Backed up by military might
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.
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