The famous lines from the song ‘Rule Britannia’ proudly proclaim that “Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.” Dating from the 1740s, ‘Rule Britannia’ expressed Britons’ pride in the Royal Navy and its role in cementing Britain’s position as an imperial superpower.


Unfortunately, for the preceding 250 years, the reality wasn’t quite as triumphant as the rousing words of the great anthem suggest. Between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 18th, thousands of Britons were slaves, seized by Barbary corsairs, those infamous privateers and pirates that operated out of north Africa. These men, women and children endured miserable conditions – invariably with little prospect of ever seeing their homes again. The Royal Navy’s inability to protect British citizens indicates its weakness at the time.

Between the beginning of the 16th century and the end of the 18th, thousands of Britons were slaves, seized by Barbary corsairs

The Barbary corsair enterprise, which included not only taking European ships, goods and captives at sea but also raiding coastal settlements, was far larger than many people imagine. Estimates are that, across three centuries, corsairs operating out of Barbary coast ports (in north Africa) captured and enslaved more than a million Europeans. It is difficult to evaluate the cost of the goods they stole and destroyed, but it was enormous. We also know that a significant proportion of those taken captive – and of the treasure seized was British. Using oared galleys, Barbary corsairs methodically pillaged the Mediterranean throughout the 16th century, occasionally attacking English ships operating in the area. But it wasn’t until the early decades of the 17th century – when, with the help of Dutch and British renegades, the corsairs learned to sail and navigate square-rigged ships – that the corsairs focused their attacks on the people of northern Europe.

Armed with their new technology and maritime know-how, the corsairs burst out of the Mediterranean and began raiding the British Isles coast – often led by the British renegades. By the 1620s and 1630s, fleets of corsairs were taking local fishermen from their boats and attacking the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. In 1631 – in arguably their most infamous raid – they sacked the Irish town of Baltimore and abducted more than 100 men, women and children.

The captive experience

What happened to Britons once they were captured? Many found themselves sold into slavery in the Barbary city of Algiers. The outdoor slave market there was on the Al-Souk al-Kabir (the Great Street of the Souks), a wide thoroughfare lined with markets (souks) that transected the city. New captives were paraded along the Al-Souk al-Kabir while sellers shouted to attract buyers.

How were they sold? Once in the slave market, captives were stripped and examined. Men had to jump about, demonstrating their fitness, and were hit with sticks if they did not promptly comply. Buyers examined their hands to see if they were calloused. (Soft hands indicated a life of ease and wealth, and therefore potential profits in the form of a large ransom.) Buyers also examined male captives’ teeth to see if they were fit for work as oarsmen in the galleys (galley slaves were fed only hardtack biscuit).

What was life like for the slaves? Once sold, slaves could find daily life grim. If not assigned the brutal drudgery of the galleys, men bought by the state were employed in hard labour: quarrying stone and hauling it off, working in chain gangs on building sites, turning the grinding wheels in grain mills like draft animals, or cleaning cesspits. Many were manacled and forced to drag heavy chains behind them (as pictured above, in a 17th-century engraving). At night, they were locked up in bagnios (slave pens), where they slept on the cold stone floor.

Were they tortured? If they ‘transgressed’, they could be punished with the bastinado: slaves were hoisted feet first into the air and the soles of their feet caned mercilessly.

Did any slaves prosper in their new surroundings? A few. Algiers was a cosmopolitan city where slaves could advance through intelligence, skill or perseverance in ways that were impossible in stratified European societies. Some were ransomed and a few escaped, but the majority found no way out and ended their lives in miserable captivity.

Grim prospects

For those unlucky enough to be captured by the corsairs, the prospects were grim. The best they could hope for was to be purchased by a private buyer and end up, essentially, as a domestic servant. Few were that fortunate. Young women were mostly bought for harems and disappeared forever. Men were frequently bought by the state, in which case their lot was most likely hard labour and ill treatment. A document presented to parliament, ‘The Case of Many Hundreds of Poor English Captives in Algiers together with Some Remedies to Prevent their Increase’, describes the prisoners’ lot. They “suffer and undergo most miserable slavery” and are “put to daily extreme and difficult labour, but a small supply of bread and water for their food, stripped of their clothes and covering, and their lodging on the cold stones and bricks; but what is more, their extreme hard and savage usage, laden sometimes with great burdens of chains, and shut up in noisome places, commonly adding some hundreds of blows on their bare feet, forcing out the very blood”.

More like this

Emanuel d’Aranda, a Flemish soldier who was enslaved in Algiers in 1640–42, not only paints a portrait of men abandoned, destitute and unvalued but also one in which Britons were the most unfortunate of the unfortunate. “All nations made some shift to live, save only the British. The winter I was in the slave bagnio, I observ’d there died above 20 of them out of pure want. Nor are they therefore much esteem’d by the Turks; for a British man is sold at 60 or 70 Patacoons [the local currency], when a Spaniard or Italian is valued at 150, or 200.” Dramatic effect At the end of the 16th century there were perhaps 500 British slaves in Algiers. Three decades later, the Calendar of State Papers Domestic for the reign of Charles I (CSPD, a collection of papers of the secretaries of state that are a rich source of contemporary detail), records that, in May 1626, a certain Hugh Ross “drinks to the Duke [of Buckingham’s] health, and wishes all his enemies in Algiers to relieve 3,000 English who are there, and 1,500 English who are in Sallee in misery”.

