Wars and Piratical Governments: Barbary Corsairs
(With a Comparative Look at
By Marisa Huber
simply to survive has always been the most basic form of
Additionally, the career of a pirate,
with all of its chances, was often very
Barbary corsairs, however, were
further determined by religion.
of the Mediterranean engaged in what they themselves saw as a holy war against
the enemies of their faith.
were engaging in officially sponsored piracy, carrying commissions from their
rulers and viewing themselves as warriors of
Furthermore, many governments
supported or at least condoned piracy committed by their own subjects, seeing it
as a cheap and effective way of advancing trade and
explanation of the origin of the word “Barbary” is that it is a
corruption of the word “Berber” which is derived from a derogatory
ancient Greek word meaning anything non-Greek.
This derogatory term also became the root of the word
is a word that etymologically derives from the Italian word
, meaning chase, therefore a
corsair is “one who gives chase.”
This term has different linguistic and cultural connotations. For example, in
Mediterranean languages corsaro
merely means privateer, or one
who has been commissioned by the state to pursue predatory activities on the
In English, however, corsair is
usually a synonym for pirate,
or one who
commits illegitimate robbery on the sea.
Since the earliest times
Christians have used the name “Barbary” to describe the southern
coast of the Mediterranean, from Egypt to the Atlantic and on beyond
Though piracy was common on the
Mediterranean since ancient times, the Crusades established the pattern for
later piracy in the region.
1519 and 1573 the Ottoman Turks extended their empire over all of North
Thereafter, the Barbary corsairs
operated from the three Turkish North African regencies of Algiers, Tunis, and
Tripoli (roughly equivalent to the modern countries of Algeria, Tunisia, and
The fleets operating from each
port were essentially opportunistic in order to take full advantage of
Mediterranean maritime traffic.
each fleet did have basic territory: corsairs of Algiers cruised between Sicily
and Gibraltar, fleets from Tripoli cruised east of Sicily, and the corsairs
based in Tunis cruised in the central and eastern
Two brothers were largely
responsible for building the ports of the Ottoman regencies into bases for
Aruj and Kheir-ed-din
came from a Greek family that had converted to
Their father, Ya’kub, had
been left on the isle of Lesbos when Sultan Mohammed II conquered it in
The eldest was Aruj, who was
deemed Barbarossa because of his red beard.
He first served in the legitimate Turkish navy before he left to take command of
a privateering vessel.
On his subsequent
voyages, he called at the port of Tunis where he struck a deal with the
In exchange for harbor facilities
and protection from pursuit,
Aruj was to
pay the king one-fifth of everything he
Aruj was a very successful
He began by capturing two of the
pope’s grand galleys and became famous with eight ships under his command
within five years.
In the early 1500’s, the
Moors who had been expelled from Spain were suffering in Algiers from a
Spanish-inflicted blockade and requested Aruj’s
Aruj and his brother, Kheir-ed-din,
thus set out with 6,000 men and sixteen galleot
The two brothers and their fleet
rapidly took control of Algiers, put down a rebellion, and repelled a flotilla
of Spanish ships.
By 1517, Aruj controlled
much of what is now Algeria.
Upon his older brother’s
death in a fight, Kheir-ed-din, which means “defender of the faith,”
took Aruj’s place as a powerful force in
Although his beard was not red
like Aruj’s, he was also known as
Kheir-ed-din was much more
cultured and sophisticated than his brother had been, speaking six languages
Kheir-ed-din was appointed Beglerbeg, or Governor-General, of Algiers by Sultan
Selim of the Ottoman Empire.
Kheir-ed-din had reinforced his hold over Algiers and built it into a very
powerful corsair base, strengthening Ottoman power on the
His fleet was continually increasing
until he had thirty-six of his own galleots perpetually cruising in the
His fighting forces were also
constantly increasing with the addition of some of the 70,000 Moriscos
Kheir-ed-din had rescued from servitude in
Ottoman Empire seized Rhodes and proclaimed complete domination of the eastern
the Sultan promoted
Kheir-ed-din to Capudan Pasha, or High Admiral, of the Ottoman
By the summer of 1538,
Kheir-ed-din commanded over one-hundred and fifty
Government Structure of the Barbary States
The Barbary coast states were
regencies of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice they grew into quite
independent self-governing fiefdoms.
