian corsairs had become enough of a threat to provoke a Franco-Genoese attack on Mahdia in 1390, also known as the "Barbary Crusade". Moorish exiles of the Reconquista and Maghreb pirates added to the numbers, but it was not until the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of the privateer and admiral Kemal Reis in 1487 that the Barbary corsairs became a true menace to Christian shipping.
The Barbary pirates had long attacked British and other European shipping along the North Coast of Africa. They had been attacking British merchant and passengers ships since the 1600s. The many captives required regular fundraising by families and local church groups, who generally raised the ransoms for individuals. The British became familiar with captivity narratives written by Barbary pirates' prisoners and some whom were sold into Arab slavery before the North American colonies were well established. This was decades before English colonists became subject to captivity by Native Americans and began to write their own narratives.
During the American Revolution, the pirates attacked American ships. On December 20, 1777, Morocco's Sultan Mohammed III declared that the American merchant ships would be under the protection of the sultanate and could thus enjoy safe passage into the Mediterranean and along the coast. The Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship stands as the U.S.'s oldest non-broken friendship treaty with a foreign power. In 1787 Morocco had been one of the first nations to recognize the United States.
As late as 1798 the islet near Sardinia was attacked by the Tunisians and over 900 inhabitants were taken away as slaves. Throughout history, geography has been on the pirates' side off the coast of Africa. The coast was and still is ideal for their wants and needs. With natural harbors often backed by lagoons, it provided a haven for guerrilla warfare like attacks on shipping vessels venturing through their territory. On the coast, mountainous areas provided ample reconnaissance for the Corsairs as well. Ships were spotted from afar, the pirates would then have time to prepare their attacks and surprise their victims.
Spanish Moors and Muslim adventurers from the Levant, of whom the most successful were Hızır and Oruç, natives of Mitylene, increased the amount of raids around the turn of the 15th century. In response, Spain began to conquer the coast towns of Oran, Algiers and Tunis. But after Oruç was killed in battle with the Spanish in 1518, his brother Hızır appealed to Selim I, the Ottoman sultan, who sent him troops. In 1529, Hızır drove the Spaniards from the rocky, fortified island in front of Algiers, and founded the Ottoman power in the region. From about 1518 till the death of Uluch Ali in 1587, Algiers was the main seat of government of the beylerbeys of northern Africa, who ruled over Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria. From 1587 to 1659, they were ruled by Ottoman pashas, sent from Constantinople to govern for three years; but in the latter year a military revolt in Algiers reduced the pashas to nonentities. From 1659, these African cities, although nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, were in fact military republics which chose their own rulers and lived by war booty captured from the Spanish and Portuguese. There are several cases of Sephardic Jews, including Sinan Reis and Samuel Pallache, who upon fleeing Iberia turned to attacking the Spanish Empire's shipping under the Ottoman flag, a profitable strategy of revenge for the Inquisition's religious persecution.
During the first period (1518–1587), the beylerbeys were admirals of the sultan, commanding great fleets and conducting war operations for political ends. They were slave-hunters and their methods were ferocious. After 1587, the sole object of their successors became plunder, on land and sea. The maritime operations were conducted by the captains, or reises, who formed a class or even a corporation. Cruisers were fitted out by investors and commanded by the reises. Ten percent of the value of the prizes was paid to the pasha or his successors, who bore the titles of agha or dey or bey.
In 1544, Hayreddin captured the island of Ischia, taking 4,000 prisoners, and enslaved some 9,000 inhabitants of Lipari, almost the entire population. In 1551, Turgut Reis enslaved the entire population of the Maltese island Gozo, between 5,000 and 6,000, sending them to Ottoman Libya. In 1554, corsairs sacked Vieste in southern Italy and took an estimated 7,000 slaves. In 1555, Turgut Reis sacked Bastia, Corsica, taking 6,000 prisoners. In 1558, Barbary corsairs captured the town of Ciutadella (Minorca), destroyed it, slaughtered the inhabitants and took 3,000 survivors to Constantinople as slaves. In 1563, Turgut Reis landed on the shores of the province of Granada, Spain, and captured coastal settlements in the area, such as Almuñécar, along with 4,000 prisoners. Barbary corsairs often attacked the Balearic Islands, and in response many coastal watchtowers and fortified churches were erected. The threat was so severe that the island of Formentera became uninhabited.
