Barbary Corsairs

The Barbary Corsairs, sometimes called Ottoman Corsairs or Barbary Pirates, were an alliance of Muslim pirates and privateers who operated from North Africa from the time of the Crusades (11th century) until the early 19th century. Based in North African ports such as Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Salé, and other ports in Morocco, they sailed mainly along the stretch of northern Africa known as the Barbary Coast.[1] Their predation extended throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic as far north as Iceland, and they primarily commandeered western European ships in the western Mediterranean Sea. In addition, they engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns, to capture Christian slaves to sell at slave markets in places such as Algeria and Morocco.

Pirates destroyed thousands of French, Spanish, Italian and British 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, pirates captured an estimated 800,000 to 1.25 million Europeans as slaves,[2] mainly from seaside villages in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, but also from France, Britain, the Netherlands, Ireland and as far away as Iceland and North America. The most famous corsairs were the brothers Hayreddin Barbarossa ("Redbeard") and Oruç Reis, who took control of Algiers in the early 16th century, beginning four hundred years of Ottoman Empire presence in North Africa and establishing a centre of Mediterranean piracy.
Following the Napoleonic Wars and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 as well as the involvement of the United States Navy in the First and Second Barbary Wars interceding to protect US interests (1801–5, 1815), European powers agreed upon the need to suppress the Barbary pirates and the effectiveness of the corsairs declined. In 1816 a joint Dutch and British Fleet under Lord Exmouth bombarded Algiers and forced that city and terrified Tunis into giving up over 3,000 prisoners and making fresh promises. Following a resumption of piracy based out of Algiers, in 1824 another British fleet again bombarded Algiers. France colonised much of the Barbary coast in the 19th century.

Although piracy had existed in the region throughout the decline of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the Golden Age of Piracy and the Middle Ages, piracy became particularly flagrant in the 14th century due to the flourishing of the Mediterranean trade. The town of Bougie was then the most notorious pirate base.

For two centuries the seamanship of the Barbary Corsairs was as renowned as their cruelty. They gained their advantage from the use of oars, and their ships could sail much closer to a headwind than could European square-riggers, with oars and a sail arrangement that facilitated rapid turning.
After Spain conquered Granada and expelled the Moors in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, many Muslims from Spain emigrated to the coastal cities of North Africa. Under the tutelage of first the Islamic Mamelukes of Egypt and later the Muslim Ottomans, they, together with local Berber tribes, mounted expeditions called razzias to disrupt Christian sovereigns. Under the power of the Ottomans in the 16th century, who organized the privateers, the Barbary pirates became most powerful in the 17th century. They declined in the face of European power throughout the 18th century and were finally extinguished about 1830, when the French conquered Algiers.
Toward the end of the 9th century, Muslim pirate havens were established along the coast of southern France and northern Italy.[5] In 846 Muslim raiders sacked Rome and damaged the Vatican. In 911, the bishop of Narbonne was unable to return to France from Rome because the Muslims controlled all the passes in the Alps.

With the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire and the rise of Islamic power in the eastern Mediterranean, piracy spread further, with Muslim pirates occupying Cyprus, Crete, and Sicily in the 9th century, and entering southern Italy.[6] Muslim pirates operated out of the Balearic Islands in the 10th century. From 824 to 961 Arab pirates in Crete raided the entire Mediterranean.Piracy increased in the 13th century as the Byzantine Empire collapsed.

In the 14th century, raids by Muslim pirates forced the Venetian Duke of Crete to ask Venice to keep its fleet on constant guard.[7]
The conquest of Granada by the Catholic sovereigns of Spain in 1492 drove many Moors into exile. They retaliated by piratical attacks on the Spanish coast, with help from Muslim adventurers from the Levant, of whom the most successful were Hızır and Oruç, natives of Mitylene. In response, Spain began to conquer the coast towns of Oran, Algiers and Tunis. But after Oruç was killed in battle with the Spaniards 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 plunder.

