Berbers were fearless seamen and had been pirating the extensive trade shipping in the middle and western Mediterranean since antiquity. Their long shore along Western Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco was called the Barbary Coast by the Greeks. The words Berber, Barbary and Barbarian have a common root in the Greek word “barbaros” meaning uncivilized and savage. However Berber is an exonym for a people who call themselves the Amazigh – meaning noble and brave.
This article is about slavery at the hands of the Berbers of the North African coast roughly during the period between 1500 and 1800.
Attracted by the rich European sea trade through the Mediterranean following the discovery of sea routes to Americas and India, the Berbers resorted to raiding ships and coastal towns – capturing European people and selling them in the lucrative Ottoman slave markets. Among those abductees who were not ransomed, the men were sold as slaves for labour, while women and attractive boys were sold as sex slaves. Many of the young boys were purchased by Ottoman government as soldier recruits. It was a practice of the Ottomans Caliphs and rich Muslim merchants in those days to present enslaved European women to friendly Muslim monarchs, including the Mughals. We thus read of European harem girls in the time of Akbar and Jahangir. Udhaipuri Mahal, the concubine presented to Prince Dara but later appropriated by Emperor Aurangzeb, was a slave girl of Georgian origin.
While the Ottomans had extended their control over the Arab lands of Middle East and North Africa, their hold beyond Egypt was at best tenuous with autonomous warlords holding sway over the “Barbary coast”. It was here that the Barbary pirates were concentrated and found their refuge. They sat astride and raided the rich vein of European trade and passenger shipping routes passing south of Sicily, Sardinia and Balearic Islands that connected east Mediterranean and Black Sea ports with the Atlantic Ocean. From their secure bases in Salé, Rabat, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli the pirates raided Christian ships, plundering cargo, and enslaving crew and passengers. From 1500 AD at least, the Berbers raided coastal towns in Italy, France, Spain, Ireland, South England and, as far as, Iceland; capturing men, women and children. In some cases, whole villages were taken captive at night and brought back to North Africa.
The Berber raids on European coast became so incessant that many vulnerable coastal towns were abandoned. At the height of these activities, according to the British Admiralty records, the Barbary pirates plundered British shipping at will. They captured 466 trading vessels between 1609 and 1616, looted the goods and enslaved the crew. They took another 27 vessels from near Plymouth in 1627. There is a recorded story told by a certain Reverend Devereux Spratt of being carried off and put in chains, along with 120 fellow travellers, in April 1641 for several years’ bondage in Algiers, while attempting a simple voyage across the Irish Sea from County Cork to England. First half of the 17th century was the peak of Barbary activity and there were about 20 thousand European slaves in Algiers alone.
Richard Thornton states in his Fort Carolina: Search for America’s lost heritage that the Spanish wars against the North African Sultanates were caused by their repeated slave raids against the coastal towns in Spain and Portuguese in which between 100,00 and 250,000 Iberians were enslaved.
Raids on the European coast became so incessant that many vulnerable coastal towns were abandoned
Captives suffered indignities and hardships. Those who survived the sea voyage to Africa were often forced to walk through town as they were taken to slave auctions. They had to stand from morning till the afternoon while buyers viewed them. The townspeople had the first priority to bid on them and then the governor of Algiers had the chance to purchase any slave he wanted. Scenes here were reminiscent of sale of black slaves in US markets during the same period.
Eighteenth-century British historian Joseph Morgan notes that he had a list, printed in London in 1682, of 160 British ships captured by Algerians between 1677 and 1680. Considering an average number of crew and passengers per ship at 60, it translates to 9,000 men and women taken captive and sold as slaves.
The most daring of these Berber raids was on Baltimore in Ireland on 20 June 1631. The raiders travelled over 1,600 km on two ships from Algiers to Baltimore, captured 107 villagers, who were mostly British settlers, and transported them to a life of slavery in North Africa. Except for three, who were ransomed, none of those captured were ever able to return. The village was abandoned and remained deserted for many decades.
The sack of Baltimore lives in Western memory and has inspired books, poems, films, stage plays and music. The raid is narrated in detail by Des Ekin in his book titled The Stolen Village – Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates. 19th-century Irish poet Thomas Davis wrote his famous poem “The Sack of Baltimore” depicting the raid and its aftermath. The tragedy continues to inspire artists down to our time. Chris Bolister (2014), rock band The Darkness (2015) and singer/songwriter Tim O’Riordan (2018) have set the incident to music.
Some of the Barbary raids were a moment of revenge for the expulsion of Muslims from Spain after the completion of the Reconquista in 1492
Equally audacious enslaving raids were conducted between the 20th of June and the 19th of July 1627, when Moroccan and Algerian pirates raided Iceland in four ships and carried away over 400 inhabitants to North Africa as slaves. Only a handful of these were able to return on payment of ransom. Both these raids were led by Murad Reis, a Dutch convert to Islam.
