The Barbary Pirates (16th-19th Centuries)

Figure 1.--With the Revolution, American ships lost the protection of the Royal Navy. America's first overseas conflict was a war against an early generation of Islamic terrorists--the Barbary Pirates. Here is a scene from that war. I do not yet know who the artist was and when it was painted.

The Barbary pirates or Ottoman corsairs, were pirates who operated under the cover of privateer operations authorized by the Barbary states. The Barbary pirates operated from western portion of the north Africa from Tripoli west to Moroccan ports. This became known as the Barbary coast. The Muslim Barbary pirates preyed on Christian and other non-Islamic shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea beginning with the Crusades, but more importantly inthe 16th century after the fall of Granada to the Christians (1492). The attacks continued into the early 19th century.


There is a long history of predatory maritime attacks by the coastal population of northern Africa on the maritime commerce in the Mediterranean and the coastal populations of southern Europe. The Arab conqquest of North Africa created the conditions for piracy. The southern and norther shore of the Mediterranean basin developed along very differet relgious and cultural lines. At time the North African-based pirates even conducted attacks into the Atlantic. The history of southern European especially the Mediterranean Islands is full of accounts of predator attacls by Nuslims pirtes, often called Sacerians. This is the case of most small islands such as the Baleric Island, Capri, Pontine Islands, and many other small countries. Many of these islands were as a result depopulated in the Niddle Ages. Even larger islands such as Sardinia and Sicily were severly affected. These attacks increased in intensity as the as the native Berber dynasties declined (14th century) and Muslims were deported from Spain during the Reconquista (15th century).

Barbary States

The Barbary states were titular provinces of the Ottoman Empire. After Lepanto (1571), the Ottomans with their naval power declining were no longer were able to control the Barbary principalities which emerged as essentially independent states. The Barbary pirates operated from western portion of north Africa from Tripoli west to Moroccan ports. This became known as the Barbary coast. The Barbary Coast was a medieval term for the Maghreb and evolved from the Berber inhabitants of North Africa. The town of Bougie1 (Béjaïa in Algeria west of Tunisia) was then the most notorious pirate centers. The most formidable Barbary port was Algiers, but Tripoli and Tunis were also important as well as some Moroccan ports, especially Salé. The pirates operating from the different ports were not always under the effective control of any central authority. The major principalities involved were essentially comparable to the modern states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The importance and nature of the various Barbary states varied over time.


The Barbary pirates primarily operated in Mediterranean, especially the western Mediterranean. There were also attacks out in the Atlantic, both south along the coast of West Africa and into the Atlantic seaboard, and north along the coast of Western Europe. Attacks were reported as far north as Iceland. The attacks were primarily on maritime commerce. There were, however, raids (Riazzas) on coastal settlements, usually isolated towns for booty and slaves.


The origins of the Barbary Pirates lay with the end of the Reconquista in Spain and the fall of Granada. The Moors (Muslim Arabs and Berbers) invaded Spain (711) and quickly conquered almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. This was part of the great imperial expansion of the Islamic Caliphate--one of the most rapid military undertakings in history. Moorish Spain became a great center of learning and science. The Moors lived in Spain for 800 years. Christians survived in the northern mountains and from here launched the Reconquista. The Spanish monarchs (Isabella and Ferdinand) finally succeeded in conquering the last Moorish kingdom--Grenada (1492). They expelled both the Moors and Jews from their now united realm in that same year. Some of the expelled Moors, coveting revenge, initiated piratical attacks on the Spanish coast and Spanish shipping. Many were from the They received assistance from Moslem adventurers. Many were from the Levant. The Barbary Pirates became a recognized phenomenon (16th century) and achieved their greatest power (17th century), but declined in the 18th century. They were finally eliminated after the Napoleonic Wars. European advances in naval technology and the French conquest of Algeria (1830) effectively reduced the base for piracy.


The reasons for the development of Barbary piracy and its continuation for more than three centuries seems primarily economic, but there are also a range of religious and cultural factors involved. A major factor was the abject failure of the North African Muslim countries and the increasing economic success of Christian Europe.