Although the regencies fought for the Ottoman Emperor when occasion demanded,
they enjoyed considerable autonomy and carried out independent diplomatic and
The galleys of the
Barbary states were integrated into the fleet of the Ottoman Empire to begin
with, but by the end of the sixteenth century they were operating
In terms of formal leadership,
the Ottoman Sultan appointed a Pasha (Kheir-ed-din for example) to control the
regency and the ports.
authority was guaranteed by a corps of janissaries – elite fighters of the
Throughout the latter
sixteenth century, however, the balance of power shifted away from the Pasha and
toward a council of janissary officers called the
The Divan appointed a
“Dey” who actually controlled the Barbary
In the late
sixteenth century the Dey was the seemingly absolute monarch, with other top
officials titled as the Haznagi, the Aga, the Hoodge de Cabellos, and the Petit
There was also an Aga de Baston who
would hold a position for two months before retiring with a
Other officers of importance at
that time included: twenty-four Chiah Baffas, or Colonels subordinate to the
Aga; 200 Senior Rais, or Captains; 400 Lieutenants; a Mufti, or High Priest; a
Cadi, or Supreme Judge in ecclesiastical causes; and a Grand Marabout, or chief
of an order of saints or hermits.
In terms of diplomatic
relations, the majority of European maritime nations always had a duplicitous
attitude toward Barbary.
In public they
deplored the corsairs and demanded concerted action to oppose
Privately, however, they conceded
that the corsairs were acting to their commercial advantage by harming the
maritime interests of smaller nations.
one point in time or another, England, Holland and France each individually
negotiated treaties with the Barbary states in order to gain immunity for their
merchant fleets in the Mediterranean.
However, because these treaties progressively whittled away at the livelihood of
the corsairs, the agreements were frequently
In 1662 England made its first
treaty with the corsairs.
diplomat noted that “[i]t is hard to negotiate where the terms are wholly
ex parte. The Barbary courts are indulged in the habits of dictating their own
terms of negotiation.”
negotiation improved, however, when nation after nation appointed consuls to
watch over their interests at Algiers and
Treaties were still very expensive,
though. In 1799 the newly-formed United States of America entered into a treaty
with Algiers for “$50,000 down, $8,000 for secret service, twenty-eight
canon, 10,000 balls, and quantities of powder, cordage and
In order to enforce the
treaties, Mediterranean passes were carried onboard immune European merchant
Such passes were handsome parchment
documents which carried the name, provenance, and description of the ship so
that they could establish their identity when challenged by a
One source indicates that these
passes were nearly always honored by the Muslims, and the system provided
reasonably effective despite such abuses as wholesale
Galleys and Ships
Barbary corsairs utilized a
narrow, sleek galley to come sweeping alongside merchant ships then board for
The oars were located in a single
bank with twenty-four to twenty-eight benches, two oars per bench, and four to
five male slaves per oar (thus a total of 192 to 280
The galley was enclosed at the
stern to provide shelter for a company of fighting janissaries, but the rest of
the vessel was left open to the elements.
A trip on a corsair galley might last from six to eight weeks or less if the
galley was quick to find a prize.
speed was relied upon for success, frequent careening and scraping were
imperative, and the galleys were pulled out of the water about every two
Galley slaves sat naked on the
benches and were chained at the ankle and secured to the vessel, subjected to
constant whipping by the crew.
captain gave the order to row, the officer gave the signal with a whistle, and
that signal was repeated by an under-officer to the slaves so that all fifty
oars would strike the water at once.
“Sometimes the galley slaves row ten, twelve, or even twenty hours at a
stretch, without the slightest rest or break. On these occasions the officer
will go around and put pieces of bread soaked in wine into the mouths of the
wretched rowers to prevent them from
If a slave falls
exhausted upon his oar he is flogged until he is “taken for dead”
and then pitched unceremoniously into the
Sometimes a galley slave may work for
as long as twenty years.
When there were
not enough Christian slaves to row, Arab and Moor slaves were hired at ten
ducats per trip, prize or no prize.
Command of the ship was the
responsibility of the Rais, or Captain.
