Barbary pirates: kidnapped in Iceland

Captured by Barbary corsairs on the Icelandic coast, Ólafur Egilsson escaped from a life of north African slavery and returned to tell the tale. Adam Nichols, who recently translated Egilsson's memoirs, describes his adventures

Map of Algiers, c1700. It was here that Icelanders, including Ólafur Egilsson, were sold into slavery. (Culture Club/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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On a July morning in 1627, the people of Heimaey, the largest of the Westman Islands off Iceland’s south coast, spotted three ships offshore. The islanders had received word from the mainland that there were pirates about, so they gathered at the Danish merchant houses near the harbour for defence (Iceland was a Danish possession at the time) and stayed there all day. By nightfall, the Danish said the pirates must have gone and that the three ships were part of the defensive force created to protect Iceland, so the islanders returned to their homes.

The pirates, however, had not gone. The next day, those same ships lowered their boats and put 300 men ashore, who attacked, rushing “with violent speed across the island like hunting hounds, howling like wolves”. We know all this because one of the men taken captive by these pirates wrote a book chronicling his experiences. He was Ólafur Egilsson, a Lutheran minister in his sixties.

The pirates were ‘Turkish’ corsairs, operating out of the Barbary coast of north Africa, during a period when such attacks were at their peak. Having learned from Europeans how to build and use large sailing ships, Barbary corsairs were raiding not only along Mediterranean coasts but also as far north as the channel coast of Britain, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland, taking booty and capturing men, women, and children to sell into slavery. There are many historical documents connected with Barbary corsairs, but direct descriptions of the actual raids themselves are not so common. Reverend Ólafur’s testimony, along with surviving letters based on eyewitness accounts, offers a dramatic first-hand glimpse of what such raids must have been like for the individuals being attacked.

Here is Reverend Ólafur’s description of the corsairs’ initial assault:

“The pirates quartered the island, capturing people wherever they found them, young and old, women and men and infants. They chased after people in their houses, across the mountain slopes, in caves and holes, and killed everybody who fought against them. The dead lay everywhere… Only a few of the people who were strongest, or had nothing to carry, or did not pay attention to anybody else, managed to avoid capture. I and my poor wife were among the first to be taken.

“The pirates surrounded Landakirkja church, shooting and hewing at it with axes until they broke in. First they stole the vestments and dressed themselves up. Then they trooped away, driving everyone they captured towards the Danish houses. Those who could not move as fast as the pirates wished, they beat to death and left lying behind.

“Up in the cliffs, the pirates found five men, whom they fell upon and captured. They then caught sight of two girls. When they chased after these girls, they passed over a hill so that one of the girls managed to evade them and return to the bound men. As she approached, one of the men implored her to untie him, which she did in a hurry. After that, each man untied another, and they all ran off as fast as they could, scattering in all directions…

“Near the harbour, the pirates struck one man, who tried to run away, across the head and killed him. When his wife, who had been fleeing with him, saw this, she fell across his body, screaming. The Turkish took her by her feet and dragged her away, so that the cloth of her dress came up over the head. Her dead husband they cut into small pieces, as if he were a sheep. They took the woman to the Danish houses and threw her in with the other prisoners…

“Then they began to set fire to the houses. There was a woman there who could not walk, whom they had captured easily. Her they threw on the fire, along with her two-year-old baby. When she and the poor child screamed, the wicked Turkish stuck both child and mother with the sharp points of their spears, forcing them into the fire.”

These descriptions give us a dramatic sense of how utterly harrowing corsair attacks must have been. Such raids, however, were not all just rapacious brutality, and the corsairs not all inhuman monsters. Reverend Ólafur’s account is thus more than just a simple report of the violence. He had a keen observer’s eye and tried to describe the pirates as truthfully as he could:

“Some are not of Turkish origin at all but are Christian people who have forsaken their religion. Although they dress like the Turkish, they are by far the worst of people, and cruelly brutal to Christians. To be honest, the Turkish themselves are not a very wicked-looking people. Rather, they are quiet and well-tempered in their manner – if it is possible to describe them like that. And so that you, honest reader, should know the truth, I must say that after the captured islanders were brought aboard their ship, the pirates behaved well towards them all, and were even kind to the children — though this does not make the story any happier.”