Piracy was given a powerful boost with the expulsion of Muslims from Spain. Most of those expelled lost their lands, homes, and valuables. Often their families had lived in Spain for centuries. They had to begin life anew in an essentially foreign land. They would have been very bitter. It is thus understandable that they and their sons would have been motivated to seek revenge on the Christians that had treated then so unfairly. Salé in Morocco was established as an important pirate stronghold by Muslims expelled from Spain.


Religion was certainly a factor, although difficult to assess. The actions of the pirates could be justified by Islamic jihad against the Christians. And Koranic and other Islamic teaching recognizes slavery as a acceptable social institution. Thus the enslaving of non-Muslims was an acceptable practice. And North African Muslims had for centuries been involved in the African slave trade.

Economic Factors

The diverging economies of North Africa and Europe were a major factor in the phenomenon of the Barbary pirates. he Islamic Caliphate before the Crusades (10-13th century) had been the center of great leaning and advanced technology. Even before the Mongol invasions (13th century), Islam had moved away from science toward fundamentalism. This shift occurred at the same time that the Renaissance began to sweep Europe (13th century). Along with the changing religious outlook came a quickening of the European economy. This was further promoted by the Reformation (16th century) . Nowhere was the dichotomy between a backward unproductive Islam and prosperous modern Europe more apparent than in the Mediterranean. Thus the lure of commerce raiding and slave trading prove irresistible for the anarchical military states that evolved along the Barbary Coast. These states essentially lived by plunder without any major industry in contrast to the increasingly prosperous Europe on which they preyed.


Some of the most famous were Arouj and his brother Khair-ed Din (late 16th century). Christians called them both Barbarossa or "Redbeard." They were based in modern Tunisia. Another major figure was Moolay Ismail in Morocco. He was not a a pirate himself, but encouraged their operations and benefited from their operations, especially the slaves they captured and delivered.

European Incursions and Raids

The major European power initially responding to these attacks was the Spanish which in the 16th century were the super power of the day. Spain responded to these attacks by expeditions against the major port cities in North Africa (Oran, Algiers and Tunis). The Barbary influence was not the only reason for the Spanish incursions in North Africa, but it was a significant factor. Arouj was killed by the Spanish (1518). His brother Khair-ed-Din asked for the support of Sultan Selim in Constantinople. The Sultan dispatched Ottoman troops. They seized at fort at Algiers from the Spanish (1529). Algiers became the principal power base of the the Turkish beylerbeys of northern Africa who ruled over Tripoli (Libya), Tunisia, and Algeria (1518-87). The Battle of Lepanto was one of the decisive naval battles of history (October 7, 1571).

The Ottomans

The destruction of the Ottoman fleet seriously impaired the Sultan's ability to administer North Africa and ended the attempt of the Ottomans to dominate the Mediterranean. The Sultan appointed a Turkish Pasha to rule the area (1587). They governed for terms of 3 years. A military rebellion in Algeria, however, eventually reduced the Turush Pashas to figureheads. The major North African ports eventually achieved virtual independence from the Ottomans (by 1659). They came anarchical military states under local rulers with economies based largely on plunder. Initially the beylerbeys were admirals in the Ottoman Navy. They commanded impressive fleets and conducting naval operations against the Spanish, Venetians, and other Christian naval forces (1518-87). After Lepanto and the decline of Ottoman naval power, plunder and slave taking became their primary goal.

Royal Navy

The Royal Navy and other European powers waged an effective war against piracy in the Caribbean during the early-18th century. The question becomes, why did the Royal Navy not engage the Barbary pirates. They certainly had the capability as did the French. It is not altogether clear why the Royal Navy was not deployed against the Barbary Pirates. Were are not privy to discussions in the Admiralty or among the political leadership on this subject. Perhaps historians have addressed this subject, but we have not yet found the sources. There are some obvious reasons. The Caribbean was more important economically to the British. And wars between the British and French meant that the Barbary states were not a high priority. The Barbary states were a more difficult target in that they had secure bases which the Caribbean pirates did not have. An assault on the Barbary Pirates involved not only naval engagements, but a land campaign. While Britain and France certainly had the capability, the cost of such a campaign and the probable subsequent occupation would probably exceed the costs of buying the pirates off. This was especially the case because the pirates were willing to settle reasonably with countries that had powerful navies. They demanded more tribute from smaller states less able to defend their merchant vessels. And this may be the key to the Royal Navy's inaction. The Barbary Pirates in effect raised the cost of smaller countries to engage in marine commerce. This gave the British a substantial competitive advantage.


The Barbary pirates were the most successful pirates in history. This is because they operated close to the shoes of increasingly prosperous Europe and because they were supported and protected by North African political and religious authorities. In some cases they became so powerful that they were the effective political authority. Barbary piracy was conducted by captains called reises. They formed formed a class or a kind of corporation to finance their operations. They achieved legitimacy by paying 10 per cent of their prizes was to the pasha (Agha or Dey or Bey).


Much of the shipping in the Mediterranean was gallies throughoutv the middle ages. Bougie was the major shipbuilding center. The Barbary pirates at first used galleys (propelled by slaves). The vessels were called zebeks. They were small, fast vessels. Sailing vessels were very vulnerable when winds slackened and could easily be overtaken by the Barbary zebeks powered by galley slaves. Interestingly historians have yet to find an intact Barbary zebek. The British believe they have found the remains of a zebek off Sokum on the Channel coast. It was apparently involved in slave raiding in the Atlantic. The wood had deteriorated, but at the cannon site Arab gold coins, some dated to 1631 have been found. Gradually Europeans began tp perfect sail ships (15th century). Gradually the pirates shifted to sail power some time in the early 17th century. Renegade Europeans played a major role in modernizing the Barbary ships. Here a Flemish renegade, Simon Danser, played a major role. This substantially increased the potential for piracy. The galleys could be used in the Mediterranean, but were largely unsuitable for the open ocean. Barbary sail vessels could range into the Atlantic as far as the Canaries or even as far as Iceland. A Flemish renegade, known as Murad Reis sacked Baltimore in Ireland (1631). He carried off captives to be sold in slave markets. Some were observed in the Algiers slace market by a French historian. [Pierre Dan]

North African Economies


We have little information on clothing in the Barbary states. As far as we can tell, the Barbary pirates wore clothes that were strongly influenced by Oriental, especially Ottoman styles. That would mean that important fogues wore turbans. These do not seem to have been worn by the ordinary sailors. Wealthy individuals dressed in rich clothing. The ordinary sailor seems to have dressed in ragged clothing. A factor here that as as a result of the seizure of European ships, the pirates seized European clothing , some of which they wore. We do not know to what extent clothing varied among the different Barbary states. We do not yet have information on women and children.


