Barbary Coast

The Barbary Coast, or
Barbary, was the term
used by Europeans from
the 16th until the 19th
century to refer to the
coastal regions of what
is now Morocco, Algeria,
Tunisia, and Libya. The
name is derived from the
Berber people of north
Africa. In the West, the
name commonly evokes the Barbary pirates and slave traders, based on that coast, who attacked shipping coastal settlements in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic and captured and traded slaves from Europe and sub-Saharan Africa.

"Barbary" was almost never a unified political entity. From the sixteenth century onwards, it was divided into the familiar political entities of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripolitania (Tripoli). Major rulers during the heydays of the barbary states were the Pasha or Dey of Algiers, the Bey of Tunis and the Bey of Tripoli, all nominally subjects of the Ottoman sultan, but de facto independent rulers. Before then it was usually divided between Ifriqiya, Morocco, and a west-central Algerian state centered on Tlemcen or Tiaret, although powerful dynasties such as the Almohads, and briefly the Hafsids, occasionally unified it for short periods. From a European perspective its "capital" or chief city was often considered to be Tripoli, in modern-day Libya, although Algiers, in Algeria, and Tangiers, in Morocco, were also sometimes seen as its "capital" by Europeans of the era.

The first United States military action overseas, executed by the U.S. Marines and Navy, was the storming of Derne, Tripoli, in 1805, in an effort to bolster diplomatic efforts in securing the freedom of American prisoners and putting an end to piracy on the part of the Barbary states. The opening line of the Marine's Hymn refers to this action:

"From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli..."

The Barbary Pirates

The Barbary pirates, also sometimes called Ottoman corsairs, were pirates and privateers that operated from north Africa (the "Barbary coast"). They operated out of Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers, Salé and ports in Morocco, preying on shipping in the western Mediterranean Sea from the time of the Crusades as well as on ships on their way to Asia around Africa until the early 19th century. Their stronghold was along the stretch of northern Africa known as the Barbary Coast (a medieval term for the Maghreb after its Berber inhabitants), although their predation was said to extend throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa's Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic, purportedly as far north as Iceland. As well as preying on shipping, raids were often made on European coastal towns. The pirates were responsible for capturing large numbers of Christian slaves from Europe, who were sold in slave markets in places such as Algeria and Morocco.

According to Robert Davis between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by pirates and sold as slaves between the 16th and 17th century. These slaves were captured mainly from seaside villages in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and from more distant places like France or England, the Netherlands, Ireland and even Iceland and North America. The impact of these attacks were devastating – France, England, and Spain each lost thousands of ships, and long stretches of the Spanish and Italian coasts were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants. Even Americans were not immune. For example, one American slave reported that 130 other American seamen had been enslaved by the Algerians in the Mediterranean and Atlantic just between 1785 and 1793. Isolated cases of piracy have occurred on the Rif coast of Morocco even at the beginning of the 20th century, but the pirate communities which lived by plunder and could live by no other resource, vanished with the French conquest of Algiers in 1830.

The most famous corsairs were the Ottoman Barbarossa (meaning Redbeard) brothers, the nickname of Hızır (Hayreddin) and his older brother Oruç who took control of Algiers in the early 16th century and turned it into the center of Mediterranean piracy and privateering for the next three centuries, as well as establishing the Ottoman Empire presence in North Africa which lasted four centuries. Other famous Ottoman privateer-admirals included Turgut Reis (known as Dragut in the West), Kurtoğlu (known as Curtogoli in the West), Kemal Reis, Salih Reis and Koca Murat Reis.



Although piracy had existed in the region throughout the decline of the Roman Empire, the barbarian invasions, the Muslim conquest and the Middle Ages, piracy became particularly flagrant in the 14th century when the local Berber dynasties were in decadence. The town of Bougie was then the most notorious pirate base.

The organized powers which became known as the Barbary pirates arose in the 16th century, became most powerful in the 17th, declined gradually throughout the 18th and were extinguished about 1830, when the French conquered Algiers.

Several events influenced the growth of the pirates. The conquest of Granada by the Catholic sovereigns of Spain in 1492 drove many Moors into exile. They revenged themselves by piratical attacks on the Spanish coast. They had the help of Muslum adventurers from the Levant, of whom the most successful were Hızır and Oruç, natives of Mitylene. Spain in self-defense began to conquer the coast towns of Oran, Algiers and Tunis. Oruç having fallen in battle with the Spaniards in 1518, his brother Hızır appealed to Selim I, the Ottoman Sultan, who sent his troops. He drove the Spaniards in 1529 from the rocky island in front of Algiers, where they had a fort, and was the founder of the Ottoman power. From about 1518 till the death of Uluch Ali in 1587 Algiers was the main seat of government of the beylerbeys of northern Africa, who ruled over Tripoli, Tunisia and Algeria. From 1587 till 1659, they were ruled by Ottoman pashas, sent from Constantinople to govern for three years; but in the latter year a military revolt in Algiers reduced the pashas to nonentities. From 1659 onwards, these African cities, although nominally forming part of the Ottoman empire, were in fact anarchical military republics which chose their own rulers and lived by plunder.