The Rais was chosen by the state, subject to examination by a council of Senior
His crew was often a mixture
of Muslim sailors, renegades, Greeks, and captured Christians whose great sea
skills spared them from the galley slave’s
Such Christian seamen had freedom
to work the ship but were shackled when attack was
In addition to the crew, all
corsair vessels carried a complement of
These armed fighting men
attracted from the Ottoman military of the Levant (Eastern Mediterranean) by
recruiting officers who easily seduced them into service in Barbary by their
tales of the immense profits to be had in fighting against
The janissaries took no part
in the rowing or sailing and there were usually 100-140 onboard a large
The commander of the janissaries
was the Agha, the superior officer who made decisions about whether or not to
engage another vessel.
janissaries in their flowing robes sat patiently smoking opium or tobacco until
that moment of glory when the khodja, or purser, read out verses from the Koran
in a loud voice as they swarmed over the sides of a prize with spears, muskets
and scimitars and overpowered the opposition in hand-to-hand
Janissaries were eager fighters
because they were not paid if they did not take a
In the first decade of the
seventeenth century the corsairs began to add fighting sailing ships to their
This process was accelerated by
the defection to Barbary of several hundred English and Dutch pirates and
privateers who brought their ships with them after being thrown out of work by
the ending of the Spanish wars.
later triumphed over galleys because sails had no mouths to feed and could carry
many provisions without getting tired as did human
Therefore the corsairs largely
adopted square-rigged sailing ships.
It was in these early decades of
the seventeenth century that the corsairs reached the peak of their
One Venetian observer recorded that
in 1624-25 Algiers had six galleys and a hundred fighting sailing ships; Tunis
had six galleys and fourteen sailing ships; and Tripoli had a small fleet of two
to three sailing ships.
surmised that from 1622 to 1642 over three hundred English ships and around
7,000 English subjects were captured by
This averages out to the capture
of fifteen ships and 350 men (and occasionally women and children) captured per
year from England alone.
sixteenth century most of the corsair galleys belonged to the state and
functioned similarly to the navies of other states, with the important
difference that they were always at war with Christiandom and so set out every
year on their predatory voyages.
seventeenth century, however, the state continued to own most of the galleys but
many of the sailing ships were privately
Ships were acquired and fitted out
The individual was
sometimes the Rais or Captain himself, but more often ownership was had by a
syndicate of local merchants, shipowners, corsairs and officials, and sometimes
quite humble people such as shopkeepers, artisans or anyone else who had some
savings available to invest.
a sailing vessel was very attractive because it was likely to satisfy a
man’s desire for piety and profit at the very same
On the day of
launching a newly fitted ship, the owners all came to the dockyards with
presents of money and clothes to be divided among the slaves who helped with the
With the shout of “Allahu
Akbar” meaning “God if Most Great,” a sheep was then
ceremoniously slaughtered over the bow of the ship as a symbol of the Christian
blood to be shed on its voyages.
Division of Spoils
The corsairs ran a highly
The division of
plunder was well regulated as a commercial operation with a certain portion
going to the state and to port officials, as well as to captains and crew of the
Furthermore, the ransom and
sale of captives was also highly regulated and
Given the nature of
this business, the corsairs were remarkably well-disciplined and were generally
observant of their own set of rules,
those who broke the rules and thus cheated their comrades could expect swift
One well-established rule held
that the captured ship’s equipment and cargo were part of the prize and
had to be accounted for.
possessions of passengers and crew could be pillaged by the corsairs with
An example of this comes from
the narrative of the captured American sailor John
He was sailing from Massachusetts
to Cadiz in 1798 when his vessel was captured by corsairs from
From the ship the crew
observed another ship in the distance flying an English
As this ship bore down upon the
American vessel, a single man onboard in a “Christian habit” hailed
the American ship in English.
Immediately thereafter, however, several “Moors” appeared and jumped
from the corsair ship, which was flying the false colors of England, onto the
immediate massacre and broke open all trunks and chests and plundered all
bedding, clothing, books, charts, quandrants and every moveable article except
the cargo or furniture.
then proceeded to strip all the clothes off the backs of the sailors and
passengers, leaving them only in shirts and
All captives were then taken
onboard the corsair ship and questioned by the Rais, who introduced himself as
Rais Hudga Mohamet Salamia of Algiers.
In order to avoid an “attempt to rise up” the captives were then
distributed onboard other corsair vessels that had not taken prizes, and were
transported back to Algiers.
Once the slaves, booty, and
ships themselves were taken back to the corsairs’ home ports and sold the
profits were carefully divided.
law reserved a fixed portion of the goods seized “for God,” thus
usually one-seventh or one-eighth of the profits went to the
There were also payments made
for the upkeep of the port and for the support of officials who played a part in
the administration of the system.
remained was divided equally between the ships’ owners (often a consortium
of investors) and the crew.
seamen who had distinguished themselves during the attack got a bonus, and the
remainder was divided in proportion to
The Rais (Captain) would
usually receive about twelve times more than a sailor, and a janissary could
expect about half a sailor’s
A scrivener saw to the accuracy
and honesty of the division process.
Estimates vary greatly but one
source suggests that Algiers alone held 20,000 Christian captives in 1621
another source puts the figures at 25,000 male and 2,000 female slaves in the
Much of the value of the slaves
lay in their social status. An English nobleman was a very worthwhile prize
because his family could be relied upon to redeem him with the payment of a
A servant or laborer,
however, had far lesser value.
penniless Christian slaves had little hope of release unless they were fortunate
enough to be bought out of slavery by a European religious redemptionist
Such redemption was very
expensive with English captives being ransomed for $1200 each in
Frequently, when attack by
Barbary corsairs was imminent, noblemen would quickly switch clothing with their
The corsairs revealed this
concealment of identity, however, by inspecting the hands of all
A nobleman’s smooth
hands and a servant’s callous ones always made one’s social status
Following capture, slaves were
first brought to the Dey’s palace where he selected the very best for
himself (figures suggest that he took one in eight captives) and the remaining
slaves were taken to the market to be
There the dilaleen, or
auctioneers, walked the slaves up and down the street, calling out the quality
and profession of each and specifying the last price offered until no higher
this particular sale was only preliminary and after it occurred the slave was
taken back to the Dey’s palace.
There the Dey was entitled to buy any slave at the highest price originally
There was then a second auction of
the slaves that the Dey elected not to buy and the prices generally rose higher
than the high bids from the street
The difference in price between
the winning bids at the first and second auctions went into the public purse,
and the lower bid was then divided as profit as discussed
Unsold slaves were taken to the
bagnios, or slave prisons.
remained only in the bagnios at night, going out early each morning to work as
galley slaves, laborers on public projects, domestic servants or
If a slave neglected to be
present at nightly roll call, however, punishment was regularly 150-200
bastinadoes (beating on the soles of the
Slaves earned a small amount of
money for their work and were permitted to rest on the Muslim Sabbath and daily
for three hours before sunset.
enterprising slaves even borrowed money and set up bars in the bagnios, and a
very few even eventually earned enough money to buy their own
Nonetheless, “still they
are slaves, always hated on account of their religion; incessantly overburdened
One rare example of
prestige, however, was James Leander Cathcart who was captured in the lat 1800s
and eventually arose to the highest position a Christian slave could hold
– chief Christian secretary to the Algerian
In addition to ransom, a slave
could quickly gain his freedom by converting to Islam, or what was referred to
as “turning Turk.”
Christian captives who converted were either seeking a way out of punishing
labor and a life of servitude and/or they had been under relentless pressure to
“renegades” these European Christians who “turned Turk”
were enabled to enjoy the full benefits of a career of plunder in the Muslim
world, and were treated virtually as equals by other
Therefore such converts were
enabled full Islamic privileges such as the ability to marry and gain
Good questions have been raised
as to why a Christian captive would not just convert to Islam in order to gain
freedom and then immediately flee back to
It seems that there are two
valid explanations for why this did not seem to occur with enough frequency to
be recorded. First, Christian captives were often very poor back in Europe to
begin with, and may even have lived a higher standard of life as a slave then
they would be living back home.
Therefore, the lure of a life of leisure and wealth as a renegade corsair living
on the lush Mediterranean coast was very appealing
A second reason that conversion
and escape did not seem to occur was related to European society’s
absolute disdain of Muslims.
narratives have suggested that when news got out in a village or town that one
of their members had been captured and subsequently “turned Turk,”
that individual was for all purposes disowned and
Renegades and the Diversity of the Barbary States
During the late sixteenth
century up to two-thirds of the Barbary coast galleys were operated by renegade
These Western European
renegades seemed to have gotten away with some appalling behavior, “[t]hey
carry swords at their side, they run drunk through the town... they sleep with
the wives of the Moors... every kind of debauchery and unchecked license is
regimes tolerated these “snakes in their African Eden” because they
brought back valuable prizes and shared the booty with their
Furthermore, such renegade men
were vital in the transfer of new maritime skills to the corsairs, and were
therefore tolerated within the normally sober atmosphere of the Muslim
Renegades were usually either
Christian captives who had converted to Islam, or they came voluntarily from
Europe to share in the wealth and corsair
Others, however, had been
captured as children when corsairs raided villages along the coasts of Corsica,
Sardinia and the Italian and Dalmatian
From the captives taken during
these raids, the bolder and more handsome boys were often picked out by the Rais
and thereafter groomed to become future Rais
The Barbary states were very
diverse. In addition to European renegades, society consisted of people from
many different national backgrounds.