One of the primary objectives was to take white Christian slaves. Muslims were discouraged from holding other Muslims in slavery. Thus capturing Christians avoided this problem. Slavery is an institutionnized in the Koran and other Islamic teaching. The Barbary pirates succeeded in capturing large numbers of Europeans who were then sold into slavery. There were important slave markets in Algeria and Morocco. There is no precise accounting of the numbers of victims involved in the Barbary slave taking. One historian estimates that 1.0-1.25 million people may have been captured and sold into slavery during the more than three centuries that the pirates operated in force (16th-early 19th centuries). [Davis] Most of the slave raids were conducted on seaside villages in Italy, Spain and Portugal, especially in the 16th century when the Europeans were just beginning to build modern navies. There were, however, also raids on more distant settlements (France, England, the Netherlands, Ireland, and even Iceland). The pirate raid in "HMS Pinafore" was not entirely fanciful. There are many well-document Barbary slave-taking raids. Khair ad Din captured the Ischia, taking 4,000 captives to be sold into slavery (1544). Another 9,000 captives from Lipari were enslaved. Turgut Reis (Dragut) raided the Maltese island Gozo and sold 5,000-6,000 inhabitants in Libya (1551). Barbary pirates ravaged Vieste in southern Italy and enslaved about 7,000 people (1554). Turgut Reis mounted a raid on Corsica, looted Bastia hand enslaved 6000 people (1555). The Barbary attack on Ciutadella (Minorca) was particularly devastating. A large part of the population was slaughtered, but about 3,000 were taken off to be sold as as slaves (1558). Turgut Reis raided the southern coast of pain near Granada, looting settlements like Almuñécar, taking about 4,000 captives to be sold as slaves (1563). Gradually in the 17th century these slave raids became less frequent, but the Barbary pirates continued to enslave captured crews. Here American ships became special targets after the Revolution (1776-83) because for several years the United States had no navy to protect its shipping. One American enslaved by the Barbary pirates reported that 130 other American sailors had been enslaved by the Algerians just between 1785 and 1793. Wealthy Europeans were especially prized because they could be ransomed. This was also the case for ranking military officers. Attractive young women could be added to the harems. Ordinary individuals were condemned to a life of slave labor. Many men were used as galley slaves. Moroccan sultann Moolay Ismail used tens ofthousands off slaves in the construction of hisimmensee palace.

Economic Impact

The impact of the Barbary raids are not well studied. Raids on shipping can probably be quantified. France, England, and Spain each reportedly lost thousands of ships. One source notes that between 1609 and 1616 The Barbary pirates took 466 English merchant ships. Raids on coastal villages are more difficult to estimate. Reports suggest that stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were largely abandoned by its inhabitants. The Barbary raids thus discouraged coastal settlement in some areas until the 19th century. The Balearic islands between Spain and Algeria were the target of constant attacks. The most southerly island in the chain, Formentera, had to be abandoned.

Diplomacy and Raids

European countries at times negotiated with the Barbary Pirates and at other times launched military expeditions. British admiral, Robert Blake, commanded an expedition against Tunis (1655). There were quite a number of these expeditions launched by the British, Dutch, French and others. After the American Revolution, the Americans also participated, 1801-05 and 1815. After the Revolution, American commerce no longer operated under the protection of the Royal Navy. This was one of the early challenges faced by the fledgling American Navy. These expeditions were naval in character and the Europeans declined to land large armies to actually seize the area. Here the calculation was largely financial. A major military campaign would have been more expensive than the commerce to be protected. It was more cost-effective to buy them off.

European Wars

Another factor was European wars. These provided opportunities to prey upon commerce.

American Barbary Wars

America while British colonies developed one of the largest merchant fleets in the world. Ans as British colonies, they sailed under the Union Jack and the protection of the Royal Navy. The British had treaties with the four Barbary states (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli). Thus they were protected by the Barbary corsairs. Morocco was the nation to publicly recognize the United States, perhaps with ulterior motive (1777). Barbary corsairs began seeing American shipping in the Mediterranean after America had achieved its independence (1783). Morocco was the first Barbary state to seize an American vessel (1784). Algiers subsequently sized were the Maria and Dauphin (1785). The men aboard were cast into a dank prison and reduced to slavery. The Dey of Algiers demanded a huge payment to ransom the captives and for for a peace treaty to protect other American ships. This incident occurred at a time when the United States was still governed by the Articles of Confederation. There was no American Navy at the time. Ironically the American diplomats first involved were John Adams in London and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. There was little they could do. As the Barbary corsairs had noted, there was no American Navy to protect the merchant ships. Only after the Constitution was signed was a Federal Government created which could build a Navy. President Adams was the father of the U.S. Navy. The Navy was the most controversial issue in the early years of the Republic. Adams and the Federalists insisted on building six costly frigates. Jefferson's Republicans opposed both construction and the use of the frigates in the Quasi War with France, But it would be the U.S. Navy that he and the Republicans had opposed that President Jefferson would used to fight the Barbary pirates. It would be America and not the Europeans that they preyed on for several centuries that would take on he Barbary pirates.


Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 246p.


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Last updated: 10:32 PM 5/14/2010