Barbary pirates, or corsairs, were the outlaws of the waves before the golden age of piracy. From the 16th century onwards, these Muslim pirates operated out of the main ports along the North African coast – Algiers, Tunis, Rabat, Tripoli – raiding towns and seizing merchant ships primarily across the Mediterranean, although they did also venture into northern Europe and along the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
Their raison d’etre was to capture slaves for the Ottoman empire slave trade – although taking ownership of the valuable goods being transported across the Mediterranean was a gratefully welcomed by-product.
The pirates didn’t discriminate about who they captured and placed in servitude. The make-up of those being forced into slavehood was a tangle of races, nationalities and religions. The pirates weren’t fussy, although Italian and Spanish slaves fetched a better price than northern Europeans.
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Nor did the pirates discriminate about which ships they attacked. Vessels sailing under all and any flags were considered fair game, making the Mediterranean a particular perilous sea for every nation.
Some estimates put the number of Europeans enslaved by Barbary pirates into seven figures. Most were sailors, but their number also contained fishermen and residents of raided coastal villages. European governments tried to counteract the piracy by offering bribes to the pirates, or commissioning them to work as official privateers.
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Ransoms put on the heads of slaves were also paid, too, either by governments or by religious organisations like the Mercedarians, a body set up purely to cover the ransoms demanded. But, of course, every ransom paid only strengthened a pirate’s hand.
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Many of the Barbary pirates amassed great riches while also developing fearsome reputations; their legend reverberated around the Mediterranean basin, sometimes even further. The four Barbarossa brothers – but most notably two of them, Oruç and Hayreddin – set the template when it came to pirate behaviour.
Operating in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Barbarossas (so named because of Oruç’s facial hair, ‘barbarossa’ being Italian for ‘red beard’) originally worked as sailors, but converted into piracy to impede the privateering of the Knights of St John, a Catholic military order based on the island of Rhodes.
Prior to 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 commissioned Oruç to take on the Knights, giving him 18 galleys as part of the deal. Embittered by both his incarceration and Ilyas’ death, the eldest Barbarossa brother jumped at the offer. He and Hayreddin proved to be astute and highly effective operators, raiding coasts right around the Mediterranean, as well as defending certain North African ports from Spanish aggression.
Pirates of the Iberian
Into the 17th century, the Barbary corsairs were joined by sympathetic Europeans – disillusioned outcasts whose services as official privateers had been decommissioned in a changing world. One such renegade was John Ward, a privateer from Kent who had been engaged by Elizabeth I to plunder Spanish ships after the failed invasion of England by the Spanish Armada. When the war with Spain ended during the rule of James I, Ward continued to plunder. It was merely the absence of a licence – a letter of marque – that changed his job title from privateer to pirate.
Having stolen a ship from Portsmouth, Ward eventually found himself in Tunis where he struck an arrangement with Uthman Dey, the most powerful military commander in the city, to seize and plunder European ships in the Mediterranean.
One of Ward’s most famous captures was that in 1607 of the Reniera e Soderina, a huge Venetian merchant ship laden with expensive goods, control of which he secured after three hours of fighting. It was arguably the capture that made him a household name. The English ambassador to Venice certainly wasn’t a fan.
“That famous pirate Ward,” he snorted, “so well-known in this port for the damage he has done, is beyond a doubt the greatest scoundrel that ever sailed from England.”
Among Ward’s allies was another scoundrel, this one of Dutch descent. Siemen Danziger went by many names, including Zymen Danseker, Simon Re’is (after he “turned Turk”) and Deli-Reis, which translated as ‘Captain Crazy’.
Danziger was an extraordinarily prolific corsair, capturing more than 40 ships within the space of a couple of years during the first decade of the 17th century. Having been a privateer in the Eighty Years’ War, he relocated to Marseille 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 swiftly rose to become one of the Ottoman empire’s most effective sea captains.
Danziger’s importance didn’t merely rest with his deeds within the Mediterranean region. He was the first to lead Barbary corsairs through the Straits of Gibraltar and out into the Atlantic. He even took his men and his fleet as far north as Iceland, laying the foundations for later Barbary attacks there. Danziger was a wanted man, the target of many countries’ ire. But he was a slippery character, too. He was once attacked by a fearsome French fleet that had been bolstered by eight further Spanish ships, but the unexpected arrival of a storm allowed him, against the odds, to escape their clutches.
Sinking into obscurity
Another politically astute corsair, Danziger swapped sides when he expressed a wish to return to his family in Marseille (he was married to the governor’s daughter). On arrival home in 1609, he made gifts of the Spanish gold and Turkish slaves he’d accumulated, and the following year the French government asked him to fight against the corsairs. The poacher had turned gamekeeper. In 1615, when 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 wasn’t to last. Technology was a chief reason for their decline. Although they would learn how to operate the square-rigged sailing ships they captured, their favoured mode of transport was the oar-driven galley, powered along by the forced effort of large numbers of galley slaves, many of whom would spend years on board in abject conditions without once walking on dry land. Within their holds, these galleys would transport a legion of soldiers armed with small weapons and cutlasses.
But these were changing times. Not only was their soldiers’ weaponry increasingly anachronistic, but the galleys couldn’t match – and would choose not to engage with – the growing military might of the big European navies. The latter’s cannons and other heavy firepower were effective bargaining tools to compel the Barbary countries to halt with their state-sponsored piracy. After a couple of anarchic, action-packed centuries, the Mediterranean became a comparatively safe sea once again.
Nige Tassell is a freelance journalist specialising in history
This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed