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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
P. O. Box 425, Keller, TX  76244-0425

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The Barbary Corsairs
By Cindy Vallar

Barbary CorsairThe Barbary corsairs were privateers of the Ottoman Empire rather than pirates.  While their exploits sometimes bordered on piracy and some naval captains and admirals had once been pirates, the objective of their raids altered from one of pure plundering and enslavement to a holy war waged against Rome and Christianity.  The leading corsairs were Saracens or renegadoes--Christians who converted to Islam, either to legally plunder Mediterranean ships or to gain their freedom from slavery.  Christendom deemed the Barbary corsairs pirates and terrorists, and treated them accordingly.  In 1584 Venetians captured a galley bound for Tripoli.  They killed everyone aboard--fifty Moors, seventy-five Turks, 174 renegadoes, and forty-five women.

The corsairs operated out of several infamous havens along the coast of North Africa.  Algiers’ natural harbor provided them a place to shelter their ships and served as an excellent home base from which to launch their attacks.  When they returned to port after a successful hunt, the corsairs fired their cannon.  The defenses ashore returned the salute.  After the corsairs landed, there was much feasting and rejoicing.  The pasha, ruler of Algiers, received one-seventh of the seized treasure and slaves.  The corsair captains and their associates received the remaining slaves and cargo, while the soldiers, who boarded and captured the prey, divided the silver.

Salé, Tripoli, and Tunis also provided sanctuaries for the corsairs.  When the Barbarossas returned to Tunis in 1504 with two papal galleys and a Spanish ship, there was much celebration. The wonder and astonishment that this noble exploit caused in Tunis, and even in Christiandom, is not to be expressed, nor how celebrated the name of Uruj, Reis was become from that moment…(Lane-Poole, page 36) More than 100 captives, all of them gentlemen, were paraded through streets, whilst the young daughters of the governor of Naples were despatched to Constantinople to serve in the Sultan’s harem.(Heere, 181-182)

Aside from plundering captured ships and selling Christians into slavery, the Barbary corsairs enslaved many men, about two hundred per vessel, to oar their galleys.  These slaves were manacled to benches on either side of the galley and forced to row while suffering the lash.  Once a day they received a biscuit, oil, and vinegar.  The conditions these men endured were terrible, but so were those aboard Christian galleys where captured Moors served.

The corsairs favored galleys that were fast and easy to maneuver in shallow waters.  They often disguised their vessels as merchant ships and flew false colors to lure the unsuspecting into their traps.  Renegadoes often hailed the prey in the same language spoken on the merchant ship.  When a Saracen ship came upon a merchant ship, the corsairs fired a broadside from the taller upper deck of their ship and soldiers armed with muskets raked the victim’s deck with deadly fire.  A large boarding party, screaming and shouting curses, gathered on the long bow with muskets, swords, pikes, and knives.  Terror alone often compelled the merchant ship to surrender.

After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, the Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem (often referred to as the Knights of Rhodes, and later, the Knights of Malta) protected Christian Europe from the spread of the Ottoman Empire.  They favored heavier galleys with high superstructures.  The crew and complement of a large galley often numbered around four hundred men, the majority slaves.  The rest included the captain, a priest, a physician, a scribe, boatswains, the pilot, twelve or so gentlemen adventurers, a dozen helmsmen, six able-bodied seamen, ten warders to oversee the slaves, a carpenter, a smith, a cooper, several cooks, and fifty to sixty men-at-arms.

The corsairs often sailed in convoys under the command of al-rais. A rais captained each galley in the convoy.  Janissaries, men-at-arms, boarded enemy ships while local sailors worked the ship and slaves manned the oars.  A doctor brought with him enough supplies for fifty days at sea.  All these men, including the slaves--unlike their counterparts on Christian galleys--received shares in the take after the bey, dey, or ruler received his share.

The corsairs frequented the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but they preyed on shipping and coastal towns from the Adriatic to Ireland and Iceland.  They gained such notoriety in Italy that any corsair taken at sea was immediately slain.  Their ships were burned or sold, and proceeds from these sales were given to the corsairs’ victims or put into the treasury to pay for the building of more ships.