Allocation of governmental power reflected this
In Agliers for example, at
the top were the Turks of the Ottoman Empire and as such they held all the top
government positions of distinction.
The Cologlies, those born to a Moorish mother and a Turkish father, were next to
the Turks in power.
Third were the
Arabs who were known in society as having descended from the disciples of
Mohammed who had formerly subdued
Fourth were the Moors, or
Morescos, who had been driven out of
Finally the rest of the
population consisted of everyone else including the renegades, Levantines from
the Eastern Mediterranean, Jews and Christian
With such a diverse population,
a number of languages were expectedly
The people of Algiers were
noted to speak a compound of Arabic, Moresco and the remains of an ancient
inhabitants of all denominations seemed to understand what was referred to as
the “Lingua Franca.”
was a kind of dialect that was not the proper language of any one country yet
was understood by all as a sort of universal Mediterranean
All public business and
official records, however, were transacted and kept in
Societal diversity was also
reflected in the manner in which people dressed. Men in Algiers were described
in the late 1700’s as wearing large turbans with their heads closely
shaved but having beards.
they wore long-sleeved shirts, jackets and vests, always taking care to wear the
shortest garment on the outside.
person was permitted to wear green except the Sherif, one who is said to descend
In contrast to these
Muslim men, Jews were obliged to dress entirely in black to distinguish their
Rules and Punishment
The most common punishment for
slaves was the bastinado.
was described by former captive William
He wrote that a slave is thrown on
his back with his feet and ankles tied together and the soles of his feet are
raised until they are horizontal.
a Turk sits on the slave while two other men, each with hard and heavy bamboo or
a date tree branch of about three feet in length, “with all their strength
and fury apply the bruising cudgel” to the bottoms of the
For slaves, the
bastinado was most likely the lightest possible punishment. It was often
threatened or applied immediately upon capture in an effort of the corsairs to
locate any hidden valuables on the ship.
Additionally, one captive noted that “I have known a slave to receive
one-hundred bastinadoes for being found with three board nails,” the slave
having taken them from a work site.
crimes a Christian captive would be burned or roasted alive or impaled on a
If a slave murdered another
slave, he would be immediately beheaded.
For the murder of a Muslim however the punishment was much
The slave was cast off from the
city walls and became caught upon a series of iron hooks that were fastened to
the wall about halfway down.
hooks caught the slave by any part of the body that struck them and sometimes
the slaves hung in this manner in agony for several days before they actually
For being found
with a Muslim woman, the slave was
The woman was put into a sack
and carried about a mile out to sea and thrown overboard with rocks in order to
For mere suspicion that a
slave had been with a Muslim woman, he was castrated and the woman was
Finally, for attempting to
escape, punishment varied and may have included bastinado, beheading, or being
nailed to the gallows by one hand and the opposite foot, thus being left hanging
One very interesting and unique
feature of the legal systems of the Barbary states was the use of the Marabout
Mosque and the palace chain to completely avoid punishment for offense. These
locations/devices serve as practical “get out of jail free” cards,
or rather as “never go to jail in the first place”
Marabout Mosques are particular mosques where a marabout or hermit
(both regarded similarly to Christian saints) has been
According to the law derived
from Islamic principles, these Marabout Mosques were an asylum for persons of
almost any religion having committed a
Therefore, when a slave
committed any crime (except murder, speaking ill of Islam, or striking a Turk)
if he could get into the Marabout Mosque before being captured, no punishment
would be inflicted upon him except perhaps the use of an additional chain on his
A Muslim was completely pardoned
no matter what his crime, even if capital, if he rushed into the Marabout Mosque
before being taken into custody.
soon as he entered the mosque his presence was immediately reported to the
Mufti, the keeper of the mosque, who then immediately reported to the
Upon this report the Dey would
send a string
of beads to the Mufti and the
criminal could then exit the mosque.
If, however, the criminal left the Marabout Mosque before the Mufti received the
beads, then the criminal was liable for the same punishment as he was before he
entered the mosque.
In addition to the Marabout
Mosque, another safe haven for a criminal was the palace
At the gates of the Dey’s
palace there was a large chain fastened to the top of the gate and locked down
at the lower end.
Anyone who had
committed an offense and could get a hold of this chain before being taken into
custody was thereafter immune from punishment to the same effect as one entering
a marabout Mosque.
If a slave had been
cheated by any Turk, Cologlie, Moor, Arab, renegade, or Jew, he could take hold
of the chain and state that he wanted
Then one of the principal
officers of the Dey’s corps of guards would approach the slave and asks
the particulars of his being wronged.
If the officer believed the chain-clenching slave, then the officer would seek
justice against whoever had wronged the
But should the slave be found to
have given a wrong account, then the slave was immediately
If the slave had
complained against a Jew and the Jew was found guilty, then the Jew was
bastinadoed and he must make reparations to the wronged
As mentioned above, rules and
punishments varied for the non-slave populations of the Barbary states.
Religion and ethnic background were two main distinguishing factors. Another
difference centers on whether or not an individual or group lived in the country
or in within the city.
People in the country lived in tents and traveled
from one place to another as “they want to pasture or as any other
accidental circumstance may happen,” as observed by one former
Even though these people
roamed, the Dey still demanded a tribute from them which was procured by
appointed Beys and carried back to
The Dey usually informed the
specific Bey what sum the Bey must pay to the Dey in the ensuing
The Bey thereafter went out into
the country with a large number of cavalry and demanded payment from any person
If they did not pay
immediately, the Bey would take from them what he pleased and if they resisted
or even intimated dissatisfaction with his proceedings, the Bey was alleged to
have cut off their heads and then send them to the
Because of their power and riches,
Beys did not usually remain in office for more than two to three years before
the Dey found something against them and had them executed with all of their
property brought to the city and deposited into the
lived in the country or in the city also determined the rules and customs
revolving around marriage.
When a young
man in the country would marry, he would drive a number of cattle to the tent
where the parents of his mistress lived.
The bride would then be set on horseback and led to the tent where the young man
lived amidst the shouts of a crowd of other young people who had been invited to
the nuptial feast.
When she arrived at
her groom’s tent she was given a mixture of milk and honey to drink and a
song was sung.
She then received a
stick from her husband that she thrust into the ground and held with her right
had, reciting “As this stick is fastened in the ground so am I bound in
duty to my husband as nothing can remove it but violence so nought but death,
shall force me from his love.”
She then drove his flock to water and back again to show her willingness to
perform any duty he may assign her.
Subsequent to the marriage, the wife was veiled and never stirred from the tent
for “the space of a whole moon” and no one was permitted to see her
but her parents during this time.
When the couple to be married
lived within Algiers, however, the marriage ritual was
The groom never saw his
bride before the marriage but accepted her upon the description of her
When the match was agreed upon
and the man had paid the father for the daughter, he sent his wife-to-be a
present of fruits and sweetmeats, and entertained her relatives with a feast and
The groom was
then conducted into the presence of his wife by four veiled
He then left and went to his own
house where the bride was then delivered to him on
After she was safely
delivered to her husband, the females who were invited to the nuptial feast
assembled themselves and walked through the streets pronouncing the marriage by
shouting together as loud as they could and in shrill
Islamic men in Algiers were
permitted to have four wives, all taken in this
Barbary corsairs had Christian counterparts based on the island of Malta who
were sponsored by the Christian Order of the Knights Hospitalers of St. John and
attacked the ships and crews of Muslim nations.
One difference between the Maltese and
Barbary corsairs was that the Knights of Malta themselves had a legitimate navy
that attacked Muslim shipping, but did not operate for a
This navy was subsidized by
lands bequeathed to the Knights by generations of the pious all over
Profits were made, however, and
shared, by the Christian corsairs that were licensed and regulated by the
These corsairs served as a
second line of assault on the Muslim populations of the
The Maltese corsair fleet
reached its peak in the 1660’s with thirty sailing ships in addition to
The fleet employed
about 4,000 men and utilized another 3,000 slaves, thus constituting roughly
one-fifth of the entire Maltese adult
History of the Knights Hospitalers of St. John
The Knights Hospitalers of St.