Even at this early stage, the European states fought back: Livorno's monument Quattro Mori celebrates 16th century victories against the Barbary corsairs won by the Knights of Malta and the Order of Saint Stephen, of which the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I de' Medici was Grand Master. Another response was the construction of the original frigates; light, fast and manoueverable galleys, designed to run down Barbary corsairs trying to get away with their loot and slaves. Other measures included coastal lookouts to give warning for people to withdraw into fortified places and rally local forces to fight the corsairs, though this latter objective was especially difficult to achieve as the corsairs had the advantage of surprise; the vulnerable European Mediterranean coasts were very long and easily accessible from the north African Barbary bases, and the corsairs were careful in planning their raids.
The first half of the 17th century saw the peak of Barbary raiding. This was due largely to the contribution of Dutch corsairs, notably Zymen Danseker (Simon de Danser), who used the Barbary ports as bases for attacking Spanish shipping during the Dutch Revolt. They cooperated with local raiders and introduced them to the latest Dutch sailing rigs, enabling them to brave Atlantic waters. Some of these Dutch corsairs converted to Islam and settled permanently in North Africa. Two examples are Süleyman Reis, "De Veenboer", who became admiral of the Algerian corsair fleet in 1617, and his quartermaster Murat Reis, born Jan Janszoon. Both worked for the notorious Dutch corsair Zymen Danseker.
In 1607, the Order of Malta went on the offensive with forty-five galleys, capturing and pillaging the city of Bona in Algeria. The participation of the Knights of Saint Stephen (under Jacopo Inghirami) in this victory is commemorated by a series of frescoes painted by Bernardino Poccetti in the "Sala di Bona" of Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Barbary corsair attacks were common in southern Portugal, south and east Spain, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, Elba, the Italian Peninsula (especially the coasts of Liguria, Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, Calabria and Apulia), Sicily and Malta. They also occurred on the Atlantic northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1617, the African corsairs launched their major attack in the region when they destroyed and sacked Bouzas, Cangas do Morrazo and the churches of Moaña and Darbo.
Occasionally coastal raids reached farther afield. Iceland was subject to raids in 1627. Jan Janszoon, (Murat Reis the Younger) is said to have taken 400 prisoners; 242 of the captives later were sold into slavery on the Barbary Coast. The corsairs took only young people and those in good physical condition. All those offering resistance were killed, and the old people were gathered into a church which was set on fire. Among those captured was Ólafur Egilsson, who was ransomed the next year and, upon returning to Iceland, wrote a slave narrative about his experience.
Ireland was subject to a similar attack. In June 1631 Murat Reis, with corsairs from Algiers and armed troops of the Ottoman Empire, stormed ashore at the little harbor village of Baltimore, County Cork. They captured almost all the villagers and took them away to a life of slavery in North Africa. The prisoners were destined for a variety of fates — some lived out their days chained to the oars as galley slaves, while others would spend long years in the scented seclusion of the harem or within the walls of the sultan's palace. Only two of them ever saw Ireland again.
More than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were often able to secure release through ransom, but the poor were condemned to slavery. Their masters would on occasion allow them to secure freedom by professing Islam. A long list might be given of people of good social position, not only Italians or Spaniards, but German or English travelers in the south, who were captives for a time. While the chief victims were the inhabitants of the coasts of Sicily, Naples and Spain, all traders of nations which did not pay tribute for immunity or force the Barbary States to leave them alone were liable to be taken at sea. Religious orders — the Redemptorists and Lazarists — worked for the redemption of captives, and large legacies were left for that purpose in many countries.
The continuation of piracy was assisted by competition among European powers. France encouraged the corsairs against Spain, and later Britain and Holland supported them against France. By the second half of the 17th century the greater European naval powers were able to strike back effectively enough to intimidate the Barbary States into making peace with them. However, those countries' commercial interests then benefited from the impact of continuing attacks on their competitors, and as a result there was little interest in imposing a more general cessation of corsair activity.