Some of the Barbary raids were a moment of revenge for the expulsion of Muslims from Spain after the completion of the Reconquista in 1492. Fatima Mernissi (1997) writes in her The forgotten queens of Islam about a woman pirate leader of the time. Sayyida al-Hurra was a female Muslim cleric, merchant and governor of the Moroccan city of Tetouan. Her family had fled the Emirate of Granda at the time of the Christian Reconquista. In time she gathered a crew and launched pirate expeditions against Spain and Portugal. Her allies were the famous “Barbarossa brothers” who went on to command the Ottoman navy and dominated the eastern Mediterranean for three decades. She later married the Moroccan monarch.
Many European renegades were attracted by the Berber pirates. English corsair Jack – or John – Ward was once a privateer for Queen Elizabeth during her war with Spain. He later turned a pirate, sailed to Tunis and converted to Islam, adopting the name of Yusuf Reis. He was one of the richest and most notorious Barbary pirates. He introduced the Berbers to heavily armed square-rigged ships, instead of slave galleys, enabling them to raid English and Irish coastal towns and ports. This also enabled the Berbers to dominate the Mediterranean. Ward died of plague in 1622. Simon de Danser or Simon Reis (1579–1611), Salomo de Veenboer or Sulayman Reis (died 1620), Murat Reis the Elder (b. 1534–d.1609) and Murat Reis the Younger (b. 1570–d.1641) were Barbary pirates of Dutch origin.
Other famous Barbary pirates included Kemal Reis (1451-1511), Muslihiddin Reis (1487 - 1535), Sinan Reis (d.1546), Piri Reis (d.1555), Salih Reis (1488- 1568) and a host of others.
A long list of people of good social and financial standing were enslaved during this time. They included nationals of all European nations including from Spain, England, Holland and Germany. Perhaps the most celebrated person to be enslaved was Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote and regarded as the finest writer in the Spanish language. He was captured by the Berbers in 1575 and had to spend five years on the African cost as a slave till he was ransomed.
Berbers became a coercive tool in the European power play. According to the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, at one time France encouraged the Barbary piracy raids against their Spanish adversaries. Later the British and the Dutch encouraged them against French shipping. In the 18th century, British public statesmen publicly declared that Berber pirates were a useful check against their weaker trading competitors in the Mediterranean. The Encyclopaedia states that “When Lord Exmouth sailed to coerce Algiers in 1816 (to curb piracy), he expressed doubts in a private letter whether the suppression of piracy would be acceptable to the (British) trading community.”
North American shipping was equally a victim of Barbary piracy. The US-French agreement of 1778 required the latter to protect “American vessels and effects against all violence, insults, attacks, or depredations, on the part of the said Princes and States of Barbary or their subjects.” Thomas Jefferson’s papers note that the US Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states and that in July 1785, Algerians captured two American ships and the Sultan of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one for a ransom of nearly $60,000. According to C.H. Adams (2005) in his The Narrative of Robert Adams: A Barbary Captive, 700 hundred US citizens were held captive on the Barbary lands.
Barbary pirates are extensively depicted in literature. Robert Davis, Professor of History at Ohio State University, has given a detailed account of this slave trade in his 2003 book titled Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800. Davis estimates that over one million Europeans were enslaved between the beginning of the 17th and the middle of the 19th century.
Barbary pirates loomed large in the Western consciousness. In Mozart’s opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, two European ladies are discovered in a Turkish harem, presumably captured by Barbary corsairs. Rossini’s opera L’Italiana in Algeri is based on the capture of several slaves by Barbary corsairs led by the Bey of Algiers. They are also featured in Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and in The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas Even the popular customary eye-patch of pirates depicted in films and literature is derived from Arab corsair Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, who wore a patch after losing an eye in battle in the 18th century.
Widespread piracy forced the Western powers to take military counter-measures forcing Barbary pirates to seek the protection of Ottoman Sultans. Many of the most audacious pirates became admirals in the Ottoman navy. However, it was a common practice in all the Western navies of the time to employ pirates and privateers to further crown territorial and financial interests.
In 1785, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the 2nd and 3rd US presidents, travelled to London to negotiate with the ambassador of Tripoli an end to piracy and white slavery. The ambassador refused the requests on the grounds that as Muslims, they were allowed to enslave non-Muslims.
The US eventually raised a pan=European force to counter this menace. The US-led first and second Barbary wars in 1801 and 1815 respectively curbed the piracy threat. In August 1816, a British and Dutch squadron carried out a punitive bombardment of Algiers and got 3,000 white slaves freed.
Eventually the French occupation and colonization of Algeria in 1830 eliminated this threat completely.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at email@example.com