John were originally formed in Jerusalem in order to aid Christian soldiers and
sick pilgrims traveling to the holy
In 1291 Muslim forces took Acre,
the last Crusader stronghold in the holy land, and the Hospitalers retreated
first to Cyprus and then eventually to the island of Rhodes where they settled
for over two-hundred years.
In 1522 the
Ottoman Empire expanded and the Hospitalers were evicted once
Eventually the Holy Roman Emperor
and King of Spain, Charles V, granted the Hospitalers the island of Malta, where
they became known as the “Knights of
Rules and Tribunals
In addition to building up a
powerful naval presence on Malta, the Knights also encouraged and systematically
organized the island’s corsairs.
A small Christian corsair fleet had predated the Knight’s arrival, having
originally been licensed by Sicily to raid Turkish
In 1530, however, these
corsairs fell under the jurisdiction of the Knights, and therefore became
subject to the Knight’s
Regulations were enforced by a
commission called the “Tribunale degli
The tribunal was
established in 1605 by the Grand Master of the Knights in order to better
control and regulate the booming corsair
The tribunal required corsairs
to fly the flag of the Order and they were only permitted to attack Muslim
Furthermore the corsairs had
to respect any safe-conduct passes that were issued to Muslim ships by any
The tribunal also set out the
procedures to be followed if any of the corsairs broke the
Procedures were also established
covering methods and geographic areas of licensing and rights of various
claimants to a share of booty.
lawsuits included matters of wrongful capture, particularly of Greeks and Jews,
disputes about the distribution of prizes, lack of enterprise by captains and
embezzlement by crews.
party could bring a case in specially convened Maltese courts with the Vatican
as the final court of appeal.
proceedings regularly occurred when the Maltese corsairs failed to resist the
urge to raid the occasional Christian
For example, Venetian merchants
are recorded as having won compensation in the Maltese courts, though sometimes
this litigation could last for years.
By seizing some of the Knights’ estates in Venetian territory, the
Venetians were especially effective in persuading Knights of Malta to rein in
their ambitious corsairs.
in turn required all corsairs setting sail to deposit a cash surety with the
If a legal action was brought
against the corsair ship and it was found to be at fault, this surety was used
to satisfy the judgment.
In addition to
rules established and enforced by the tribunal, the Knights of Malta organized
and commercialized the Christian corsairs with a system of
These licenses were issued
by the Grand Master of the Order and were based on geographic region of patrol
and on length of voyage.
were licensed to concentrate their efforts either on the Barbary coast or on the
Levant (Eastern Mediterranean), though there were various exclusion zones based
on reprisals being made on pilgrims in
The most lucrative of these
licensed areas was on the eastern end of the Mediterranean where shipping routes
connected Constantinople and Egypt.
Ottoman merchant ships generally traveled in convoy, thus making them difficult
Therefore corsair attacks in
this region tended to be more successful on smaller ships traveling alone around
the important islands in the region including Rhodes, Crete and
The licenses to Barbary usually
were for short voyages of a few weeks or months, while voyages to the Levant
were licensed for periods of up to five
Galleys and Tactics
In Malta’s shipyards the
Knights built and repaired remarkable ships and
These galleys were very
similar to those of the Barbary corsairs but they depended on more gunnery and
were thus better armed and more heavily
Like the Barbary galleys,
these were rowed principally by slaves.
Most were Muslim but a few seats on the benches were taken by Christians serving
sentences for crimes committed in Italian
There were also men known
as “buonavoglie,” which means “free-willer” but has the
connotation of “rascal.”
These oarsmen were nominally free debt-slaves who received treatment similar to
the other slaves but with a few extra privileges – they could wear
mustaches and were chained by only one shackle rather than
Knights themselves often
captained the corsair galleys and the larger ones usually contained a fighting
complement of up to thirty Knights and a large contingent of paid mercenary
soldiers (equivalents to the Barbary janissaries), in addition to a crew of
sailors and the galley slaves.
