How the Corsairs Treated Their Barbary Captives


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

Barbary captivity, while terrifying, and often brutal, was not analogous to African race chattel slavery for white captives. Barbary captives included non-Muslims, that is Christians, but also non-Christian Eastern Europeans, West Africans, and some others. Corsairs held these captives as hostage for ransom, often selling them and forcing them to labor until the ransom was paid, or until they converted to Islam.

San giovannino dei cavalieri, coat of arms of Malta
The Knights of Malta, who were originally an 11th-century monastic order, acted as an anti-pirate force in Mediterranean waters. (Image: Sailko/Public domain)

How Barbary Captives Were Treated

High-status captives might be treated simply as hostages, not sold repeatedly, or obligated to work. The author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, was captured and held captive in Algiers as a young veteran, and was finally freed after five years in his early thirties. His ransom was 500 gold escudos, or 1340 pieces of eight, which is an enormous sum, and Cervantes was not a famous author at this stage in his life. 

Portrait of Miguel de Cervantes
Miguel de Cervantes was a Barbary captive. (Image: Juan Martínez de Jáuregui y Aguila/Public domain)

Others could be sold in the slave markets, but we’re still redeemable, if someone would pay their ransom. Obviously, you did not want to be a galley slave, or a mine worker, or a sex worker, but people with skills, could earn money, and even a certain amount of social comfort, even in some cases, high status. The bottom line is that if you survived long enough, you had an excellent chance of being ransomed, especially after 1650 or so.

Significantly, the captivity and slavery practices of the Maghreb were far from the only instance of pirate captive-taking that used religious difference as its pretense. Europeans, especially the Spanish, routinely enslaved their Muslim captives as well.

We have pretty good proof of Norwegian Vikings raiding Morocco in the 9th century, well before the Maghreb was bothering northern Europe. There is textual evidence from both Vikings, and Moroccans, and the burial sites of several women of African extraction.

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of PiratesWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Knights of Malta

Moreover, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Knights of Malta, formerly the Knights Spitler, who were originally an 11th-century monastic order, decided to act as an anti-pirate force in Mediterranean waters, seeking to protect, or free Christian ships under Ottoman, or Barbary attack, theirs was a war in which they very much adopted the tactics of their enemy. 

Maltese galleys were even rode by Muslim captives. Like the Barbary Corsairs, Maltese corsairs were licensed, well organized, and usually profitable. Soon, rather than acting defensively, they started outright waiting for Muslim ships, attacking North African ports, and capturing Muslims and Moors.

Turning Pirates

A painting of galleys
Maltese galleys ultimately began to raid Muslim ships, capturing Muslims and Moors. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

When the trade was down, or when Europeans saw little reason to fund what had become a wealthy, independent, private earring force, the Knights of Malta were quite apt to turn pirate and harass Europeans as well. Many also worked for the French navy even when France and the Ottoman Empire were enjoying good relations. Their vows of poverty were put aside in the case of sea booty. 

The Knights of Malta were finally put out of business for good when the French National Assembly abolished their order and grabbed their money in 1789 and Napoleon captured Malta in 1798 before heading for Egypt.

A group descended from the Knights of Malta, officially recognized as the sovereign military Order of Malta, exists to this day, and provides humanitarian assistance to many areas of the world. Their public image does not foreground their pirating past.

Antonio de Sousa’s Time as a Captive

Around 1581, the Portuguese priest, Antonio de Sousa, wrote up a report of his time as a Barbary captive, beginning with the description of the Corsairs who had taken him and thousands of others. He emphasized the diversity of their makeup, their dependence on renegados, and their united skill as mariners. 

The Corsairs, he said, are those who live to rob continuously at sea, and it is notable that although there are some among them of the Turkish nation as well as some Moors, almost all of them are renegades of every nation, all quite skilled in navigating the estuaries, ports, and coasts of Christendom… 

Corsairs Had Disciplined Galleys

They went corsairing all through the summer in winter, sailing fearlessly through the eastern and Western seas, making light of the Christian galleys, often because their crews are feasting, gambling, and carrying on in the ports of Christendom. It is understood that their galley is swift, disciplined, and light, whereas the Christian galliots are heavy and so disorderly and encumbered that they may as well give the others license to hunt.

Interestingly, such galleys, like Caribbean pirates and privateers, often ran on the scheme of, “No pray, no pay.” As with European privateering arrangements, the government and the captain took the lion’s share of any profits, but everyone got at least a taste. Even the captives chained to the oars were entitled to a small share. The same could not be said of any enslaved black people on European pirates or privateering ships.

Common Questions about How the Corsairs Treated Their Barbary Captives

Q: What is the story of Miguel de Cervantes as a Barbary captive?

One of the famous Barbary captives was the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes. Captured as a young veteran in Algiers, he was released after five years in his early 30s. His ransom was equivalent to 1340 pieces of eight or 500 gold escudos. The price was a hefty amount back then as Cervantes had not yet become famous enough at that stage of his life.

Q: How did the Barbary corsairs treat the captives? 

While high-status Barbary captives were held as hostages, others were sold in the slave market. They were released if anyone could pay their ransom. Also, skilled captives could earn money from their talents to enjoy social comfort or high status.

Q: Who was Antonio de Sousa? 

Antonio de Sousa was a Portuguese priest who wrote a report about his experience as a Barbary captive around 1581. De Sousa described the corsairs who held him and thousands of others captive as people whose main job was to steal. According to him, the corsairs were highly skilled mariners who were diverse in their appearance.

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