These figures are likely inflated for dramatic effect, but even if the actual number of captives was half this, the increase is clear. Some of the enslaved were ransomed, a few escaped, others died of overwork, malnutrition, disease or sheer despair. But for every captive who perished or gained their freedom, many more were captured. Between the end of the 16th century and the early part of the 18th, the corsairs might have enslaved as many as 25,000 Britons – at a time when Britain’s population was less than a tenth of today’s figure. But how did the corsairs get away with it? And why was the number of captives so high? Part of the explanation lies in the fact that, at the beginning of the crisis, London failed to come up with an effective response. Captives from Catholic Mediterranean nations could rely on aid from their governments, long experienced in dealing with Barbary corsairs. They were also assisted by religious redemptive orders like the Trinitarians and the Mercedarians, founded in the Middle Ages with the specific goal of ransoming captives. London, on the other hand, had no institutional processes in place to deal effectively with the corsairs. The Royal Navy was wholly unprepared to prevent the pirates’ attacks. There were too few ships and – with England in an almost constant state of turmoil, courtesy of plague, Civil War, and conflicts with Portugal, Spain, France and the Dutch Republic – too little in the way of funds to deal adequately with the scale of the threat. In 1625, corsairs were said to have captured 1,000 seamen in the Plymouth area alone. A CSPD entry for 12 August that year reads: “The pirates are 26 or 27 sail strong. Sir Francis Stewart sent out five ships against them, but they are far better sailers than the English ships.

The high cost of freedom

Ransoms were way beyond the means of most captives

£8–10 The annual sum earned by a farm labourer in 17th-century Britain. A skilled craftsman could expect to take home between £12 and £20

£30–40 The cost of a captive sold at a slave auction by Barbary pirates

£80–300 The ransom typically demanded by Barbary corsairs for individual captives. Even the lowest ransoms represented two and a half years’ wages for a skilled London craftsman

Within three days the English ships left them and returned to Falmouth.” One of the other issues obstructing coastal defence was corruption. The sack of Baltimore precipitated a round of official finger-pointing and recriminations revealing how the ships that were supposed to be out patrolling were stranded in port for want of supplies – the funds for which had been embezzled by those in the upper echelons of the naval bureaucracy. Though unable to prevent corsair attacks, the authorities in London could, at least in theory, have secured the captives’ freedom by paying a ransom. However, the government position initially was to refuse doing so on the grounds that it would only encourage more abductions. The merchant companies were equally reticent, though their reasons were strictly financial. This left charitable donations, collected across the country, as the principal source of ransom money. But even these fell prey to embezzlement – in one case by the Royal Navy, which seized a sizeable sum of money to pay its back debts. And even when the ransom money did reach its intended destination in north Africa, all too often it only freed those captives with the right connections back in England. Slaves who didn’t know people in high places (such as the archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Privy Council, who decided how the donations were spent) were, more often than not, left to languish in captivity. All the while, the captives’ families were forced to endure the terrible uncertainty of not knowing if their loved ones would ever return – or if they were even still alive. In desperation, they staged public demonstrations and drafted petitions to king and parliament (including, in 1626, the first public petition submitted by women in British history). Their pleas met with little success. In fact, one of the results of their petitions was a royal decree banning them.

Between the end of the 16th century and the early part of the 18th, the corsairs might have enslaved as many as 25,000 Britons

Yet the captives’ families weren’t the only constituency to be filled with fear and outrage. Merchants worried about the loss of their seamen and their profits. The seamen themselves were so concerned about the risks of being abducted that many of them resorted to shipping with other nations. This became such a problem that Charles I issued a royal proclamation officially commanding his subjects to return home. The issue of captives in Barbary grew so rancorous that it arguably became one of the causes of the strife that precipitated the Civil War. Gunboat diplomacy The resolution, when it did come, required a combination of political will and brute force. The government introduced procedures to clean up bureaucratic corruption, and parliament passed measures such as the 1642 ‘Act for the Relief of the Captives taken by Turkish Moorish and other Pirates’, which made ransoming captives national policy and so enabled the creation of official expeditions to liberate captives en masse. London also set about negotiating treaties with the various Barbary States themselves.

These measures could, of course, only have an impact on the ground if they were backed up by military might. Luckily for those yearning for the captives’ return, under the stewardship of England’s lord protector Oliver Cromwell and later Samuel Pepys (in his position as clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board), during the second half of the 17th century the Royal Navy was transformed into a formidable weapon of war – growing in size, becoming increasingly professional and now bristling with cutting-edge maritime technology. By the end of the century, it was more than capable of dealing effectively with the corsairs. In 1621, the Royal Navy attacked Algiers, but failed to accomplish anything much.

Half a century later, it could clear the Channel of corsairs and engage in effective gunboat diplomacy. In 1665, a British naval force set fire to the corsair fleet in the harbour at Tunis and then attacked Algiers and liberated British captives there. In 1671, a British force burned the Algerian fleet anchored at Bougie, and in 1676 another destroyed the corsair fleet in the harbour at Tripoli.

In 1713, after the War of the Spanish Succession, Britain took possession of Gibraltar and Port Mahon in Majorca. Such Mediterranean bases enabled the navy not only to launch new attacks but also provide powerful protection for British merchant shipping. Eventually, the various Barbary States were compelled to sign nonaggression treaties, enforceable now thanks to a strong British naval presence. The Barbary corsairs were not entirely eliminated until the 19th century, but by the middle of the 18th century, when ‘Rule Britannia’ was thrilling British audiences, the threat they posed to Britain was all but over. Britons could at last really feel that they never again would be slaves.

Adam Nichols is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland


This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine