corsairs and white slaves -- 4/29/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. Muslim pirates (or corsairs) in North Africa, in retaliation for the encroachment of Spanish kings, enslaved at least a million European Christians in Algiers and other port cities. The most famous was Barbarossa:

"Spanish kings, having conquered the Muslim emirate of Granada and brought an end to nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in Spain ... established a string of fortress colonies, or presidios, along the coast from Morocco to Tripolitania and forced local dynasties in Fez (in Morocco), Tlemcen (in Algeria) and Tunis to pay tribute to the Spanish crown.

"The main resistance to Spain's occupation came from local sailors who armed their ships and plundered Spanish vessels for cargoes and captives. In Europe, these corsairs were regarded as a barbarian menace, reviled for selling thousands of Christian sailors into slavery. But they themselves viewed their war as a religious conflict against Christian invaders and were seen by Arab and Berber inhabitants of the coast as local heroes.

Barbarossa Hayreddin (Hizir)

"The most famous of the corsair commanders were two brothers, 'Aruj and Hizir, both known in Europe by the Italian name of Barbarossa. Born on the Ottoman island of Mytilene (now Lesbos), they began their seafaring careers as privateers in the eastern Mediterranean, but shifted their operations to the western Mediterranean where the opportunities for plunder from Spanish shipping were greater. In 1504, they obtained permission from the Beni Hafsid sultan in Tunis to use the nearby port of Halq al-Wadi (Guletta) as a base. Their raids on Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and the Spanish mainland made them widely feared by coastal communities in southern Europe. In 1516, they succeeded in liberating El Djezair (Algiers) from Spanish rule. After consolidating control over the surrounding region and forcing the Beni Ziyad ruler to flee, 'Aruj declared himself the new sultan of Algiers and set out to extend his power to Tlemcen in the west, but was killed there in 1517.

"His place was taken by his younger brother Hizir who inherited the name Barbarossa. Needing the support of a powerful ally against the might of Spain, in 1519 Hizir sent an envoy to the Ottoman court, bearing gifts and a petition from the Algiers population asking for protection in the war against Christian invaders and offering to submit themselves to Ottoman rule. The envoy duly returned home with an Ottoman flag and a detachment of 2,000 janissaries. The arrival of Ottoman forces in the western Mediterranean shifted the balance of power there decisively. ...

"Corsair fleets continued their raids with official approval, making huge fortunes from captured merchandise and from the sale or ransom of captives. Their field of operation widened considerably during the seventeenth century when they began to use square-rigged sailing ships instead of galleys. Their activities formed the backbone of the economy. Corsair loot paid for the wages of government officials, furnished their residences and financed the building of harbour defences, aqueducts and mosques. Christian slaves were used as a ready supply of labour. They worked on construction gangs and as galley slaves, agricultural labourers and quarrymen. Skilled artisans were consigned to shipyards and arsenals and made a significant contribution to maintaining the fighting capacity of corsair fleets. Women and girls were sent to the harems. The only escape for white captives was to organise payment of a ransom or to 'turn Turk' -- convert to Islam.

"The booming port-city of Algiers became the base for a fleet of seventy-five corsair ships and the principal entrepĂ´t for European slaves. Between 1550 and 1730, the white slave population there stood consistently at about 25,000 and sometimes reached double that number. With so much slave labour on hand, Algiers blossomed into one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Contemporary writers remarked on the immaculate state of the streets, the elegant houses, manicured gardens and handsome pavilions. White slave labour helped build the Mole, a large breakwater protecting the harbour, dragging giant blocks of rock weighing twenty tons or more from hills outside the city. Tunis and Tripoli held about 7,500 Christian captives over the same period. The ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli also served as a haven for thousands of European pirates, many of whom 'turned Turk' and who joined in the plunder of Christian shipping with equal enthusiasm, sharing the profits with ruling officials. 'If I met my own father at sea I would rob him and sell him when I was done,' boasted John Ward, an infamous seventeenth-century English pirate based in Tunis.

"The white slave population needed continual replenishment. Some were ransomed; some converted; thousands died from disease and ill-treatment. New arrivals destined for the slave auctions of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli numbered on average about 5,000 a year during the boom years of the trade. Modern historians estimate that in all, between 1530 and 1780, at least a million European captives were enslaved on the Barbary coast."


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


PublicAffairs a Member of the Perseus Books Group


Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


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