The most successful of the Christian states in dealing with the corsair threat was England. From the 1630s onwards England had signed peace treaties with the Barbary States on various occasions, but invariably breaches of these agreements led to renewed wars. A particular bone of contention was the tendency of foreign ships to pose as English to avoid attack. However, growing English naval power and increasingly persistent operations against the corsairs proved increasingly costly for the Barbary States. During the reign of Charles II a series of English expeditions won victories over raiding squadrons and mounted attacks on their home ports which permanently ended the Barbary threat to English shipping. In 1675 a Royal Navy squadron led by Sir John Narborough negotiated a lasting peace with Tunis and, after bombarding the city to induce compliance, with Tripoli. Peace with Sale followed in 1676. Algiers, the most powerful of the Barbary States, returned to war the following year, breaking a treaty made in 1671, but further defeats at the hands of an English squadron under Arthur Herbert forced Algiers to make peace again in 1682, in a treaty which would last until 1816. France, which had recently emerged as a leading naval power, achieved comparable success soon afterwards, with bombardments of Algiers in 1682, 1683 and 1688 securing a lasting peace, while Tripoli was similarly coerced in 1686.
In 1783 and 1784 it was the turn of Spaniards to bombard Algiers. The second time, Admiral Barceló damaged the city so severely that the Algerian Dey asked Spain to negotiate a peace treaty and from then on Spanish vessels and coasts were safe for several years.
Until the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, British treaties with the North African states protected American ships from the Barbary corsairs. Morocco, which in 1777 was the first independent nation to publicly recognize the United States, became in 1784 the first Barbary power to seize an American vessel after independence. The Barbary threat led directly to the creation of the United States Navy in March 1794. While the United States managed to secure peace treaties, these obliged it to pay tribute for protection from attack. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual expenditures in 1800. The First Barbary War in 1801 and the Second Barbary War in 1815 led to more favorable peace terms ending the payment of tribute. However, Algiers broke the 1805 peace treaty after only two years, and subsequently refused to implement the 1815 treaty until compelled to do so by Britain in 1816.
The Congress of Vienna in 1814–5, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, led to increased consensus on the need to achieve a general halt to Barbary raiding. The sacking of Palma on the island of Sardinia by a Tunisian squadron, which carried off 158 inhabitants, roused widespread indignation. Britain had by this time banned the slave trade and was seeking to induce other countries to do likewise. This led to complaints from states which were still vulnerable to the corsairs that Britain's enthusiasm for ending the trade in African slaves did not extend to stopping the enslavement of Europeans and Americans by the Barbary States.
In order to neutralise this objection and further the anti-slavery campaign, in 1816 Lord Exmouth was sent to secure new concessions from Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, including a pledge to treat Christian captives in any future conflict as prisoners of war rather than slaves and the imposition of peace between Algiers and the kingdoms of Sardinia and Sicily. On his first visit he negotiated satisfactory treaties and sailed for home. While he was negotiating, a number of Sardinian fishermen who had settled at Bona on the Tunisian coast were brutally treated without his knowledge. As Sardinians they were technically under British protection and the government sent Exmouth back to secure reparation. On August 17, in combination with a Dutch squadron under Admiral Van de Capellen, he bombarded Algiers. Both Algiers and Tunis made fresh concessions as a result.
However, securing uniform compliance with a total prohibition of slave-raiding, which was traditionally of central importance to the North African economy, presented difficulties beyond those faced in ending attacks on ships of individual nations, which had left slavers able to continue their accustomed way of life by preying on less well-protected peoples. Algiers subsequently renewed its slave-raiding, though on a smaller scale. Measures to be taken against the city's government were discussed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818. In 1820 another British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal again bombarded Algiers. Corsair activity based in Algiers did not entirely cease until its conquest by France in 1830.
While Barbary corsairs naturally looted the cargo of ships they captured, their primary goal was to capture and enslave people on land or at sea. The slaves were often sold or put to work in various ways in North Africa.
Historian Robert C. Davis estimated that between 1530 and 1780 1–1.25 million Europeans were captured and taken as slaves to North Africa, principally Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but also Istanbul and Salé.
