Backed up by mil­i­tary might

BBC History Magazine - - Barbary Corsairs - Adam Ni­chols is as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at the Univer­sity of Mary­land

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.

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. DIS­COVER MORE BOOK

The Trav­els of Rev­erend Óla­fur Egils­son: The Story of the Bar­bary Cor­sair Raid on Ice­land in 1627

trans­lated by Adam Ni­chols & Karl Smári Hreins­son ( The Catholic Univer­sity of Amer­ica Press, 2016)

An il­lus­tra­tion from the 1637 pub­li­ca­tion His­toire de Bar­barie show­ing the dif­fer­ent types of tor­ture in­flicted on Chris­tian slaves in north Africa

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