Barbary Pirates | Muslim corsairs and slave traders

Barbary pirates, or corsairs, were the outlaws of the waves before the golden age of piracy. From the 16th century these Muslim pirates operated from the main ports on the North African coast – Algiers, Tunis, Rabat, Tripoli – attacking towns and seizing merchant ships mainly across the Mediterranean, although they also ventured into northern Europe and along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

Their raison d’etre was to capture slaves for the Ottoman Empire’s slave trade – although taking possession of the valuable goods transported across the Mediterranean was a gratefully welcomed by-product.

The pirates did not discriminate against the people they captured and placed in bondage. The composition of those forced into slavery was a tangle of races, nationalities and religions. The pirates weren’t picky, although Italian and Spanish slaves fetched a better price than northern Europeans.

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The pirates also did not discriminate against the ships they attacked. Ships sailing under all flags were considered fair game, making the Mediterranean a particularly perilous sea for every nation.

Some estimates place the number of Europeans enslaved by Barbary pirates at seven figures. Most were sailors, but their numbers also included fishermen and inhabitants of coastal villages under attack. European governments attempted to counter piracy by offering bribes to pirates or commissioning them to work as official privateers.

Ransoms put on the heads of slaves were also paid, either by governments or by religious organizations like the Mercedarians, a body created solely to cover the ransoms demanded. But, of course, every ransom paid only strengthened a pirate’s hand.

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Many Barbary pirates have amassed great wealth while developing fearsome reputations. their legend resounded throughout the Mediterranean basin, sometimes even further afield. The four Barbarossa brothers – but especially two of them, Oruç and Hayreddin – set the model for pirate behavior.

Operating in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Barbarossas (so named because of Oruç’s facial hair, “barbarossa” meaning “red beard” in Italian) originally worked as sailors, but converted to piracy to prevent the run of the Knights of St John, a Catholic military order based on the island of Rhodes.

Before becoming a pirate, Oruç had been captured by the Knights and imprisoned for three years after an incident that also claimed the life of his brother Ilyas. After escaping, an Ottoman prince in Antalya tasked Oruç to confront the knights, giving him 18 galleys as part of the deal. Embittered by both his incarceration and the death of Ilyas, Barbarossa’s older brother jumped at the offer. He and Hayreddin proved to be shrewd and highly effective operators, raiding the coasts all around the Mediterranean, as well as defending some North African ports against Spanish aggression.

Pirates of Iberia

In the 17th century, the Barbary corsairs were joined by sympathetic Europeans – disillusioned outcasts whose services as official corsairs had been put out of commission in a changing world. One of these renegades was John Ward, a Kentish privateer who had been hired by Elizabeth I to plunder Spanish ships after the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. When the war with Spain ended in the reign of James I, Ward continued to plunder. It was simply the lack of a license – a letter of marque – that changed his job title from privateer to pirate.

After robbing a ship in Portsmouth, Ward eventually found himself in Tunis where he struck a deal with Uthman Dey, the city’s most powerful military commander, to seize and plunder European ships in the Mediterranean.

One of Ward’s most famous captures was that in 1607 of the Reniera and Soderina, a huge Venetian merchant ship loaded with expensive goods, which he controls after three hours of fighting. It was arguably the capture that made him a household name. The English ambassador to Venice was certainly not a fan.

“That famous pirate Ward,” he growled, “so well known in this port for the damage he has caused, is without question the greatest villain that ever left England.”

Among Ward’s allies was another scoundrel, this one of Dutch origin. Siemen Danziger went by many names, including Zymen Danseker, Simon Re’is (after he “turned Turk”), and Deli-Reis, which translated to “Captain Crazy.”

Danziger was an extraordinarily prolific privateer, capturing over 40 ships in the span of a few years during the first decade of the 17th century. After serving as a privateer during the Eighty Years’ War, he moved to Marseilles where, as Ward had done in Portsmouth, he too stole a ship and sailed for the North African coast. Landing in Algiers, he received the patronage of Redwan, the Pasha of Algiers, and quickly became one of the most effective sea captains in the Ottoman Empire.

Danziger’s importance did not rest simply on his actions in the Mediterranean region. He was the first to lead Barbary corsairs through the Strait of Gibraltar and into the Atlantic. He even took his men and fleet as far north as Iceland, laying the groundwork for later Barbary attacks there. Danziger was a wanted man, the target of the wrath of many countries. But he was also a slippery character. He was once attacked by a formidable French fleet which had been reinforced by eight other Spanish ships, but the unexpected arrival of a storm allowed him, against all odds, to escape their clutches.

Plunge into darkness

Another politically savvy privateer, Danziger changed sides when he expressed the wish to return to his family in Marseilles (he was married to the governor’s daughter). Arriving home in 1609, he donated the Spanish gold and Turkish slaves he had accumulated, and the following year the French government asked him to fight against the corsairs. The poacher had become a game warden. In 1615, while negotiating the release of French ships held in Tunis, Danziger was captured and beheaded.

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The power and control enjoyed by the Barbary Pirates for many decades was not to last. Technology has been one of the main reasons for their decline. Although they learned to maneuver the square-rigged sailing ships they captured, their preferred mode of transportation was the oar-kitchen, powered by the forced effort of large numbers of galley slaves, many of whom would pass years on board in abject conditions without once stepping on dry land. In their holds, these galleys carried a legion of soldiers armed with light weapons and cutlasses.

But times were changing. Not only was the armament of their soldiers increasingly anachronistic, but the galleys could not match – and would choose not to engage – the growing military power of the great European navies. The cannons and other firepower of the latter were effective bargaining tools to compel the Barbary countries to end their state-sponsored piracy. After a few centuries of anarchy and action, the Mediterranean has once again become a relatively safe sea.

Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specializing in the history

This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

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