Being captured was just the first part of a slave's nightmare journey. Many slaves died on the ships during the long voyage back to North Africa due to disease or lack of food and water. Those who survived the journey were made a spectacle of as they walked through town on their way to the slave auction. The slaves would then have to stand from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon while buyers passed by and viewed them. Next came the auction, where the townspeople would bid on the slaves they wanted to purchase and once that was over, the governor of Algiers (the Dey) had the chance to purchase any slave he wanted for the price they were sold at the auction. During the auctions the slaves would be forced to run and jump around to show their strength and stamina. After purchase, these slaves would either become slaves for ransom, or they would be put to work. Slaves were used for a wide variety of jobs, from hard manual labor to housework (the job assigned to most women slaves). At night the slaves were put into prisons called 'bagnios' that were often hot and overcrowded. However, these bagnios began improving by the 18th century, and some bagnios had chapels, hospitals, shops, and bars run by slaves, though such amenities remained uncommon.
Although the conditions in bagnios were harsh, they were better than those galley slaves had to endure. Most Barbary galleys were at sea for around eighty to a hundred days a year, so the slaves were not on them constantly, but when they were not rowing the galleys they were forced to do hard manual labor on land. There were exceptions: "galley slaves of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul would be permanently confined to their galleys, and often served extremely long terms, averaging around nineteen years in the late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century periods. These slaves rarely got off the galley but lived there for years." During this time, rowers were shackled and chained where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping (which was limited), eating, defecation and urination took place at the seat to which they were shackled. There were usually five or six rowers on each oar. Overseers would walk back and forth and whip slaves considered not to be working hard enough.
Freedom for slaves
Barbary slaves could hope to be freed through payment of a ransom. Despite the efforts of middlemen and charities to raise money to provide ransoms, they were still very difficult to come by. As charity funding for ransoming slaves increased, North African states increased the ransom required. Lack of money to pay a ransom was not the only problem; slaves needed to notify their families that they were captive and inform them of the ransom price, and would need to pay hefty mailing charges (which few slaves could afford) and wait several months for the mail to be delivered.
After payment of a ransom slaves often went through a port to wait for the ransom to be finalized; in some cases in the 17th and 18th centuries slaves were kept at these ports under quarantine due to fear of the plague.
Not many Barbary slaves could depend on being ransomed. They had to be deemed worthy of it. Many poor people were never brought back to their home. The tribute prices for the slaves usually varied based on their usefulness on a ship. So a ship master would cost more than a common seaman. Escaping was another possibility, but rarely successful; Cervantes, author of Don Quijote, who had been captured and enslaved, made four unsuccessful attempts to escape, and was eventually ransomed by his family. The most famous of runaway slaves was Thomas Pellow, who had the story of his journey published in 1740. After several failed attempts, in which he was nearly killed, Pellow was finally able to escape to Gibraltar in July 1738.
Infamous Barbary corsairs
According to historian Adrian Tinniswood, the most notorious corsairs were English and European renegades who had learned their trade as privateers, and who moved to the Barbary Coast during peacetime to pursue their trade. These outcasts brought up-to-date naval expertise to the piracy business, and enabled the corsairs to make long-distance slave-catching raids as far away as Iceland and Newfoundland. The English corsair Henry Mainwaring later returned to England with a royal pardon, was knighted, elected to Parliament and appointed a vice admiral of the Royal Navy.
The Barbarossa brothers
The most famous of the corsairs in North Africa were Oruç and Hızır Hayreddin. They, and two less well-known brothers, all became Barbary corsairs; they were called the Barbarossas (Italian for Redbeards) after the red beard of Oruç, the eldest. Oruç captured the island of Djerba for the Ottoman Empire in 1502 or 1503. He often attacked Spanish territories on the coast of North Africa; during one failed attempt in 1512 he lost his left arm to a cannon ball. The eldest Barbarossa also went on a rampage through Algiers in 1516, and captured the town with the help of the Ottoman Empire. He executed the ruler of Algiers and everybody he suspected would oppose him, including local rulers. He was finally captured and killed by the Spanish in 1518, and put on display.
