Barbary Pirates, The Terrors of the North African Coast


This was no coincidence. The spark that lit the flame was the Crusading era, which began in 1095 and did not end until 1303. At this time, Christians and Muslims violently contested possession of the Holy Land. Ultimately, the Muslims were victorious, but this was not the end of the matter.

Deadly Enemies

A ferocious, no-holds-barred hostility, still apparent today, burned on and turned extremist adherents of the two faiths into deadly enemies. Long after the close of the Crusades, the battle was still being waged in another context – the sea – by Arab and Berber pirates.

The Berbers gave their name to the the Mediterranean shorelines of Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco which became known as the Barbary Coast. Muslim ships and coasts were immune from the depredations of the Barbary pirates. However, it was always open season on Christians and others who did not adhere to the Islamic religion and were therefore regarded as “infidels.”

The principle behind this strategy was expressed long afterwards, in 1786, by Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the ambassador to Britain from Tripoli in presentday Libya.

Kill the Infidels

Any “infidels,” the ambassador explained, were subject to attack, even without provocation because it was written in the Koran that “all nations who should not have acknowledged (the) authority {of Islam} were sinners, (and) it was (the Muslims’) right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners.”

A further boost to piracy came after 1492, when the forces of Queen Isabella of Castile finally ejected the Muslim Moors, who had invaded and conquered Iberia (Spain and Portugal) as long ago at 711 AD. Their rule came to an end with the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) which retrieved the last Muslim-held territory, Granada in southern Spain.

The End of Moorish Spain and Holy War

The Moorish rulers of Granada were forced to leave and went into a bitter exile. Forever afterwards, El-Andalus, the Muslim name for Spain and Portugal was regarded as “stolen” territory that had to be retrieved. Today, this remains an objective among some Islamic extremists who, like the Chinese, believe that whatever territory was theirs in the past remains their property.

Burning with the urge for revenge, Muslims reacted to the Reconquista by embarking on a series of “Jihad” or holy war expeditions against Christian ships and communities. Their most coveted prizes were white European women who could be sold to brothels.

Muslim women did not necessarily avoid this fate. In practice, Barbary pirates could be far less discriminating than the anti-infidel principal might suggest. The pirates were willing to seize and enslave anyone, Muslim or otherwise, particularly after their ships and crews were able to sail outside the confines of the Mediterranean and, like the Vikings of Scandinavia, range far beyond their home territory.

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules

However, operations overseas did not come about on an appreciable scale until the 17th century, when the pirates adopted sailing ships that eclipsed their original vessels, the galleys. Galleys had been in use since ancient times, but they were suitable only for waterways like the tideless, relatively calm, Mediterranean Sea.

Galleys were mainly driven by men heaving on oars, although they also carried masts and sails to keep the ships out of trouble should they become becalmed or run into the danger of running aground or of spiking themselves on rocky coasts.

Superlative sailors, like the early Carthaginians, the Ancient Greeks or, much later, the Vikings, ventured beyond the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar) into the Atlantic ocean beyond.

Nevertheless, this was a perilous enterprise for galleys which were unsuited to the mighty ocean rollers and dangerous Atlantic currents which made their oarsmen vulnerable to the mighty power of the high seas.

Sailing Ships

By contrast, sailing ships made it possible to handle ocean conditions much more successfully. They also had the added bonus of carrying broadside guns which could be used to shatter an enemy’s timbers and render their ships helpless.

Once the Barbary pirates began to utilize sailing vessels, their range of operations was greatly increased. This was evident from the range of different destinations the Pirates were able to reach and the millions of slaves they captured. Few coastal areas of Europe remained immune from the razzias, as the slaving voyages were known.

Slaves were seized from the shores of Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and England and the pirates apparently ventured far beyond Europe to Rekjavik in Iceland, which lay at the edge of the Arctic circle.

Slaves from all over Europe

Thousands of French, English and Spanish ships were lost to the Barbary pirates and large areas along the coasts they raided were abandoned for safer homes inland. The pirate raids were so devastating that nearly four centuries passed before the vulnerable coasts populated were populated once again.

As for the pirates’ slaving activities, it has been reckoned that up to 1.5 million Christians from Europe alone were seized for sale in the slave markets of Morocco and Algeria before the pirates finally lost control of the Barbary Coast in the early 19th century.