Pirates of Barbary

The Coast of Barbary extends from the Straits of Gibraltar to Tripoli in the Mediterranean Sea. That means it runs from modern Morocco to Algeria. The name Barbary was derived from Barbarians, but this epithet shouldn’t be applied to the inhabitants of that coast but to the truly barbarian pirates that used the coast as their base. They were for the greater part European.

Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary was published by Jonathan Cape. In it, Adrian Tinniswood draws a compelling and gruesome picture of 400 years back, when things were the same as they are today. History repeats itself, and this book shows that what is considered bad now was bad then. But unlike the Somali pirates of today, who capture and hold to ransom merchant ships and crews, pirates in those days went the more direct way of selling the captured crews into slavery on the slave markets of Tunis and Algiers.

If you like your history blood drenched, full of bad guys, and definitely off the beaten tracks of schoolbooks, then here is the thing to go for. Adrian Tinniswood revels in details, mostly of the gory and hair-raising kind, making the whole book read more like an adventure story than like researched dry facts. But researched facts they are, and the author has done his homework well.

He tells the stories of individuals like Sir Francis Verney who stormed out of a family row to turn pirate. He also turned Muslim. But seemingly Allah was not with him, as he was an appallingly bad pirate, ending impoverished on Sicily. Maybe that is not quite the future you hope for when you sent your son to Oxford.

Sir Henry Mainwaring also graduated at Oxford. He turned pirate after being snubbed for the honour of conveying the British Ambassador to Persia. He was later recalled and pardoned by King James to become a vice-admiral not much later. He wrote a widely read book about piracy from the inside. There is nothing like firsthand knowledge when writing a bestseller.

There was Ward from Kent, who was named the Arch Pirate of Tunis. He had been a privateer (those were the official pirates of the crown as opposed to the unofficial ones working independently) and didn’t relish the new regime when King James outlawed it too. With 30 followers he captured a ship, set off for Tunis, and on the way ‘exchanged’ her for a French vessel full of loot. He was made welcome by the Dey of Tunis, after paying his taxes for the privilege, and went on to become a highly successful businessman mainly dealing in captured European slaves.

His counterpart in Algiers at the time was the Dutch captain Simon Danseker, who was named the Devil Captain of Algiers. Although he had a highly profitable partnership with the Pasha of Algiers, Danseker retired early from the game after a short but fruitful career. He chose Marseille to retire to and therefore was the obvious choice for the French King to ask out on a mission to free French slaves from Tunis. Danseker boldly sailed into Tunis where he had a spirited discussion with the Dey who ended a head shorter.

King James in his infinite wisdom had outlawed privateers, the state sanctioned pirates bringing in huge amounts of money to the treasury looted from French and Spanish ships. To counterbalance the losses, he disbanded large parts of the navy at the same time to save money. This brought an influx of highly trained British sailors to the pirates in Barbary and at the same time weakened the defence of the British Isles. As a consequence, the inhabitants of whole coastal villages disappeared over night, men, women, and children, to resurface in the slave markets of Tunis and Algiers.

In 1816, the British and the Dutch finally declared war upon terror, and a combined fleet descended upon Algiers. They only left after they had reduced it to a pile of smoking rubble.

There are many stories collected in this book, and they are hauntingly similar to what is going on today. But it is also a highly entertaining book for all who like their pirates bold and bloodthirsty.

Further reading
The Battle of Lepanto and Its Influence on English History
Naval Arms Race in The Mediterranean
All at Sea With Nelson