Post 19: Pirates of Barbary

This book by Adrian Tinniswood (published by Vintage in 2010) tells the story of Barbary piracy, drawing heavily from a huge variety of sources. The book does generally follow a historical narrative from the sixteenth century up to the early nineteenth, but it does so as a series of snippets, or vignettes if I’m being fancy, on different topics, events or characters. There is a consistently light, entertaining tone to the book but at times it can also come across as a patchwork of material, loosely connected together. That’s not to say that the book wanders off topic too much – the title promises Barbary pirates and that’s pretty much what you get!

The Legality of Piracy

CoverThe book starts with a set of Englishmen about to hang for their crimes at Wapping in London (near some nice pubs, if you check out my post from a few days ago). These men had been Barbary pirates. In order to understand the significance of this, we then are led into a brief summary of the political (and religious) situation in europe, particularly where the Ottoman Empire was involved. This is key, and crops up again and again in the book, because this piracy was not simply some thuggish robbery on the high seas (though it could be that); it also formed part of wars between states and a vital economic force in certain regions and cities.

There were a number of important settlements on the Barbary Coast (Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli) that owed allegiance to the Ottoman Empire, although they still had a large degree of autonomy. These states primarily made a living through ‘privateering’ – attacking the enemies of the Ottoman Empire to take ships, goods and slaves. This was authorized by their governments with ‘letters of marque’ and was essentially a cheaper, easier way for countries to fight (though it wasn’t without its disadvantages, these privateers could be hard to control and would often be a more attractive option for experienced seamen, to the detriment of the official navy). But this wasn’t just an Islamic thing, in the early years at least, the English, Dutch and other naval powers were just as ruthless with this and the Barbary States were the victims as often as they were the aggressors.

In the end, the Christian states and the Ottomans would take a different path with regard to piracy – the Christians reining in or outlawing the privateers, while the Barbary states would continue freely. Although that’s not to say they stopped raiding enemy shipping or that the taking of slaves became a one way process!

Turning Turk

After this introduction, the focus in this early period is on captains and seamen from elsewhere, who went to the Barbary States to seek their fortune. Sometimes because they were captured and switching sides seemed like a good idea; other times because privateering work in their home country had dried up; other times purely out of a sense of adventure. I was reminded somewhat of John Hawkwood, the famous english mercenary of the 14th century and star of one of my previous book reviews, who spent a large portion of his life fighting in the myriad of wars in Italy but kept a special place in his heart for England. Many of these pirates were similar and we find all sorts of negotiations and machinations between the government and them, as they target a pardon, a return to their homes and a quiet retirement.

“I will die a poor labourer in mine own country, if I may, rather than be the richest pirate in the world” Richard Bishop

Others were less homesick. We are told of Captain John Ward, who was serving in the royal navy in 1603, when he heard word of a wealthy catholic civilian planning to escape to France with his possessions. Ward and thirty or so of his companions deserted and hijacked this ship – it turned out to be empty of treasure, but undeterred they managed to use it to board a larger French merchant ship off the Scilly Isles. Ward seems to have been a driven, charismatic character with his talent convincing his colleagues to first elect him as captain, and then stick with him despite the initial failure. His had to use all this persuasion on his arrival in Tunis, with the English being particularly unwelcome at that time due to the recent defection of an English captain from Algiers to Tuscany.

The local ruler Uthman Bey welcomed him, for a 20% cut of his takings obviously, and he went on to use that port as a base for a successful and infamous career as a pirate. The high point perhaps being the taking of the massive Venetian merchantman Reniera e Soderina. After this he was probably too notorious to ever really be accepted back home, and particularly not once he converted to Islam and became Yusuf Reis! He retired to a life of luxury in Tunis, with an Italian wife, where he funded other ventures and taught naval gunnery. This conversion was not uncommon and would become a recurring theme throughout the book, with the apostates rarely seeming to regret the change.

The Devil Captain

Another figure of note is the Dutchman Simon Danseker. He was known for being courteous and gentlemanly, in comparison to the coarse, thuggish Ward. There’s a lovely tales of him boarding a merchant ship that had already been robbed by Ward and, feeling sympathetic to their plight, he simply let them go and even gave a little bit of money to some of the sailors so they’d be able to spend it back on shore. Still a young man, he then captured a Spanish treasure galleon and sailed the vast fortune to France where he negotiated his pardon and a retirement on the south coast. He didn’t get to enjoy it for that long though – possibly keen to support his new country, or possibly just bored, he took to defending Marseille from the Turkish raids. This led to his downfall and after sailing into their port, in his flamboyant fashion, to negotiate a peace, he was seized and executed.

Others sought retirements elsewhere, Christian free ports or lawless regions existed in the likes of Nice, Villefranche, Livorno and even Baltimore in the South West of Ireland. Peter Easton, known as Il Corsaro Inglese, agreed numerous pardons with England before going on to plunder Newfoundland regardless. This was probably a fitting continuation of past form, initially a privateer in the wars between England and Spain, he became a pirate simply because he didn’t bother to stop once the countries agreed peace. In the end, he retired to Villefranche with a fortune and bought a title. It was the tale of a man who pretty much did what he wanted and had no allegiance or care for any nation.