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 capitalists 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.[8]

In 1544, Hayreddin captured the island of Ischia, taking 4,000 prisoners, and enslaved some 9,000 inhabitants of Lipari, almost the entire population.[9] In 1551, Turgut Reis enslaved the entire population of the Maltese island Gozo, between 5,000 and 6,000, sending them to Libya. In 1554, pirates sacked Vieste in southern Italy and took an estimated 7,000 slaves.[10] 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 Istanbul as slaves.[11] 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 pirates 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 pirates 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 pirates, though this latter objective was especially difficult to achieve as the pirates had the advantage of surprise; the vulnerable European Mediterranean coasts were very long and easily accessible from the north African Barbary bases, and the pirates were careful in planning their raids.

Later, in 1607, the Order of Malta went on the offensive with forty-five galleys, capturing and pillaging the city of Bona in Algeria.[14] This victory is commemorated by a series of frescoes painted by Bernardino Poccetti in the "Sala di Bona" of Palazzo Pitti, Florence.[15]
From 1609 to 1616, England lost 466 merchant ships to Barbary pirates. 160 British ships were captured by Algerians between 1677 and 1680.[16] Later, American ships were also attacked. During this period, the pirates forged affiliations with Caribbean powers, paying a "license tax" in exchange for safe harbor of their vessels.
Some pirates were renegades or moriscos. They usually used galley ships with slaves or prisoners at the oars. 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 corsair Zymen Danseker, who owned a palace. These pirates were all originally Dutch. The Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter unsuccessfully tried to end their piracy.


The first half of the 17th century may be described as the flowering time of the Barbary pirates. This was due largely to the efforts of Simon de Danser, who had introduced the latest Dutch sailing rigs to the corsairs, enabling them to brave Atlantic waters.[18] More than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were allowed to redeem themselves, 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.
Iceland was subject to raids known as the Turkish abductions 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 pirates 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. Another famous captive from that raid was
Guðríður Símonardóttir. The sack of Vestmannaeyjar is known in the history of Iceland as Tyrkjaránið and is arguably the most horrible event in the history of Vestmannaeyjar.
Ireland was subject to a similar attack. In June 1631 Murat Reis, with pirates 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.[8] 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. The old city of Algiers, with its narrow streets, intense heat and lively trade, was a melting pot where the villagers would join slaves and freemen of many nationalities. Only two of them ever saw Ireland again.

Barbary pirate attacks were common in southern Portugal, south and east Spain, the Balearic 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 and the churches of Moaña and Darbo.


The chief victims were the inhabitants of the coasts of Sicily, Naples and Spain. But all traders of nations which did not pay tribute for immunity were liable to be taken at sea. This tribute, disguised as presents or ransoms, did not always ensure safety. The most powerful states in Europe condescended to pay the pirates and tolerate their insults. Religious orders — the Redemptorists and Lazarists — worked for the redemption of captives, and large legacies were left for that purpose in many countries.

The continued piracy was due to competition among European powers. France encouraged the pirates against Spain, and later Britain and Holland supported them against France. In the 18th century, British public men were not ashamed to say that Barbary piracy was a useful check on the competition of the weaker Mediterranean nations in the carrying trade.[19] Every power wanted to secure immunity for itself and was more or less ready to compel Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Sale and the rest to respect only its own trade and subjects. In 1655, British admiral Robert Blake was sent to punish the Tunisians, and he gave them a severe beating. During the reign of Charles II, the British fleet made many expeditions, sometimes together with the Dutch. In 1675 a Royal Navy squadron led by Sir John Narborough was sent to suppress piracies, and bombarded Tripoli. In 1682 and 1683, the French bombarded Algiers. On the second occasion the Algerines blew the French consul from a gun during the action.

