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The Barbary Corsairs

As The Chosen Man trilogy progresses, the wicked hero Ludo da Portovenere reveals his true identity. His mother was captured by corsairs on the Ligurian coast and Ludo was born in captivity in the Berber stronghold of Salé. His father, he believes, is the renegade Dutchman Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the famous corsair admiral Murat Reïs, the Younger.

An English Ship in Action with Barbary Vessels, 1678 - Willem van de Velde, Public Domain
An English Ship in Action with Barbary Vessels, 1678 - Willem van de Velde, Public Domain

The term ‘corsair’ was taken from Latin cursus and originally used throughout the Mediterranean to signify any sea-rover, pirate or legitimate seafarer. Later, it became a generic term for pirates. ‘Barbary’, is more specific. Since the earliest times Christians had used the word Barbary to refer to the southern coast of the Mediterranean. The origin is probably a corruption of Berber, a derogatory ancient Greek word for anything non-Greek. This is where we get the word barbarian.

Barbary corsairs were Ottoman and Maghrebi pirates who operated out of the North African ports of Salé, Rabat, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, and were a serious threat to coastal towns and even trans-Atlantic shipping right into the 19th Century. Corsairs were the reason Mediterranean fishing villages – now popular tourist destinations – have such narrow winding streets. Higgledy-piggledy alleys helped locals to escape slave raids or razzias. Apart from fishermen, nobody with any sense lived on the coast, and nobody loitered on beaches for fear of being sold into slavery or ending their days as an oarsman on a corsair dromon, xebec or galleass.

Men, women and children were grabbed indiscriminately. Each were of value in their own way. Accounts by ransomed captives differ regarding the conditions in which they were held, but in general the treatment of women and children was said to be (relatively) humane: men were far less fortunate.

Captured sea-going vessels afforded rich cargoes. Male passengers and crews made useful galley slaves. Some professional mariners, however, were valued because they had sea-faring skills and/or understood ship-building. Records also show that in some cases ordinary European seamen ‘turned Turk’ (adopted Islam) to escape the harsh conditions of their naval or merchant vessel life. Piracy, of course, offered the possibility of wealth – otherwise unreachable. Some of the more famous pirate captains such as Kheir-ed-din, Barbarossa, Dragut and Simon Danseker came in fact from the Balkans, Greece, and the Netherlands.

Profile of a Barbary Pirate, Traditionally Identified as 'Barbarossa' by Pietro della Vecchia - Public Domain
Profile of a Barbary Pirate, Traditionally Identified as 'Barbarossa' by Pietro della Vecchia - Public Domain

Captured passengers on British, French, Spanish or Dutch vessels were taken for ransom. If they were from humble families, they were sent into the interior to work on building projects, or acquired as servants by townspeople. Some accepted their fate and married into the local community. Women from wealthier families were held in relatively good conditions as valuable bargaining assets for when representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches came to redeem captives.

Corsairs raided throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic and North Sea as far as Iceland. Specially designed galleys under oar and sail could reach far inland by river, enabling them to loot for spoils, which were distributed according to strict rules on their return to port. Despite their ‘barbaric’ reputation, there was a significant degree of honour and fair play among these cut-throats.

Murat Reïs started his career as Jan Janszoon a Dutch privateer sailing out of Haarlem with letters of marque to harass Spanish shipping during the Thirty Years War. Janszoon was married to Soutgen Cave in 1595 and they had two children, Edward and Lysbeth. Tempted by greater profit, Janszoon turned from licenced privateering to common piracy using whichever national flag served his purpose. To come alongside a Spanish galleon sailing into Cadiz laden with New World silver, for example, he flew a Spanish flag. This enabled him ‘to inspect and assess the cargo’ without alerting the Spanish captain too soon.

During this period, Janszoon abandoned his Dutch family and married again – at least twice – fathering several children and becoming the illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family. In 1600, he married a woman he called Margrietje, who belonged to a Moorish family living in Cartagena, or possibly Málaga. They had four sons: Abraham, Phillip, Cornelis and Anthony Jansen/Janszoon Van Salee. Anthony crossed the Atlantic on a Dutch West India Company vessel in around 1633. Using generous funds provided by his father, Anthony became a Manhattan landowner and a founder of New York City. Anthony was known as ‘the Turk’, either because of his mother’s Moorish background, or because of his father’s dubious fame as a corsair admiral.

In 1618, Jan Janszoon was captured by corsairs in the Canary Islands and taken to Algiers, where he ‘turned Turk’ and set sail with Suleiman Reïs (another Dutchman named De Veenboer). Algiers subsequently made peace with several European nations, so when Suleiman Reïs was killed in 1619 Janszoon moved to the Moroccan Atlantic coast and joined the Salé Rovers. To free themselves of their costly tributes to their Ottoman overlords the men of Salé declared their port an independent republic. Fourteen pirates were elected to lead the community: Janszoon became their President and Grand Admiral – or Murat Reïs.

Piracy out of Salé thrived, making Janszoon a very rich man, but instead of living off his share of stolen goods, he sailed into the English Channel, raided along the English coast, then docked in the Dutch port of Veere under the Moroccan flag, claiming diplomatic privileges for his official role as Admiral of Morocco, which was then at peace with the Dutch Republic. In an attempt to persuade him back to his useful role as a privateer the Veere authorities brought his first wife and children to plead with him to return home. Janszoon laughed in their faces and sailed out of port with a dozen Dutch volunteers.

A Barbary Cosair - Public Domain
A Barbary Cosair - Public Domain

Captured carracks and galleons were adapted for hunting and raiding, many acquiring a triangular ram at the prow. Having these larger vessels crewed by men familiar with the Atlantic and the dangers of the North Sea meant corsairs could raid beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1627, Janszoon captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and used it for local raids for years. That same year his corsairs raided in Iceland, capturing between 400–900 prisoners.

Janszoon became a legend in his own time, but was finally captured by the Knights of Malta, whose treatment of prisoners was infamous. After five years in a dungeon, Janszoon managed to escape, but he returned to Salé a broken man. His Dutch daughter Lysbeth cared for him there until August 1641, when he (probably) died.

One should not belittle the horror of being snatched from one’s home by men perceived as barbarians, knowing you will never see loved ones again, but history is complicated. There is never one straight good or bad narrative. Yes, Barbary corsairs did terrible things, but they had their uses. Britain relied on them to supply and (very possibly) protect the British colonies of Gibraltar and Minorca. European companies traded with North Africa regardless, even had offices in Tangier and Marrakesh.

When reading about pirates or corsairs, one needs to bear in mind who was at war with whom at the time. Supposedly legitimate privateering was a shady business that overlaps with common piracy because when a Letter of Marque was no longer needed (because a war had ended) privateers resorted to piracy. Privateers also attacked vessels that didn’t belong to their targeted country. Barbary corsairs flourished during the 17th century because European countries were always in dispute over matters of territory and/or religion and could never agree to a common pirate-hunting policy to destroy or deter them. A situation Ludo da Portovenere uses to his advantage.

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Further reading on seventeenth-century piracy – a select bibliography:

For the life of a captive on the Barbary coast see DJ Munroe’s Slave to Fortune blog:

A horrifying account of how one young Englishman survived capture and slave labour can be found in White Gold by Giles Milton (Hodder Headline, 2005)

For differing accounts of life in captivity, see Linda Colley’s excellent book Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (Jonathan Cape, 2002)

Pirate Hunting – the Fight against Pirates, Privateers, and Sea Raiders from Antiquity to the Present, by Benerson Little (Potomac Books, 2010) is an excellent source of information and good read.

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