Peter Eston, Il Corsaro Inglese – agree pardons, carry on – retire, live happily in Villefranch (free ports – Nice, VF, Livorno)

A Small Monument of Great Mercy

After this, the focus of the book shifts slightly. The Barbary States now had trained crews, they had learned techniques from the English and Dutch experts and were able to modify their ships to outperform others (in a Firefly/Reavers-esque, burning out the ship by running it to the limit kind of way). Having finally dealt with their own pirates through amnesties and pardons, the English now start looking to deal with the Barbary states through either force or diplomacy. We’ll come to more of the military side later, but there are several chapters on the infamous slave trade and the attempts to ransom or identify these poor captives. This was a tricky subject with a lot of fraught, unstable discussions – and it wasn’t just a one way process, the Christian powers had taken Muslim slaves or prisoners too.

We get a semi-fictionalized chapter on the sack of Baltimore (the Irish one). Initially a wild, lawless pirate town, this had been settled and rebuilt as a new, protestant, planter town. It was however relatively defenseless. The coast of Ireland had many coves and inlets for pirates to shelter, and many smugglers willing to deal with them, but the British could only spare a few poorly coordinated ships to watch over this area. On 20th June 1631 the Dutch convert Murad Rais struck and took 102 slaves in probably the most infamous raid of its kind.

“The freedom that I found in servitude, the liberty I enjoyed in my bonds was so great that it took off much of the edge of my desire to obtain and almost blunted it from any vigorous attempt after liberty.” William Okeley

We also get the story of William Okeley‘s slavery and daring escape (later written down in his autobiography Ebenezer: A Small Monument of Great Mercy/. Okeley is a fascinatingly resilient character and tells us a lot about life as a slave in Algiers. There was indeed brutality – harsh punishment, violence, despair but in some ways it wasn’t a bad life, he had a kind master and was allowed to run his own business from which he was paid a cut of the proceeds. A kind master he may have been but he was a master all the same, and Okeley and a number of other slaves came up with a plan for escape. Building their own boat in secret, they managed to slip away in the night and, after drifting at sea, for some time to make it to Majorca. From there they reached the safety and comfort of England.

“Fetters of gold do not lose their nature, they are fetters still.” William Okeley

We are also told tales of the king’s representatives in the states, their struggles to adapt, to free their compatriots, and to earn their keep amid unreliable contacts both home and abroad. All of these sections have nice detail, mixed with a real skill for a smooth narrative and developed characters. Not to mention a bit of humour and insight as well. Though perhaps sometimes a bit too smooth, and it is difficult to really tell the timescale or importance of some issues – for example, after the first few chapters English converts to piracy are not specifically mentioned but they still crop up here and there. One is left slightly unclear whether they become less common or whether the author simply has no more to say about them.


On the military side of things, we have various attempts by various nations to send fleets after the Barbary pirates – whether to enforce a general peace or to battle on some specific issue. These were rarely successful. The technology and organization to successfully deal with these ports simply wasn’t there, though that will change in the future. The attempts culminate in the disastrous British occupation of Tangier.

Formerly a Portuguese colony, it was given to Charles II as part of a dowry for the wife. In some ways the location was great, near the straits of Gibraltar to control shipping and act as a supply base for British operations in the Mediterranean. Unfortunately there was no safe natural harbour and the nearby state of Morocco had their eye on the city. Over the next two decades the British would spend vast amounts of money trying to build an artificial harbour or mole and a series of defensive forts. This did not go well and the situation slowly became unsustainable – with the English eventually deciding to evacuate the town and blow up all their hard construction work to prevent it falling into the hands of others.

To The Shores of Tripoli

For the last chapter, we suddenly jump forward by 130 years to 1800. Trends that had previous been identified had continued – the technological and organizational skills of the Christian states had massively overtaken the Barbary states and they were becoming increasingly hard pressed. Settled treaties had begun to be made, in which various nations would pay protection money to the states in exchange for their captives and non-aggression. Into this settled situation falls the new United States of America, after a number of treaties and slightly inconclusive wars, things were escalated. They settled down again eventually but really tolled the end for the Barbary states. Their last great captain Hamidou Rais (one in the gallant and chivalrous mode of Danseker) died in battle with the American naval hero Stephen Decatur in 1815.

Other factors too sealed their fate. The British had been cautiously neutral towards their raiding, particularly while they were squaring up to the US, but in 1807 they banned slavery and made it their moral duty to stamp out the slave trade internationally. As many US commentators of the time pointed out (somewhat obliviously) this made their neutrality towards ‘white slavery’ in the Barbary coast terribly inconsistent. They took the point and bombarded Algiers, battering them into an agreement against slavery. Colonialism too played its part. With the Ottomans falling apart by the mid-nineteenth century the French, Spanish and Italy found excuses to invade and settle in North Africa.


This is a very well written book, giving a fast paced detailed account of many different aspects. The smooth, entertaining style acts to hold their varied elements together (with a few small exceptions – I didn’t think the Baltimore chapter fit particularly well). The use of sources to give the reader first hand accounts is really very good. Unfortunately it’s sometimes a bit too ‘first hand’, and I feel like I wasn’t really getting a good picture of the wider situation. The military aspect was also slightly lacking, we never really go into too much detail on how exactly these battles and raids were conducted, but the diplomacy side definitely made up for that and we get very detailed accounts of the negotiations and intrigue. All in all, it’s an entertaining book – not something to give an particularly academic view, but something to introduce the reader to colourful characters, exotic locations and all manner of daring do.

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