Corsair Operations – 17th Century

Lorenzo Castro – A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs

Contrary to popular myth, the corsairs did not prey indiscriminately on all Christian shipping. The regencies frequently made treaties with individual European powers, by which their ships would be left alone in return for some form of tribute (sometimes financial, sometimes in the form of naval supplies, in which the regencies were singularly deficient). Even the more independent, and thus less easily constrained, ‘Sallee rovers’ made treaties with the Dutch during the 1650s. Inevitably, there were mistakes and misunderstandings which sometimes triggered fresh conflicts; these included disputes over the wording of passes which ‘cleared’ a ship from the corsairs’ attentions, and the presence of the goods of an ‘enemy’ country in a ‘friendly’ ship. The regencies were by no means always in the wrong when a breach occurred, for Western navies usually and indiscriminately regarded corsair ships as ‘pirates’ even during periods of peace, seizing them and enslaving their crews. The evidence is patchy, but it seems that at any one time many hundreds of North African Muslims were being held in captivity in Britain: far fewer than the many thousands of Westerners held in the regencies, but still a significant number.

Corsair booty was divided up in roughly similar ways in all the regencies, and in Salé. A proportion – about 10–12 per cent – went to the central authority, which in the case of the three North African regencies included a payment to the nominal overlord in Istanbul. Of the remainder, half went to the shipowners and half to the crew, with the captain receiving ten or twelve parts to the lowest seaman’s one or two. Even Christian slaves received two shares each on Algerine ships, the same as the gunroom crew and the best soldiers. This was all markedly more egalitarian than the distribution in Western European privateers, where the captain could expect up to forty times more than an ordinary crew member. To bring in this income, the corsairs usually opted for quite short voyages lasting for less than two months. The Algerines tended to operate in the western Mediterranean and around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, as well as heading out into the Atlantic. The corsair ships of Tunis and Tripoli usually operated in the eastern Mediterranean and around Sicily. About half of Salé’s ships usually scoured the coasts of Spain and Portugal while the remainder operated further south, off the Canaries and Azores. All corsair crews were fully conversant with the seasonal patterns and favoured routes of Western merchant shipping; after all, many corsair captains and crewmen had first-hand knowledge of those trades from their previous careers. In addition to these everyday operations, corsairs sometimes ventured much further afield, sometimes with spectacular results in unsuspecting coastal communities. In 1627 they raided Iceland; in 1631 an attack on Baltimore, County Cork, carried off virtually the entire population of the village; and in 1654 they raided St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. ‘Sallee rovers’ were found at various times off the coast of Wales and Newfoundland, and even in the Thames estuary; in 1670, even when a British fleet was operating against Algiers itself, three Algerine warships were in the mouth of the English Channel. The agreement of a definitive peace with Algiers in the 1680s brought a squadron of Algerine ships on a ‘courtesy visit’ to Harwich in 1686, a circumstance that generated much correspondence from Pepys and his clerks. Although these distant voyages never formed a major part of corsair strategy, such as it was, their spectacular raids on foreign shores, set alongside the stories of Christian slaves in need of redemption from Barbary slavery, served to create a ‘black legend’ of the corsairs and a demonisation of Islam that pervaded Western perceptions for generations.

The North African regencies operated ships that were owned by the state and others that were owned by consortia of private shareholders. Prospective captains, or rais, were interviewed before a panel of serving officers prior to appointment, a meritocratic system that contrasted markedly with the patronage-based appointments made in most Western navies, including Britain’s. About half of the captains were Christian renegades, not all of whom necessarily converted to Islam before starting to prey on their co-religionists. The most notorious was probably Murad Reis, formerly a Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who operated from Algiers and Salé at different times and commanded several of the most daring corsair raids, including those on Iceland and Baltimore. There were probably around 15,000 renegades in Barbary at any one time. They included the English renegade Jonas, known to the Moors as ‘Alcayd Abdalla’, who acted as an interpreter to the Moroccan ambassador Mohammad bin Haddu during his visit to England in 1681–2. A renegade Dover man named Wood was reportedly the lieutenant of a corsair ship in 1659, and a Welshman was found aboard an Algerine corsair in the Channel in 1671. Teonge encountered an English lieutenant on an Algerine ship in 1676. Five years later, Admiral Arthur Herbert took an Algerine prize in which he found an English renegade who had served under him in the Dragon ten years earlier; Herbert reported that ‘I caused him, after half an hour’s time to pray, to be hanged at the main yard arm, as I intend to serve all that I can take, that so infamously renounce their religion and serve against their country’.

The regencies relied exclusively on galleys until the early years of the seventeenth century, when renegade influence led to the adoption of sailing men-of-war. The corsairs operated a wide variety of ships: the largest were of about sixty guns, the equal of Third or Fourth rates, but the smallest were feluccas mounting three or four guns and carrying twenty to thirty men. Algiers had by far the largest fleet, comprising between twenty and forty vessels during the second half of the seventeenth century; in 1659 it had twenty-three large galleys, each with fifty guns and manned by 400 men. Its fleet suffered devastating losses at the hands of the British at Cape Spartel and Bugia Bay in 1670–1, but replaced them with twenty-five new ships of twenty to forty guns each built during the following four years. The fleets of Tunis and Tripoli were much smaller and consisted only of about ten to fifteen ships each. The sailing ships of all the corsair states were lighter, faster and lower in the water than their Christian counterparts. Salé ships were the smallest of all: the mouth of the Bou Regreg river was shielded by a treacherous sandbank which made it difficult for European ships to come in close enough to bombard the city of Salé, which was thus spared the fate that befell other corsair strongholds (at any rate until 1829, when longer-range naval ordnance finally ended the rovers’ activities), but it also forced the rovers to eschew the larger ships favoured by the North African regencies. Corsair tactics depended on boarding, a process accompanied by the ‘psychological warfare’ of making as much noise as possible during the approach to the potential prize. Consequently, corsair ships carried a large number of soldiers: about 140 on a galley, and between one and two hundred on the larger sailing ships.

Several captured corsair ships were incorporated into the British navy, albeit only briefly. The Tiger Prize, captured in 1678, saw much service in the early years of the French war before being expended in 1696 as part of a breakwater at Sheerness. The 46-gun Golden Horse of Algiers, taken in March 1681 after a fierce fight with the Adventure, became one of the guardships at Chatham before also ending up as a breakwater. Seven other Algerine prizes, taken between 1677 and 1683, were taken into Charles II’s navy, but all but one was sold off or lost before the ‘Glorious Revolution’. The same was true of three out of four Sallee rovers taken in 1683–4; the fourth, commonly and delightfully called the Sally Rose, was employed as a Sixth Rate until 1696.