Maltese galleys usually closed in on a victim and attempted to shoot down the
rigging, then they would come alongside to overtake the prize using small arms
fire and using their height advantage to drop primitive grenades onto the decks
of their adversaries before boarding them and engaging in hand-hand
The Knights claimed that they
had the procedural right of “Visita” as a continuation of the war
against the infidel.
when the Maltese corsair galley would hail a ship and come alongside to question
the crew about their destination, ownership of cargo, and the nationality of the
vessel, crew and passengers.
was any suggestion at all that the ship was carrying Turkish goods or
passengers, the corsairs would board and carry out an
This caused friction
between the Maltese and other maritime nations because the corsairs would
frequently ransack ships and cause damage and
This threat of delay was used as
a bargaining chip by the Maltese corsairs who could extract a bribe from the
ship’s captain in exchange for waiving the visita
Division of Spoils
corsair vessels carried a purser who kept a ledger recording the value of all
seizures and profits made from the sale of
At the end of a cruise and
subsequent slave sale, the purser’s books were used to determine the
profit that had accrued so that various parties who had a stake in the voyage
could claim their due.
As in Barbary,
the state had the first claim and the Grand Master took one-tenth of all
Next a cut went to the
“Cinque Lanie” which was made up of mostly officials who had
responsibilities associated with the
Next, the Captain claimed about
eleven percent of the profit.
the remainder was divided equally into three. One-third was distributed, often
unevenly, to the crew.
two-thirds went to those who had financed the building, fitting out and supply
of the ship.
Such financing was
obtained from bondholders who would earn back their initial investment plus
As in Barbary, bondholders
came from all social classes.
was also obtained from equity holders and businessmen who recovered from the
profits according to their initial stake in the
The Captain was responsible
for supplementing the pay of senior officers out of his own share, but the
Captain was also entitled to any loose money found on the
Additionally, tradesmen such as
the galley’s cook were entitled to keep equipment taken from the prize
that was relevant to their craft.
As in Barbary, slaves were
treated very poorly and stripped of their clothing and flogged in order to
induce confession of hiding places of
Muslim captives were taken
to back to Malta where they were then sold at the Christian world’s second
largest slave market.
The captives were
auctioned off to work for the Knights or for private individuals and a few were
sold on the international market, for example as oarsmen for Venetian
There were three main large
slave prisons surrounding the Grand Harbour on
Like Barbary-held Christian
slaves, they were permitted to run businesses as an attempt to raise enough
money to buy their freedom.
hair, kept bars, and sold goods from
When the slaves were outside of
the prisons during the day their status was made evident by their Arab-style
clothing (they were not permitted to wear Christian clothing), their cropped
hair, and the iron ring on their legs.
The similarity between conditions of captive slaves in Malta and Barbary is
explained as a reprisal system in that if conditions worsened for one group, the
captors of the other were quick to exact
Both Barbary and Maltese
corsairs were well-regulated and integrated into the legal systems of their
respective states. Their activities gave rise to generally efficient systems of
both civil and criminal rule-making and enforcement. Additionally, the corsair
activities gave rise to extensive commercial networks involving the sale and
ransoming of slaves. This led to further development of the civil legal system.
Although corsair activities came to a general halt in the 1800’s,
the corsair legal systems are fascinating in that they lasted for so many
centuries and in that they developed around such seemingly illegal activities.
It is also especially interesting to compare the Barbary and Maltese corsairs as
mirror systems with relatively few differences.
on the High Seas From the Caribbean to the South China Sea 8
(David Cordingly ed.,
Lane-Poole, The Barbary Corsairs 12
note 1, at
Peter Earle, The
Pirate Wars 39 (2004).
note 1, at 78.
note 4, at 39.
note 1, at 15 (piracy as defined by a 1696 British court).
Louis B. Wright
and Julia H. Macleod, The First Americans in North Africa: William Eaton’s
Struggle for a Vigorous Policy Against the Barbary Pirates,
note 4, at 39. Corsairs also operated out of Salle on the Atlantic coast of
However, Morocco was not under Turkish control, thus is not considered in this
Wright and Macleod,
note 15, at 5.
note 1, at 85.
note 2, at 31.
note 2, at 35.
(some sources use the terms “Dey” and “Bey”
interchangeably, but other sources suggest that the “Dey” is in a
higher position of authority than a “Bey.”
A Journal of the
Captivity and Sufferings of John Foss
African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity
Narratives 87 (Paul Baepler ed.,
African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives
3 (Paul Baepler ed., 1999).
William Ray, Horrors
of Slavery (1808)
African Masters: An Anthology of American Barbary Captivity Narratives
195 (Paul Baepler ed., 1999).