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The Barbary Pirates

Most people asked to think of a pirate will picture someone from the golden age of Caribbean piracy. Blackbeard, Captain Kidd or Anne Bonny, perhaps. Yet that era of piracy barely lasted forty years. Blackbeard’s career only two. By contrast the pirates that operated from the coast of North Africa were far more significant. They were a constant menace for centuries, operating in fleets of up to sixty ships. They captured thousands of merchant vessels, raided coasts as distant as Iceland and Newfoundland, extracted tribute from most of maritime Europe and enslaved those they came across at will.

Several factors combined to make the Barbary Coast uniquely well suited to support a pirate economy. North Africa had a long seafaring tradition stretching back to the Carthaginians and was well equipped with fortified port cities. But it was also an arid, resource-poor part of the world, providing few alternative paths to wealth for its inhabitants. Meanwhile a tempting stream of rich trading ships flowed past their shores, in and out of the Mediterranean through the Straights of Gibraltar, or increasingly arriving from the Indies and the New World.

The Barbary pirates were already a problem in the 16th century. In 1551 they captured the entire population of the Maltese Island of Gozo, sending almost six thousand men, women and children to the slave markets of Tripoli. Three years later it was the Italian town of Vieste that was seized. Half the population was beheaded, the rest enslaved. The Spanish historian Diego de Haedo bemoaned that “the corsairs traverse the seas without the least fear. Nay, they roam up and down as if chasing hares for their diversion.” But in the 17th century the situation became noticeably worse, thanks to events in Spain.

In 1610 King Philip III was persuaded by the Inquisition that the Moriscos, the descendants of Spain’s Muslim population, represented a dangerous fifth column within the state. Thin evidence was presented that they were conspiring with protestant Europe against him. His response was to expel them all - men, women and children, with only the personal possessions they could carry. Up to a million angry Moriscos, now fuelled with an implacable hatred for Christian Europe, crossed the narrow sea to North Africa swelling the ranks of the pirates.

This rise in the number of recruits coincided with a period when Christian Europe was weak and divided. The early part of the 17th century saw France torn apart by strife between Catholics and Huguenots, Germany laid waste by the Thirty Years War, the British Isles descend into civil war and regicide and the Holy Roman Empire threatened by the advance of the Ottoman Turks in Eastern Europe. With Christendom in chaos, the Barbary pirates made the most of the opportunity.

Spain, unsurprisingly, bore the brunt of their attacks, along with islands like Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily. Much of the architecture from the time reflects the pirate threat. Numerous watchtowers and forts still survive to this day, placed on prominent headlands to defend the coast from attack. Many of the narrow, twisting lanes and alleys beloved by tourists in Mediterranean fishing villages were actually designed to help fleeing residents evade capture.

But the Mediterranean only represented part of the corsairs’ swelling ambitions. The Atlantic coasts of France, Ireland and Scotland were all attacked, with pirates even reaching Iceland and crossing the Atlantic to prey on the Newfoundland fishing fleet. In 1625 they reached England, first attacking shipping in the Channel, before raiding the coastal communities of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. It was a pattern of attack that was to be repeated on and off for the next fifty years. In his diary entry for the 8th February 1661, Samuel Pepys reported encountering two ex-slaves from Algiers in a tavern. “Captain Mootham and Mr Dawes did make me full acquainted with their condition there. As, how they eat nothing but bread and water [and] how they are beat upon the soles of the feet and bellies...” It is estimated that between 1580 and 1680 a million Christians were enslaved.

The response to this onslaught took several forms. One was to negotiate their release. Those fortunate enough to have wealthy friends or family could be bought back, which is how Cervantes, the future author of Don Quixote, gained his freedom after he was captured in 1575. Those less fortunate had to rely on funds raised by Governments or through donations collected by the church. Priests and clergymen tended to be the go-betweens and the catholic church even had a religious order – the Trinitarians – dedicated to the release of Christian slaves. But no more than a fraction were ever gained freedom in this way.

Another alternative was military action. In 1676 Sir John Narborough led a substantial Royal Navy fleet to the Barbary Coast. The perceived threat of attack against Tunis and an actual assault against Tripoli did obtain agreements from both states to desist from preying on English shipping. But military action had its limitations. It was colossally expensive for the modest returns achieved. While the rulers of the Barbary States actively benefited from the pirates’ activities, their ability to compel them to abide by any agreement relied on their political authority, which humiliating attacks undermined. At best naval actions gained a modest respite of a few years. Many countries found the most economic response was to pay a subsidy to the Barbary States in exchange for safe passage for their merchantmen.

One of the first to break with this model was the United States. Following independence, the new nation was crippled by debts incurred during its war with Britain. Drastic economies were instituted, including the disbanding of the Continental navy. The lack of any real naval threat ensured that the US was in a particularly poor negotiating position vs the Barbary States. By the 1790s a fifth of the government’s budget was being paid annually in tribute. Disquiet over this resulted in congress passing the 1794 “Six Frigate” act, regarded by many as the foundation act of the US Navy. In the 1800 election Thomas Jefferson made much of the “spoiltations of foreign cruisers” and the humiliation of paying “an enormous tribute to the petty tyrant of Algiers.” In office he stopped the payment of subsidies, triggering the First Barbary War in 1801. Despite the limited resources available to the US Navy, the war was successful.

Following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, time was running out for the Barbary pirates. The balance of power had tilted decisively towards the major countries of Europe, who were now no longer focused on war with each other. Furthermore, the US Navy had shown what a handful of frigates handled with determination and skill could achieve. The world had changed in other ways too. Although slavery as a practice would endure well into the 19th century, the slave trade was banned in Britain in 1807, and in the US, France, Spain and Portugal the following year. Yet the Barbary pirates blithely persisted in capturing Christian slaves.

In 1816 Sir Edward Pellew, now an admiral, led a substantial combined Dutch and Royal Navy fleet to negotiate an end to the slave trade and the release of all Christian slaves. Confronted by such overwhelming force, every ruler capitulated except the Dey of Algiers. On the 27th August Pellew attacked the city, firing over fifty thousand cannon balls and a thousand shells from bomb ketches. The loss of most of his fleet and the destruction of much of his defences persuaded the Dey to release the 1083 Christian slaves in the city (only 18 of whom where British) and agree not to trade in them in the future.

Barbary piracy did persist in a small way for a few more years, but this only served to provide France with a pretext to occupy Algiers in 1830, from where they expanded their grip across the Maghreb, decisively ending the era of the Barbary pirates.


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