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.
Such punitive expeditions were never pushed home, and the aggrieved European state almost always agreed in the end to pay money to secure peace. The frequent wars among European states gave the pirates many opportunities of breaking their engagements, and they always took advantage of that.[8]

Until the Declaration of Independence in 1776 British treaties with the North African states of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli 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. That action got the attention the sultan sought; it followed several years of fruitless diplomatic efforts to get an American emissary to come negotiate a treaty. Thomas Barclay, American consul in France, went to Morocco in 1786 and negotiated a very satisfactory treaty based on the draft he had carried from Paris and requiring no future tribute or gifts.[20] Experience with Algiers was different. In 1785 two ships (the Maria of Boston and the Dauphin of Philadelphia) were seized, the ships and cargo were sold and the crews were enslaved and held for ransom.[21]

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, then the ambassador to France, and John Adams, ambassador to Britain, met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, a visiting ambassador from Tripoli. The Americans asked Adja why his government was hostile to American ships, even though there had been no provocation. They reported to the Continental Congress that the ambassador had told them "it was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave," but he also told them that for what they considered outrageous sums of money they could make peace.[22]

American ships sailing in the Mediterranean chose to travel close to larger convoys of other European powers who had paid tribute to the pirates. Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual expenditures in 1800.[23] In the early nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson proposed a league of smaller nations to patrol the area, but the United States could not contribute. For the prisoners, Algeria wanted $60,000 (equivalent to millions in 2009 dollars), while America offered only $4,000. Jefferson said a million dollars would buy them off, but Congress would only appropriate $80,000. For eleven years, Americans who lived in Algeria lived as slaves to Algerian Moors. For a while, Portugal was patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar and preventing Barbary Pirates from entering the Atlantic. But they made a cash deal with the pirates, and they were again sailing into the Atlantic and engaging in piracy. By late 1793, a dozen American ships had been captured, goods stripped and everyone enslaved. Portugal had offered some armed patrols, but American merchants needed an armed American presence to sail near Europe. After some serious debate, the United States Navy was born in March 1794. Six frigates were authorized, and so began the construction of the United States, the Constellation, the Constitution and three other frigates.

In 1798, Napoleon's forces evicted the Knights of Malta from their island stronghold. As traditional enemies of the Barbary Corsairs, the policing power of the Knights was neutralized, after hundreds of years of mutual warfare. The power of the Barbary Corsairs was unchecked.
One American slave reported that the Algerians had enslaved 130 American seamen in the Mediterranean and Atlantic from 1785 to 1793. Isolated cases of piracy occurred on the Rif coast of Morocco even at the beginning of the 20th century, but the pirate communities which could only live by plunder vanished with the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.
This new military presence helped to stiffen American resolve to resist the continuation of tribute payments, leading to the two Barbary Wars along the North African coast: the First Barbary War from 1801 to 1805[25] and the Second Barbary War in 1815. It was not until 1815 that naval victories ended tribute payments by the U.S., although some European nations continued annual payments until the 1830s.

The United States Marine Corps actions in these wars led to the line "to the shores of Tripoli" in the opening of the Marine Hymn. Because of the hazards of boarding hostile ships, Marines' uniforms had a leather high collar to protect against cutlass slashes. This led to the nickname Leatherneck for U.S. Marines.

After the general pacification of 1815, the European powers agreed upon the need to suppress the Barbary pirates. The sacking of Palma on the island of Sardinia by a Tunisian squadron, which carried off 158 inhabitants, roused widespread indignation. Other influences were at work to bring about their extinction. The United Kingdom had acquired Malta and the Ionian Islands and now had many Mediterranean subjects. It was also engaged in pressing the other European powers to join with it in the suppression of the slave trade which the Barbary states practiced on a large scale and at the expense of Europe. The suppression of the trade was one of the objects of the Congress of Vienna.
The United Kingdom was called on to act for Europe, and in 1816 Lord Exmouth was sent to obtain treaties from Tunis and Algiers. His first visit produced diplomatic documents and promises and he sailed for England. While he was negotiating, a number of British subjects had been brutally treated at Bona, without his knowledge. The British government sent him back to secure reparation, and on August 17, in combination with a Dutch squadron under Admiral Van de Capellen, he administered a significant bombardment to Algiers. The lesson terrified the pirates both of that city and of Tunis into giving up over 3,000 prisoners and making fresh promises. Within a short time, however, Algiers renewed its piracies and slave-taking, though on a smaller scale, and the measures to be taken with the city's government were discussed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818. In 1824 another British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal again bombarded Algiers. The city remained a haven for and source of pirates until its conquest by France in 1830.[8]
The thoroughness with which the French conquered and colonized Algeria put an effective end to piracy from the Barbary coast.

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