The Corsairs of the Maghreb


By Manushag N. PowellPurdue University

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, piracy gradually ceased to be a major problem near the northern European coastline. But, if European ships were not harassing other European ships near Europe that may have been in part because there was a new common enemy to worry about, the fearsome corsairs based in the Levant and along the coastline of northern Africa.

Painting of a Barbary pirate ship attacking a French ship
By the time piracy had become a less serious problem on northern Europe coastlines, the new threat of corsairing arose. (Image: Aert Anthoniszoon/Public domain)

The Maghrabi Raiders

In 1631, shockingly, the corsairs raided the Little village of Baltimore, Ireland, carrying away most of the population, an estimated 109 people, almost half of them children. Two elderly captives were later released, but most of the rest were never heard from in Ireland again, the event was deeply shocking.

There are a few things to remember about these Maghrabi Raiders. One, unlike the sea dogs, the Buccaneers, or most Golden age pirates, captive-taking was their primary business, the captives were the booty because of labor port North Africa’s need for workers, and ransom money. 

A painting of a sea fight with Barbary Corsairs
The primary business of the Barbary Corsairs was captive-taking. (Image: Lorenzo A. Castro/Public domain)

Two, they worked for their governments and did not see themselves as pirates, although Europeans disagreed about that. Three, their raids against European targets were frequently assisted by Europeans, which really upset the Protestant folks back home in England, and the Catholic folks in France, Italy, and Spain, too.

The Religious Component of Piracy

Piracy often has a religious component. Mediterranean corsairs were privateers commissioned by their governments to make the war primarily against non-Muslims, a contributing factor to this corsairing was the implacable hatred of Spain by the Moors people in Saleh, located on the coast of modern-day Morocco, following the 16th-century expulsion of Muslims from Granada, not to mention Spain’s own incursions into, and enslaving among the North African, and Ottoman regions. Anger in Spain was important to inspiring piracy all over the place as it turns out.

By the way, the religious issue is part of why the corsairs are considered pirates, to a European, you can only be a privateer if your government is officially in the European sense, at war with another government. Jihad didn’t count to them, the word corsair literally means privateer in most Latinate languages, but because of the Barbary Association, the word is often used in English simply to mean pirate. 

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

The Renegados

The religious issue is also what made the assistance to the corsairs provided by some Europeans, who came to be known as renegades, so objectionable to other Europeans. The term renegades or renegados, was applied specifically to Europeans, who chose to work for the interests of a Barbary, or Ottoman state, against the interests of their fellow Europeans, often converting to Islam.

The English often called this “Turning Turk”. The Spanish word renegado originally referred to a “Christian who turned Muslim”. Renegade sailor’s expertise in sailing deep-sea ships, and their knowledge of European ports, made them especially useful allies to the corsairs.

The Corsairs and the Practice of Captivity

A battle between Barbary corsairs and British vessels
From 1622 to 1642, an estimated 300 ships, and 7000 English subjects, were taken by corsairs. (Image: Willem van de Velde the Younger/Public domain)

The Barbary Coast runs along North Africa, the region was called Barbary by the Europeans for the Berber people who lived there, it includes what we now call Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya. It was nominally, but not really very firmly, under the control of the Ottomans; Morocco was the other dominant power to treat with, the major corsair airports were in Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Robot, and Sale.

Across the 17th to 18th centuries, there was something along the lines of 20,000 English Maghreby corsair interactions, and that figure for Britain is much lower, than the one for Europeans generally, for obvious geographical reasons.

That came to be shall we say, robust public interest in the interactions of Britain and Ireland, with North African corsairs, and with good reason, from 1622 to 1642, an estimated 300 ships, and 7000 English subjects, were taken by corsairs. Between 1660 and the 1730s, 6000 more Britons were captured. 

In anglophone, fiction, and dramas dealing with travel, set during this period, it seems amazing that people tried to travel at all, you get on a ship, and you’re almost instantly enslaved by corsairs. So-called barbary captivity, was a fascination in the world of literature, even though the concurrent desire for keeping up trade relations with the Barbary states was clearly reflected in theatricals, and news writing.

Common Questions about the Corsairs of the Maghreb

Q: What are the three things one needs to know about corsairs?

First, the corsairs, unlike the Buccaneers, the sea dogs, or most Golden Age pirates, considered captivity to be their main business. Captives were looted for their work because of the need for labor and extortion. Second, the corsairs worked for their governments and didn’t consider themselves pirates. And third, they often sought help from Europeans themselves to attack European targets.

Q: How are the corsairs related to religious issues?

The issue of religion forms part of the reason why the corsairs are considered pirates. The word “corsair” means privateer in most Latin languages, but due to its close connection with the Barbary, the word is known in English to mean pirate. Another thing is that the religious issue caused some European renegades’ aid to the corsairs to be objected to by other Europeans.

Q: Why was a Corsair’s captivity a fascination in the world of literature?

Anglophone, dramas, and fiction from the time of the corsairs show that, despite the danger of being captured by these people, people continued to travel by sea, and this seems astonishing. On the other hand, although corsair captivity was particularly attractive in the world of literature, the maintenance of trade relations with the Barbary states was clearly reflected in the news writings and theaters.

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