Hızır Hayreddin Barbarossa
Oruç, based mainly on land, was not the best-known of the Barbarossas. His youngest brother Hızır (later called Hayreddin or Kheir ed-Din) was a more traditional corsair. He was a capable engineer and spoke at least six languages. He dyed the hair of his head and beard with henna to redden it like Oruç's. After capturing many crucial coastal areas, Hayreddin was appointed admiral-in-chief of the Ottoman sultan's fleet. Under his command the Ottoman empire was able to gain and keep control of the eastern Mediterranean for over thirty years. Barbaros Hızır Hayreddin Pasha died in 1546 of a fever, possibly the plague.
Captain Jack Ward
English corsair Jack, or John, Ward was once called "beyond doubt the greatest scoundrel that ever sailed from England" by the English ambassador to Venice. Ward was a privateer for Queen Elizabeth during her war with Spain; after the end of the war he became a corsair. With some associates he captured a ship in about 1603 and sailed it to Tunis; he and his crew converted to Islam. He was successful and became rich. He introduced heavily-armed square-rigged ships, used instead of galleys, to the North African area, a major reason for the Barbary's future dominance of the Mediterranean. He died of plague in 1622.
Other famous Barbary corsairs
- Kemal Reis (c. 1451 – 1511)
- Gedik Ahmed Pasha
- Sinan Reis (died 1546)
- Piri Reis (died 1554 or 1555)
- Turgut Reis (1485 – 1565)
- Sinan Pasha (died 1553)
- Kurtoğlu Muslihiddin Reis (1487 – c. 1535)
- Kurtoğlu Hızır Reis
- Salih Reis (1488 ca. – 1568)
- Seydi Ali Reis (1498 – 1563)
- Piyale Pasha (c. 1515-1578)
- Raïs Hamidou (1773–1815)
- Uluç Ali Reis (1519 - 1587)
- Murat Reis the Elder (c.1534-1638)
- Ali Bitchin (c.1560-1645)
- Simon de Danser or Simon Reis (c. 1579 – c. 1611),
- Salomo de Veenboer or Sulayman Reis (died 1620)
- Jan Janszoon or Murat Reis the younger (c. 1570 - post 1641?)
Barbary corsairs are protagonists in Le pantere di Algeri (the panthers of Algiers) by Emilio Salgari and appear in a number of other famous novels, including Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Sea Hawk and the Sword of Islam by Rafael Sabatini, The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler, Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, The Walking Drum by Louis Lamour, Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting and Corsair by Clive Cussler. Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author, was captive for five years as a slave in the bagnio of Algiers, and reflected his experience in some of his fictional (but not directly autobiographical) writings, including the Captive's tale in Don Quixote, his two plays set in Algiers, El Trato de Argel (The Treaty of Algiers) and Los Baños de Argel (The Baths of Algiers), and episodes in a number of other works.
One of the stereotypical features of a pirate in popular culture, the eye patch, dates back to the Arab corsair Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, who wore it after losing an eye in battle in the 18th century.
The Little Johnny England song "Lily of Barbary" tells the story of an English man who is enslaved by Barbary corsairs and sold in Algiers, but is freed when his master dies. He then becomes a merchant and buys the freedom of another English slave girl.
- Barbary Slave Trade
- Barbary treaties
- Islamic views on slavery
- List of Ottoman sieges and landings
- Ottoman–Habsburg wars
- Ottoman Navy
- Republic of Bou Regreg
- Sack of Baltimore
- Slavery in the Ottoman Empire
- Turkish Abductions
- Tybalt Rosembraise
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- Hitchens, Christopher (Spring 2007). "Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates". City Journal. Retrieved 2007-04-28.
- Knights Hospitaller of St. John - Order of St John of Jerusalem Malta
- Pirates of the Mediterranean
- The Barbary Pirates
- New book reopens old arguments about slave raids on Europe
- Barbary Warfare
- The Barbary Wars at the Clements Library:An online exhibit on the Barbary Wars with images and transcriptions of primary documents from the period.
- American Barbary Wars
- America's First War On Terror Paul Fallon, October 17, 2002