Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 1 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...

2 Replies to “Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 1”

  1. Someone bearing the same name as my grandfather was taken off a boat sailing from Devon to Ireland and was sold in Tunis where there is plaque dedicated to him in the church he built there.

  2. The Wessex Society should focus on getting Saxish (Seaxisc, aka Late West Saxon) as systematized by Aelfric of Eynsham, Aelfric the Grammarian, and campaign for it to be taught across Wessex.
    If the Welsh can have their own language, we should have Saxish taught in our schools

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