Privateer commissions lured Europeans to the Barbary States.  They brought with them their round ships (wooden sailing ships), or the skills to build them.  These vessels had numerous advantages over galleys, the primary one being they no longer required several hundred slaves to man the oars.  This negated the need to haul the food and water to nourish them.  These new ships were maneuverable, fast, and could sail in shallow waters.  Since fewer men were required to handle them, the corsairs brought more men-at-arms with them.

After 1581 the Barbary corsairs no longer participated in massive naval operations at the behest of the sultan.  It marked an end of an era for them, for rather than waging war they simply raided and robbed merchant ships.

Comparisons are often made between the Barbary corsairs and the Buccaneers (Caribbean pirates of the mid-seventeenth century), but there are more differences than similarities between these two groups.  The corsairs preyed in packs whereas Buccaneers preferred to hunt alone.  While both groups attacked targets at sea and on land, Buccaneers favored stealth and surprise.  The corsairs wanted everyone to see and know what they did.  They openly operated out of major seaports like Tunis and Algiers, but Buccaneers sheltered only in safe havens where laws didn’t exist or their piracy was ignored.  The corsairs sold their treasure in marketplaces, but the Buccaneers had to rely on intermediaries to unload their ill-gotten gain.  The Ottoman Empire backed the Barbary corsairs and incorporated them into its navy.  The Buccaneers received no state support, and were hunted and hanged for their nefarious deeds.

To the Shores of Tripoli
In exchange for letting Europeans trade in peace throughout the Mediterranean, the rulers of the Barbary States negotiated a peace treaty whereby each European nation paid them a ransom, an annual tribute, or a combination of both to insure their ships traveled in safety.  How long the treaty lasted was never set in stone.  If the ruler decided he needed additional monies or tribute, he sent messengers to chop down the flagpole outside a particular embassy, and thus declared war on that country, thereby necessitating a reopening of negotiations to reestablish free trade.  This warned those countries still at peace that their turn would soon follow.  Sometimes, the European powers--especially England, France, and the Netherlands--influenced the negotiations of lesser nations through rumors and misinformation so their enemy failed to achieve what they wanted or were forced to pay a more severe tribute.

Until the United States won its independence from Britain, the country was covered under the British treaties with the Barbary rulers.  After 1783, however, America no longer had that safety net.  They either had to pay like everyone else, cease trading in the Mediterranean, or run the risk of falling prey to corsairs.  Americans, particularly Thomas Jefferson, came up with an alternative--build a navy and fight!  By the time Jefferson became President, the United States had paid two million dollars in tribute--money the treasury didn’t really have.  To Jefferson how to deal with the Barbary States became a matter of honor and justice, for if Americans didn’t or wouldn’t defend their economy and themselves, then how would any other nation take the new country seriously?

Unwilling to pay the outrageous demands of Yusuf Karamanli, the bashaw of Tripoli, Jefferson declared war on Tripoli.  Unbeknownst to him at the time, Yusuf had already declared war on the United States.  The opening salvos of the war commenced on August 1, 1801.  Lieutenant Andrew Sterett, in command of the twelve-gun schooner Enterprise, and Rais Mahomet Rous, in charge of the fourteen-gun Tripoli, led their men in a sea battle that lasted three hours.  The Americans won, and after Sterett boarded the Tripoli, he wrote, “The carnage on board was dreadful, she having thirty men killed and thirty wounded….  Her sails, masts and rigging were cut to pieces with eighteen shot between wind and water.”(Wheelan, xxi)  The Enterprise sustained no major damage, and none of her crew was wounded.  Mahomet Rous returned to Tripoli, where Yusuf ordered him to ride backward on a donkey through the streets.  Then he received five hundred lashes on his feet and backside with a stick one inch thick.

Commodore Edwin Preble commanded the American squadron in the Mediterranean, which included the Philadelphia, a thirty-six gun frigate.  In 1803 she chased a xebec into Tripoli’s harbor.  Unfortunately, she grounded on a sandbar and wouldn’t budge from the reef.  Corsair gunboats encircled her and began firing their guns.  Rather than fight and sustain losses, Captain William Bainbridge surrendered to the Tripolitans.  The corsairs plundered the Philadelphia, imprisoned her officers, and enslaved the crew.

