Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 2

Barbary Pirates and the Birth of the US

For International Talk Like A Pirate Day, we present the second part of this article. Part 1 can be found here.

When peace was declared with England's enemies, privateers at a loose end slipped easily into straightforward piracy. In 1609, Captain Thomas Salkeld, a heavy-drinking reprobate from Barnstaple, became known as the Pirate King of Lundy, after seizing the island and enslaving prisoners from captured shipping. Despite many bitter experiences in the 1620s, Barnstaple gave licence to 8 shipowners, who between them operated 14 ships. Whatever measures were employed were very unsuccessful. in ending the chaotic mayhem in the Bristol Channel. in 1627, another illegal occupier of the Isle of Puffins was Jan Janszoon, a Dutch renegade who hoisted an Ottoman flag over his ill-gotten occupation.

In 1627, a ship's boy from Minehead, whose name, unfortunately, was not recorded, was captured by raiding "Turks" (as we saw in part 1, the name "Turks" was applied indiscriminately to people from North Africa and the Near East). He was taken to Algiers, pressed into service, and forcibly converted to Islam. He was eventually freed at sea by an English warship, still wearing Muslim attire. He was chastised by local clergy for not becoming a martyr to his faith, and made to undergo a service of penance by local clergy. On a Sunday in May 1628, he was apparently subjected to long, pedantic and, to him, incomprehensible sermons by priests from Bagborough and Luccombe, under the watchful eye of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

In 1649, Robert Blake, the redoubtable Parliamentary defender of Taunton in the Civil War, was appointed Admiral by Cromwell. In that same year, the depredations of the Barbary pirates was so severe that it was enacted that one shilling in every pound paid in customs duty was to be allocated to the redemption of captives.

Earlier in 1646, there had been negotiations in Algiers led by Edmond Cason, a representative of the Barbary Company. to purchase the release of 244 prisoners of the Bey. These negotiations were followed by the treacheries, misunderstandings and violations which then characterised the politics of both Christian and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean.

Blake's duties in the Mediterranean initially focussed on warfare with the Dutch, and a watching brief on the likely hostile acts of both France and Spain, However, when Blake learned in 1654 of a great concentration of Corsair vessels at Tunis, he requested authority to "sieze, surprise and sink and destroy all ships belonging to the King of Tunis that we shall meet." He "stayed not for an answer", but arrived at La Goulette, the port of Tunis, on 7 February 1655. There he found no great concentration of ships, and his requests to the ruling Bey for the return of the captured ship Princess and the release of captives were rudely refused. After some reconnoitring and revictualling in Sicily, he located nine well-protected Corsair ships at Porto Farina, a Tunisian arsenal, and these he set effectively on fire, destrying all with the loss of only 25 English lives.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the mixture of appeasement and aggression used in relations with the Corsair ports. Sometimes England had recognized consular officials operating in places like Algiers at the same time as captured English slaves were being tortured in nearby prisons. In 1628, soon after the accession of Charles I, a royal proclamation was issued demanding that the Corsair ports and their ships shuld be immune from any attacks by English vessels. This craven surrender excited enormous indignation in suffering ports such as Exeter, Plymouth and Dartmouth. One petition blamed the Jews who financed many lucrative piratic operations from North Africa. Seemingly no faith was entirely unable to avoid being drawn into the conflict.

As the Stuart monarchs Charles II and James I were keen sailors, and in James's case a competent admiral, it must have been especially irksome that their efforts to deal with the problem were largely unsuccessful. However, during Charles's reign, in 1675, a naval expedition led by Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough managed to negotiate a treaty with Tunis, and to bombard Tripoli into submission.

Fot the next century, British ships were largely protected from the depredations of Barbary corsairs. But once the United States of America broke free from British rule, they lost the protection that went with it. In 1784, Morocco, which had been the first nation to recognise the USA, became the first nation to sieze one of its vessels, the brigantine Betsey. The Spanish government managed to negotiate the release of the hostages, but the repercussions lead to the realisation that the US Revenue-Marine (forerunner to the present-day coastguard) was not sufficient to protect American maritime interests, and to the foundation in 1794 of the US Navy. The navy fought two wars against the Barbary states, the first from 1801-5 and the second in 1815. It was an English Vice-Admiral, Edward Pellew, who eventually subdued them, though. In 1816, he led a fleet of British and Dutch warships in a bombardment of Algiers, which secured the release of some 1200 Christian slaves. For this, he was created the 1st Viscount Exmouth, thus bringing the Wessex connection full-circle.

Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 1

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs

...in Aleppo once
Where a malignant and a turban'd Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took to the throat the circumcised dog
And smote him thus.

Othello, Act 5, Scene 2

Shakespeare's Othello, the Moor of Venice, having abjured his religion, was credited with unswerving loyalty to the state of Venice, with whom he had taken service. The seemingly everlasting conflict between Islam and Christendom did not merely envelop the Mediterranean and Middle East, but soon extended to Western Europe, pirate galleys reaching as far as Iceland. Wessex was certainly not immune from pillaging and plunder. Extensive records, especially from the 17th century, show that authorities often fought a losing battle against the marauders--on one occasion, 50 men, women and children walking along the coast at St Michael's Mount in Cornwall were next heard of in the slave market in Algiers.

The Barbary Pirates who crewed most of the galleys which plagued our shores took their name from the Berbers of the Mahgreb hinterland; but in fact their bases at Tunis, Algiers and Sallee were independent cities, offering for a time a vague alliegance to the Caliphate of Baghdad. Later, these brigands tended to be referred to by the catch-all name of 'Turks'.

Thomas Norton, a Devon merchant captain, was captured by pirates in 1620. He escaped to Sallee where "he (went) to sea on his own account and (was) credited to exceed the Turks in cruelty to his own countrymen".

Sometimes captives were able to gain freedom by overpowering their captors, occasionally because the corsairs with their rowed galleys were unfamiliar with the skills needed to handle captured sailing ships. John Rawlins, captain of a small Plymouth barque, was captured in 1621, sold on to the renegade Ramanda Rais (real name Henry Chandler), and employed as a pilot. Rawlins managed to win over the motley crew of slaves and renegades, and stage a mutiny with a cry of "God, King James, and St George for England". With what must have been enormous courage and leadership, he sailed the ship safely back to Plymouth.

It is difficult for us to conceive that often the same people and places indulged in trade, war and piracy simultaneously, The Christian powers of Genoa, Venice and Catalonia were early in the field. Although both Christians and Muslims encouraged religious fervour for their activities, people frequently changed their religious alliegance in order to save their skins and/or make some money.

On 18th August 1625, the Mayor of Bristol declared that Ilfracombe was threatened by Turkish ships from Lundy Island and there were reports of three pirate ships at large in the Bristol Channel. After an enquiry was held, Captain Harris of HMS Phoenix refuted this alarming information, but a Nicholas Cullen maintained that the Turks had been there a fortnight, adding that "I saw the Turkish ship lying the road off Lundy."

The merchants and shipowners of Exeter, Plymouth, Barnstaple, Dartmouth and other places in a petition to the Lords of the Council, dated September 2 1636, stated that the pirates had become so numerous and terrible in their ships, and so well piloted into the Channel by English and Irish captives, that they dared not send their vessels to see, seamen refused to go, and fishermen refrained from taking fish. A few years later, the number of slaves had greatly increased, as appears by a petition, dated October 3 1640, to His Majesty. stating that at that time, there were no less than 3000 poor English in miserable captivity, undergoing divers and most insufferable labours, such as rowing in galleys, drawing carts, grinding in mills, with divers such unchristian-like works most lamentable to express, and most burdensome to undergo, withal suffering much hunger and many blows on their bare bodies, by which cruelty many, not being able to undergo it, have been forced to turn Mohammedan.

RF Playfair (Smith, Elder 1884)

Queen Elizabeth I was, no doubt, angered by piratical incursions into her realm. She wrote: "Inasmuch at that cost of Devonshyre and Cornwall is by report much hanted by pyrattes and Rovers to cause on or too apt vessells be made redy with all spede iit some ports ther abouts." Her frugality suggested that the necessary expenditure to be obtained from captured men and ships.

The story of the Barbary pirates is endlessly fascinating, but there was a plethora of other disreputable maritime activities going on simultaneously. In particular the privateers, privately owned and manned armed vessels given letters of marque to prey on shipping of hostile foreign powers. Wessex seamen in numbers made a great deal of fairly dubious wealth from signing up for expeditions.

To be continued...