During the first period (1518-1587) the beylerbeys were admirals of the sultan, commanding great fleets and conducting serious operations of war for political ends. They were slave-hunters and their methods were ferocious. After 1587, plunder became the sole object of their successors—plunder of the native tribes on land and of all who went upon the sea. The maritime side of this long-lived brigandage was conducted by the captains, or reises, who formed a class or even a corporation. Cruisers were fitted out by capitalists and commanded by the reises. Ten percent of the value of the prizes was paid to the treasury of the pasha or his successors, who bore the titles of agha or dey or bey.


Bougie was the chief shipbuilding port and the timber was mainly drawn from the country behind it. Until the 17th century the pirates used galleys, but a Dutch renegade by the name of Simon de Danser taught them the advantage of using sailing ships. In this century, indeed, the main strength of the pirates was supplied by renegades from all parts of Europe. An English gentleman of the distinguished Buckingamshire family of Verney was for a time among them at Algiers. This port was so much the more formidable that the name of Algerine came to be used as synonymous with Barbary pirate, but the same trade was carried on, though with less energy, from Tripoli and Tunis—as also from towns in the empire of Morocco, of which the most notorious was Salé. The introduction of sailing ships gave increased scope to the activity of the pirates. While the galleys, being unfit for the high seas, were confined to the Mediterranean and the coast, the sailing vessels ranged into the Atlantic as far as the Canary Islands or even to Iceland.

Era Of The Pirates

The first half of the 17th century may be described as the flowering time of the Barbary pirates. More than 20,000 captives were said to be imprisoned in Algiers alone. The rich were allowed to redeem themselves, but the poor were condemned to slavery. Their masters would on occasion allow them to secure freedom by professing Islam. A long list might be given of people of good social position, not only Italians or Spaniards, but German or English travellers in the south, who were captives for a time.

In Iceland Murat Reis (Jan Janszoon) is said to have taken 400 prisoners, later raided the nearby island of Vestmannaeyjar. Among those captured in Vestmannaeyjar was Oluf Eigilsson, who was released with a ransom the next year and, upon returning back to Iceland, wrote a detailed book in 1628 about his experience. In June 1631 Murat Reis, with pirates from Algiers and armed troops of the Ottoman Empire, stormed ashore at the little harbour village of Baltimore, County Cork. They captured almost all the villagers and bore them away to a life of slavery in North Africa. The prisoners were destined for a variety of fates -- some would live out their days chained to the oars as galley slaves, while others would spend long years in the scented seclusion of the harem or within the walls of the Sultan's palace. The old city of Algiers, with its narrow streets, intense heat and lively trade, was a melting pot where the villagers would join slaves and freemen of many nationalities. Only two of them ever saw Ireland again. A detailed account of the Sack of Baltimore, County Cork can be found in the book, The Stolen Village Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin.

Although Barbary pirate attacks were more common in south and east Spain, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, Elba, the Italian Peninsula (especially the coasts of Liguria, Toscana, Lazio, Campania, Calabria and Puglia), Sicily and Malta, they also attacked the Atlantic northwest coast of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1617, the African corsairs launched their major attack in the region when they destroyed and sacked Bouzas, Cangas and the churches of Moaña and Darbo.

The chief sufferers were the inhabitants of the coasts of Sicily, Naples and Spain. But all traders belonging to nations which did not pay blackmail in order to secure immunity were liable to be taken at sea. The payment of blackmail, disguised as presents or ransoms, did not always secure safety. The most powerful states in Europe condescended to make payments to them and to tolerate their insults. Religious orders—the Redemptionists and Lazarists — were engaged in working for the redemption of captives and large legacies were left for that purpose in many countries. The continued existence of this African piracy was indeed a disgrace to Europe, for it was due to the jealousies of the powers themselves. France encouraged them during their rivalry with Spain; and when she had no further need of them they were supported against her by Great Britain and Holland. In the 18th century British public men were not ashamed to say that Barbary piracy was a useful check on the competition of the weaker Mediterranean nations in the carrying trade. When Lord Exmouth sailed to coerce Algiers in 1816, he expressed doubts in a private letter whether the suppresion of piracy would be acceptable to the trading community. Every power was, indeed, desirous to secure immunity for itself and more or less ready to compel Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Sale and the next to respect its trade and subjects. In 1655 the British admiral, Robert Blake, was sent to teach them a lesson, and he gave the Tunisians a severe beating. A long series of expeditions was undertaken by the British fleet during the reign of Charles II, sometimes singled-handed, sometimes in combination with the Dutch. In 1682 and 1683, the French bombarded Algiers. On the second occasion the Algerines blew the French consul from a gun during the action. An extensive list of such punitive expeditions could be made out, down to the American operations of 1801-5 and 1815. But in no case was the attack pushed home, and it rarely happened that the aggrieved European state refused in the end to make a money payment in order to secure peace. The frequent wars among them gave the pirates numerous opportunities of breaking their engagements, of which they never failed to take advantage.

