[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.
[decorative delimiter]

An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Vol. III
Barbary Pirates

Barbary pirates. The coast population of northern Africa has in past ages been addicted to piratical attacks on the shores of Europe opposite. Throughout the decline of the Roman empire, the barbarian invasions, the Mahommedan conquest and the middle ages, mere piracy always existed by the side of the great strife of peoples and religions. In the course of the 14th century, when the native Berber dynasties were in decadence, piracy became particularly flagrant. The town of Bougie​1 was then the most notorious haunt of these "skimmers of the sea." But the savage robber powers which, to the disgrace of Europe, infested the commerce and the coasts, not only of the Mediterranean but even for a time of the ocean; who were not finally suppressed till the 19th century was well advanced; and who are properly known as the Barbary pirates, arose in the 16th century, attained their greatest height in the 17th, declined gradually throughout the 18th and were extinguished about 1830. Isolated cases of piracy have occurred on the Rif coast of Morocco even in our time, but the pirate communities which lived by plunder and could live by no other resource, vanished with the French conquest of Algiers in 1830. They are intimately connected with the general history of northern Africa from about 1492 to their end. The story of the establishment of Turkish rule in northern Africa and of the revolutions of Morocco must be sought under the heads of Turkey, Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

In dealing with the pirates, it will be sufficient to note a few leading dates. The conquest of Granada in 1492 by the Catholic sovereigns of Spain drove the Moors into exile. They revenged themselves by piratical attacks on the Spanish coast. They had the help of Moslem adventurers from the Levant, of whom the most success­ful were Arouj and his brother Khair-ed‑Din,​2 natives of Mitylene, both of whom were known to the Christians by the nickname of Barbarossa or "Redbeard." Spain in self-defence began to conquer the coast towns of Oran, Algiers and Tunis. Arouj having fallen in battle with the Spaniards in 1518, his brother Khair-ed‑Din appealed to Selim, the sultan of Turkey, who sent him troops. He drove the Spaniards in 1529 from the rocky island in front of Algiers, where they had a fort, and was the founder of the Turkish power. 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 till 1659, they were ruled by Turkish 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 onwards, these African cities, though nominally forming parts of the Turkish empire, were in fact anarchical military republics which chose their own rulers and lived by plunder.

It may be pointed out that during the first period (1518‑1587) the beylerbeys were admirals of the sultan, commanding great fleets and conducting serious operations of war for political ends. They were slave-hunters and their methods were ferocious, but their Christian enemies were neither more humane nor more chivalrous. After 1587, plunder became the sole object of their successors — plunder of the native tribes on land and of all who went upon the sea. The maritime side of this long-lived brigandage was 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 per cent of the value of the prizes was paid to the treasury of the pasha or his successors, who bore the titles of Agha or Dey or Bey. Bougie was the chief shipbuilding port and the timber was mainly drawn from the country behind it. Until the 17th century the pirates used galleys, but a Flemish renegade of the name of Simon Danser taught them the advantage of using sailing ships. In this century, indeed, the main strength of the pirates was supplied by renegades from all parts of Christendom. An English gentleman of the distinguished Buckinghamshire family of Verney was for a time among them at Algiers. This port was so much the most formidable that the name of Algerine came to be used as synonymous with Barbary pirate, but the same trade was carried on, though with less energy, from Tripoli and Tunis, as also from towns in the empire of Morocco, of which the most notorious was Salé. The introduction of sailing ships gave increased scope to the activity of the pirates. While the galleys, being unfit for the high seas, were confined to the Mediterranean and the coast, the sailing vessels ranged into the Atlantic as far as the Canaries or even to Iceland. In 1631 a Flemish renegade, known as Murad Reis,​3 sacked Baltimore in Ireland, and carried away a number of captives who were seen in the slave-market of Algiers by the French historian Pierre Dan.

The first half of the 17th century may be described as the flowering time of the Barbary pirates. 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 not in many cases allow them to secure freedom by professing Mahommedanism. 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. The chief sufferers were the inhabitants of the coasts of Sicily, Naples and Spain. But all traders belonging to nations which did not pay blackmail in order to secure immunity were liable to be taken at sea. The payment of blackmail, disguised as presents or ransoms, did not always secure safety with these faithless barbarians. The most power­ful states in Europe condescended to make payments to them and to tolerate their insults. Religious orders — the Redemptionists and Lazarites — were engaged in working for the redemption of captives and large legacies were left for that purpose in many countries. The continued existence of this African piracy was indeed a disgrace to Europe, for it was due to the jealousies of the powers themselves. France encouraged them during her rivalry with Spain; and when, she had no further need of them they were supported against her by Great Britain and Holland. 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. When Lord Exmouth sailed to coerce Algiers in 1816, he expressed doubts in a private letter whether the suppression of piracy would be acceptable to the trading community. Every power was, indeed, desirous to secure immunity for itself and more or less ready to compel Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Salé and  p384 the rest to respect its trade and its subjects. In 1655 the British admiral, Robert Blake, was sent to teach them a lesson, and he gave the Tunisians a severe beating. A long series of expeditions was undertaken by the British fleet during the reign of Charles II, sometimes single-handed, sometimes in combination with the Dutch. In 1682 and 1683 the French bombarded Algiers. On the second occasion the Algerines blew the French consul from a gun during the action. An extensive list of such punitive expeditions could be made out, down to the American operations of 1801‑5 and 1815.​a But in no case was the attack pushed home, and it rarely happened that the aggrieved Christian state refused in the end to make a money payment in order to secure peace. The frequent wars among them gave the pirates numerous opportunities of breaking their engagements, of which they never failed to take advantage.