We tend all too easily to think of history in the aggregate, as a collection of large-scale events. To some extent, this may be inevitable. It has been estimated, for example, that between the beginning of the 16th and the end of the 18th centuries, no less than a million to a million and a half Europeans were captured by Barbary corsairs and sold into slavery in north Africa. Such numbers have an irresistible weightiness. But larger events are always composed of individual lives, and primary source documents like Reverend Ólafur’s help put a human face to the large scale. Take Ólafur’s son, for example. One of the letters contains the following:

“When the 11-year-old son of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson came by, all unsuspecting, to see his parents, the pirates captured him at once and tied his arms behind his back. He was left outside the farmhouse. The boy asked an old woman to untie him, but she said that she did not dare. When the Turks came out from searching the farmhouse, they checked to see if he was still tied. They had captured two other children, whom Reverend Ólafur had taken in, and they drove everyone, children and adults, towards the Danish houses.”

Reverend Ólafur and his wife and children – including his 11-year-old son – were taken, along with nearly 400 other Icelanders, to north Africa, where they were sold into slavery. Here is Reverend Ólafur’s description of what happened in the Algiers slave market:

“The market place was next to where their local king (if I may call him that) had his seat, so that he would have the shortest way there, because, as I was told by those who had been there a long time, their laws concerning the sharing out of prisoners were as follows. The captain got whichever two of the captives he wanted. Then their king took every eighth man, every eighth woman, and every eighth child. When he had taken these, the captives who remained were divided into two groups, one for the ship owners and one for the pirates themselves. We poor Westman Island people were brought to the market place in groups of 30. The Turkish guarded each group in front and behind and counted heads at every street corner because the inhabitants of that place will steal such captive people if ever they get the chance.

“In the marketplace we were put in a circle, and everyone’s hands and face were inspected. Then the king chose those whom he wanted (every eighth, as I mentioned). His first choice among the boys was my own poor son, 11 years old, whom I will never forget as long as I live because of the depth of his understanding.”

Here we have a vivid example of the momentous consequences that can sometimes follow from small events in individual lives. The five captured men escaped when a woman untied the hands of one of them. If the old woman had untied Reverend Ólafur’s son, he too might have eluded capture and been spared enslavement. But she did not, and he could not. We do not know the fate of this boy (there is no evidence that he ever returned to Iceland), but we are witness to his plight, a rare offering up of a single face in the all-too-often anonymous crowds of history.

In Algiers, Reverend Ólafur came to an arrangement with his captors and set out across Europe to Denmark, to arrange ransom money from the Danish king for his family and the other Icelanders. Denmark was faring badly in the Thirty Years’ War, however, and the royal coffers were empty. Reverend Ólafur returned to Iceland a year after his capture, alone. At the end of his book, he writes:

“My dear reader, I must confess that, because of the loss of my wife and children, I cannot talk or write as I want or should…”

The book concludes shortly after this, but we know the finish of the story from other sources. Reverend Ólafur never saw his children again. Ten years after his return, 35 Icelanders were ransomed, one of whom was his wife. Sadly, the two of them were able to live together again for only a few years before Reverend Ólafur died.


The Dutch corsair

The man behind the raid that saw Ólafur Egilsson taken into captivity was a Dutchman: Jan Jans, also known as Jan Jansen and Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. Born in Haarlem (c1570), he began his career as a privateer against the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War. Apparently he found piracy to his liking, for he turned renegade and ended up in the Mediterranean, attacking ships from all nations.

He was captured by Barbary corsairs, became a Muslim (“turned Turk”), took the name Murat Reis (‘Reis’ meant ‘captain’), and returned to piracy under Suleiman Reis, a renowned Algernine corsair. After Suleiman Reis’s death, Murat went to Salé, on the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco. Salé became an independent pirate ‘republic’ with Murat as its first president/admiral.

Murat grew rich, but perhaps not rich enough, for, the story goes, after several relatively bad years, he organized the Icelandic raid in search of further profits — employing a Danish slave who gained freedom by offering his services as a pilot.

Iceland was not the only distant locality to suffer from Murat’s predations. In 1631, he led a raid on Baltimore, on the southern tip of Ireland, taking over 100 people captive, mostly women and children.

Interestingly, quite illustrious descendents are claimed for Murat, including the Spencer-Churchills (of Winston Churchill fame) in Britain, the Bouvier family (from which Jacqueline Kennedy came), and the Bogart family (as in Humphrey, the famous actor) in America. Such claims should probably be treated with a pinch of salt.

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Adam Nichols is an adjunct associate professor with the University of Maryland. Together with Karl Smári Hreinsson, he has edited and translated The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson (www.reisubok.net).