Some of them were renegades or Moriscos. Their usual ship was the galley with slaves or prisoners at the oars. Two examples of these renegades are Süleyman Reis "De Veenboer" who became admiral of the Algerian corsair fleet in 1617, and his quartermaster Murat Reis, born Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. Both worked for the notorious corsair Simon the Dancer, who owned a palace. These pirates were all originally Dutch. The Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter unsuccessfully tried to end their piracy.

The United States And The Barbary Wars

In 1783 the USA made peace with and was recognized by Britain, and in 1784 the first American ship was captured by pirates from Morocco. After six months of negotiation, a treaty was signed, $60,000 cash was paid, and trade began. Morocco was the first independent nation to recognize the USA back in 1778.

But Algeria was different. In 1784 two ships (the Maria of Boston and the Dauphin of Philadelphia) were captured, everything sold and their crews enslaved to build port fortifications. Christian slaves were preferred and forced to do degrading work and treated harshly so letters would be written home to prompt the payment of a bigger ransom.

In 1786, Thomas Jefferson, then the ambassador to France, and John Adams, then the ambassador to Britain, met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the ambassador to Britain from Tripoli. The Americans asked Adja why his government was hostile to American ships, even though there had been no provocation. The ambassador's response was reported to the Continental Congress:

That it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman [Muslim] who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise. American ships sailing in the Mediterranean chose to travel close to larger convoys of other European powers who had bribed the pirates. In the early 1800s, President Thomas Jefferson proposed a league of smaller nations to patrol the area, but the USA could not contribute. For the prisoners, Algeria wanted $60,000 dollars, America offered $4,000. Jefferson said a million dollars would buy them off, but Congress would only appropriate $80,000. For eleven years Americans who lived in Algeria lived as slaves to Algerian Moors.

For a while, Portugal was patrolling the Straits of Gibraltar and preventing Barbary Pirates from entering the Atlantic. But they made a cash deal with the pirates, and they were again sailing into the Atlantic and engaging in piracy. By late 1793, a dozen American ships had been captured, goods stripped and everyone enslaved.

Portugal had offered some armed patrols, but American merchants needed an armed American presence to sail near Europe. After some serious debate, the United States Navy was born in March 1794. Six frigates were authorized, and so began the construction of the United States, the Constellation, the Constitution and three other frigates.

This new military presence helped to stiffen American resolve to resist the continuation of tribute payments, leading to the two Barbary Wars along the North African coast, the First Barbary War from 1801 to 1805 and the Second Barbary War in 1815. It was not until 1815 that naval victories ended tribute payments by the U.S., although some European nations continued annual payments until the 1830s.

The United States Marine Corps actions in these wars led to the line, "to the shores of Tripoli" in the opening of the Marine Hymn. Also, in order to reduce the likelihood of being beheaded while boarding enemy ships, Marines wore leather collars. This led to the nickname Leatherneck for U.S. Marines.

After 1815

After the general pacification of 1815, the suppresion of African piracy was universally felt to be a necessity. The insolence of Tunisian squadron which sacked Palma in the island of Sardinia and carried off 158 of its inhabitants, roused widespread indignation. Other influences were at work to bring about their extinction. The United Kingdom had acquired Malta and the Ionian Islands and now had many Mediterranean subjects. She was also engaged in pressing the other European powers to join with her in the suppresion of the slave trade which the Barbary states practised on a large scale and at the expense of Europe. The suppression of the trade was one of the objects of the Congress of Vienna. The United Kingdom was called on to act for Europe, and in 1816 Lord Exmouth was sent to obtain treaties from Tunis and Algiers. His first visit produced diplomatic documents and promises and he sailed for England. While he was negotiating, a number of British subjects had been brutally ill-treated at Bona, without his knowledge. The British government sent him back to secure reparation, and on the 17th of August, in combination with a Dutch squadron under Admiral Van de Capellen, he administered a smashing bombardment to Algiers. The lesson terrified the pirates both of that city and of Tunis into giving up over 3,000 prisoners and making fresh promises. Within a short time, however, Algiers renewed its piracies and slave-taking, though on a smaller scale, and the measures to be taken with it were discussed at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818. In 1824 another British fleet under Admiral Sir Harry Neal had again to bombard Algiers. The great pirate city was not in fact thoroughly tamed till its conquest by France in 1830.

Barbary Pirates In Literature

Barbary pirates appear in a number of famous novels, including Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, père, The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini, The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler, Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, and the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.

Miguel de Cervantes was captive in the bagnio of Algiers, and reflected his experience in some of his books, including Don Quixote. But the most famous of all novels they are featured in is Doctor Doolittle by Hugh Lofting.

Battle between the British frigate. HMS Mary Rose and seven Algerine pirates, 1669 - Click To Enlarge