After the general pacification of 1815, the suppression of African piracy was universally felt to be a necessity. The insolence of a Tunisian squadron which sacked Palma in the island of Sardinia and carried off 158 of its inhabitants, roused widespread indignation. Other influences were at work to bring about their extinction. Great Britain had acquired Malta and the Ionian Islands and had now many Mediterranean subjects. She was also engaged in pressing the other European powers to join with her in the suppression of the slave trade which the Barbary states practised 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. Great Britain 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 ill-treated at Bona, without his knowledge. The British government sent him back to secure reparation, and on the 27th of August, in combination with a Dutch squadron under Admiral Van de Capellen, he administered a smashing bombardment to Algiers. The lesson terrified the pirates both of that city and of Tunis into giving up over 3000 prisoners and making fresh promises. But they were not reformed and were not capable of reformation. Algiers renewed its piracies and slave-taking, though on a smaller scale, and the measures to be taken with it were discussed at the conference or congress of Aix-la‑Chapelle in 1818. In 1824 another British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal had again to bombard Algiers. The great pirate city was not in fact thoroughly tamed till its conquest by France in 1830.

Authorities.— The Histoire d'Alger of H. D. de Grammont (Paris, 1887) is based on original authorities. Sir R. L. Playfair's Scourge of Christendom (London, 1884) gives the history of the British consulate in Algiers. The main authorities for the early history of the Barbary states are:— Luis del Marmol Curvajal, Descripción de Africa (Granada, 1573); Diego de Haedo, Topographia e Historia General de Argel (Valladolid, 1612); and Père Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses corsaires (Paris, 1637). The readable treatises of Adm. Jurien de la Gravière, all published in Paris, Doria et Barberousse (1886), Les Corsaires barbaresques (1887), Les Chevaliers de Malte (1887), and La Guerre de Chypre (1888), deal with the epoch of the beylerbeys and the regular wars. For American work see Gardner Weld Allen, Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs (New York, 1905).

[D. H.]

The Author's Notes:

1 Bejaïa (formerly Bougie): A port on the Mediterranean coast of north-east Algeria; pop. (1989) 124,000. Capital of the Vandals in the 5th century, the city was rebuilt by the Berbers in the 11th century and was an important cultural and commercial centre. It later became a stronghold of the Barbary pirates and in the 20th century developed as a seaport trading in oil, minerals, grain, and fruit.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Barbarossa or "Redbeard" (c. 1465‑1546): Raised on Lesbos, he moved to Djerba with his three brothers when their father died. Scorning both the weakness of the Muslim rulers and the presence of Iberian invaders in North Africa, the brothers undertook a campaign of brutal piracy. They formed a principality on Djidjelli, but Spain captured their land in 1518. Barbarossa, now the head of the family, was saved from annihilation by the sultan of Turkey, and for the rest of his life he worked for the sultan. He conquered Tunis for the Ottomans (1534) and permanently loosened Spain's grip on North Africa.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Murad Reis: This is an earlier pirate. Murad was a fairly common Arabic name.

Thayer's Note:

a The United States had been, as often, very slow to react to the continuing problem. By the 1780s already, Moslem piracy on American ships and others, with the taking of several hundred hostages, had pretty much destroyed Mediterranean trade. One of the interesting features of the matter, that cannot fail to remind us of the current situation in the 21c, is that it involved the collusion and actual participation of at least one Arab government, the leaders of which admitted that they themselves were hostages: if they clamped down on their extremists, they feared reprisals on themselves. It was in response to this piracy that the U. S. Navy, disbanded after the American Revolution, was permanently refounded, although in a brief interim period the United States made a cash deal with Algeria to prevent further attacks.

These details and others are summarized in Chapter 5 of H. J. Ford, Washington and His Colleagues; and a truly superlative account of the naval war against Tripoli is given in Adm. George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, chs. 4 and 5.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 18 Nov 17