The last thing Preble wanted was for the Philadelphia’s guns to fire on Americans.  After due consideration, he decided the safest course of action was to destroy her.  Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led the raid, a “special ops” style mission that required them to steal into the harbor at night in disguise, board the Philadelphia, subdue the corsairs, and set charges to destroy the frigate.  Even though the Tripolitans discovered the ruse, it was too late and Decatur and his men succeeded in their mission and became national heroes.  On hearing of the perilous, but successful undertaking, Horatio Nelson--Admiral of the British Royal Navy--declared it, “The most bold and daring act of the age.”

Soon after this success, Preble received orders that he was being replaced as squadron commander.  Slow communications, inactivity, leaders not up to the task or who felt negotiation was better than action, and a few other problems caused the war to wither in inactivity.  Eventually, one American with much experience in dealing with the Barbary governments and undertaking secret missions went to Egypt to locate Yusuf’s brother, Hamet.  William Eaton believed he could mount an offensive with the help of Arabs and others to cross five hundred miles of desert, capture Tripoli, and put Hamet on the throne.  Eaton once wrote, “There is but one language which can be held to these people, and this is terror.” (Wheelan, page 92)

He firmly believed that “If the United States will have a free commerce in this sea they must defend it: There is no alternative.” (Wheelan, page 104)  This was why he sought out Hamet, and convinced him to overthrow Yusuf.  Their first objective was Derna, Tripoli’s second largest city.  Eaton, Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon, and eight other Marines, along with Hamet’s ragtag and often mutinous army, seized the city and planted the American flag on hostile foreign soil for the first time in American history.  This exploit was forever remembered in the Marines’ Hymn, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli…”.

While forces beyond Eaton’s control contrived to halt his expedition at Derna, his success in getting that far forced Yusuf to negotiate peace.  Tunis followed soon after, and American merchants traded freely in the Mediterranean until Algiers attacked three ships.  A treaty was negotiated, which resulted in the United States paying another $500,000 to Algiers during the next five years.  The War of 1812 interrupted American trade, and Britain whispered to the ruler of Algiers that the United States would never win this new war.  Soon after the second defeat of the British, President Madison declared war on Algiers.  This time the squadron commander of the Mediterranean fleet was a seasoned navy veteran, who had his own idea on how to negotiate with the Barbary rulers.  Captain Decatur sailed his ships into Algiers’ harbor and, with guns ready to fire, demanded Omar the Terrible accede to his demands or Decatur would commence firing.  Sixteen days after Decatur arrived in the Mediterranean, he had a new treaty, one “dictated at the mouths of our cannon.” (Wheelan, page 357)

Famous Barbary Corsair Captains
Captives of the Barbary States
If you’d like to read more about the Barbary Corsairs, I recommend these books: Baker, Kevin. “The Shores of Tripoli,” American Heritage, Feb/Mar 2002, pages 17-18.
Baker, Thomas. Piracy and Diplomacy in Seventeenth-century North Africa. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.
Bamford, Paul W. The Barbary Pirates: Victims and the Scourge of Christendom. Associates of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, 1972.

Earle, Peter. Corsairs of Malta.

Gravière, Admiral Jurien de la. Les Dernièrs Jours de la Marine à Rames. 1885.

Heere, Jacques. The Barbary Corsairs: Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1480-1580.  Stackpole Books (US), Greenhill Books (UK), 2003.

Lane-Poole, Stanley. Story of the Barbary Corsairs. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
Lloyd, Christopher. English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast, 1981.
Lord, Lewis. “Pirates! On the Shores of Tripoli, America Becomes a World Power,” U.S. News & World Report (March 4, 2002), 48-50.

Morgan, J. A. A Complete History of Algiers. 1731.

Pirates: Terror on the High Seas from the Caribbean to the South China Sea.  Turner Publishing, 1996.

Wheelan, Joseph. Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror, 1801-1805. Carroll & Graf, 2003.
Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias. Autonomedia, 1995.
Wright, Louis B., and Julia H. Macleod. First Americans in North Africa: William Eaton’s Struggle for a Vigorous Policy Against the Barbary Pirates, 1799-1805.  Greenwood Press, 1969.


© 2004 Cindy Vallar
Originally published  1 July and 1 August 2004

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