Pirates of the Barbary Coast, a Guest Post from Jann Rowland

This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on July 22, 2020. Enjoy! 

Among the most fearsome historic raiders of the seas were the Barbary Pirates, corsairs who operated from ancient times until the early nineteenth century.While their predations included such acts as seizing shipments of goods and wealth, their main purpose was to secure slaves to fund the slave trade, slaves which were sold as far away as China. Though the pirates operated mainly in the western Mediterranean Sea, their activities extended down the west coast of Africa and as far north as Iceland, as they raided villages and carried away slaves for the markets in northern Africa.

The Berbers themselves, from whom the term “Barbary Coast” derives, are an ethnicity indigenous mostly to North Africa, though some live in parts of West Africa. While they had at times been subject to the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary Coast states, including people based in modern day Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco, were largely autonomous in that they chose their own leaders and lived off the booty they took from other powers. The pirates did not seem to care much who they took prisoner as long as it brought them profit—members of every race, creed, or religion were targets for plunder.

It is interesting to note that while most European powers as well as the Ottomans had abandoned the oar-driven vessels of antiquity, the Barbary Pirates continued to employ such vessels, which were often crewed by as many as one hundred fighting men armed with swords and pistols. In many ways, the Barbary ships were the direct descendants of triremes of the ancient world. This led to a distinct advantage for the heavily-armed European navies that sported potent cannons and heavy arms. The Barbary Pirates knew this and their fleets were not built for battle; they were raiders that attacked vulnerable targets and fled at the sight of armed ships of war.

At times, the piracy problem became so great that some states began campaigns to purchase slaves back from the traders. Money was collected at various churches, and at times ships were taxed to add to the fund, which was then used to purchase back slaves. Of course, though this effort was laudable, the numbers of slaves they returned to their homelands through this process was nothing more than a trickle compared with those taken away.

Various expeditions were mounted to attempt to curb the threat, counter-raiding the Barbary Coast states, at times carrying captives away, while at other times destroying facilities in retaliation. A notable such action was the sacking of Bona in 1607 by the Knights of Saint Stephen. Others, such as the Dutch bombardment of Tripoli in 1670 slowed the pirates’ activities for a time. However, it did little to halt the predations of the corsairs and in some ways spurred them on.

The attacks of the pirates reached their peak in the early seventeenth century, though they began to wane late that same century due to the increased naval capacity of those states ravaged by the Barbary Pirates. Some, such as the United States, negotiated treaties with the Barbary States to avoid their ships being targeted, but as a result were forced to pay heavy tributes in exchange. By some estimates, 20% of the United States federal governments’ expenditures in 1800  were in the form of such tributes.

By the nineteenth century, the flow of slaves through raids slowed to a trickle. The United States fought two Barbary wars, the first from 1801 – 1805, the second in 1815, to protect their merchant fleets from the raiders. But it was not until the French conquered Algiers in 1830 that the pirates were defeated and their raiding halted. There are some estimates that during a one hundred year period from the late sixteenth century to the late seventeenth, almost one million slaves were carried into captivity. The total number during their centuries-long existence must have numbered in the millions.

This is just a taste of the history of the Barbary Pirates, for there is much more that could be discussed if we had the time and space to do so. By the nineteenth century and the time of Jane Austen, much of the power of these raiders had been reduced, their effectiveness diluted. That did not stop them entirely, for there are other means of obtaining slaves by the use of men of few morals and an unscrupulous lust for wealth.

Thus, I will leave you with this post. Remember, this is part of a series of posts discussing some of the themes of my upcoming duology, which now has a title! The series name will be called The Bonds of Life, and the first volume The Bonds of Friendship. Thanks to J. W. Garrett for both the suggestion of the title and the original idea! I hope I haven’t painted too dark a picture—there will be a happily ever after. Have no fear of that!


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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