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August 1, 2010

True Barbarians

Henrik Bering on Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean by Adrian Tinniswood


Adrian Tinniswood. Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean. Jonathan Cape. 352 pages.20.

As career officers will tell you, drive, determination, and a willingness to try something new are the key requirements in a competitive world. This lesson has certainly been taken to heart by the Somali fishermen who, armed with Kalashnikovs and rpgs, have made a career switch to piracy. Starting out modestly around 2005, they are no longer content just to use small craft operating from the coast, but now employ mother ships which range as far from their home waters as the Seychelles.

In 2008, they captured a Ukrainian ship, the MV Faina, loaded with tanks and antiaircraft guns, which brought in a $3.2 million ransom. Soon after came the supertanker, the Sirius Star, which netted them $3 million. And one of President Obama’s early actions in office in April 2009 was to order Navy Seals to kill three pirates who were holding hostage the captain of cargo ship Maersk Alabama in one of its lifeboats. Ironically, the ship was carrying relief supplies for Somalia.

In 2009, there were 217 pirate attacks, resulting in 47 captured ships and 867 captured crewmembers. The ransom business amounts to around $100 million a year.

On shore, a stock exchange operates where investors can put up the money for future operations. Backers abroad help designate what ships to attack, assess the value of the cargo, and supply the pirates’ destination and course. The pirates also have access to sophisticated equipment. To check the genuineness of the air-dropped ransom money, they have counting machines of the same type used by Western banks.

As a result of their activities, insurance premiums have shot up. Many shipping companies avoid the Suez Canal and now send their vessels around the Horn of Africa, which adds to fuel costs. Others hire private security firms to go with their ships. A multinational force patrols the Gulf of Aden. But on several occasions, when patrol ships have captured pirates, they have had to release them again because no one wants to prosecute them, as they are likely to be stuck with them, once they have served their time (Somalia is regarded as too dangerous a place to which to repatriate them). This, in the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, “sends the wrong signal.” As a result of American pressure, in the first piracy case to come to trial in Europe, a Dutch court in June sentenced five Somali pirates to five years in jail, which shipping analysts see as unlikely to deter future attacks. Predictably, the pirates have asked for asylum and to have their families sent over upon their release. More sensible efforts to set up regional courts to prosecute captured pirates are ongoing.

As many have pointed out, the long-term solution is on shore. The problem is that the country does not have a responsible government, and it is unlikely to get one anytime soon.

When the historian Adrian Tinniswood was researching a book on an English 17th-century family, he found that one of its members had gone off to become a Barbary Coast pirate; intrigued, he decided to pursue the subject. And to his amazement, he saw history repeating itself: “As I wrote of how a handful of men using small boats, scaling ladders and sheer nerve had managed to hold the world to ransom in the 17th century, I watched on tv as a handful of men using small boats, scaling ladders and sheer nerve were managing to hold the world to ransom in the 21st.”

His vivid Pirates of Barbary is a study of state-sanctioned piracy in the 1600s, a very different phenomenon from the kind of freewheeling, highly individualistic efforts one associates with Caribbean pirates. The economies of the city-states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Sale in Morocco were all built on privateering and slave labor, and all owed allegiance to Istanbul as outposts of the Ottoman Empire.

Thus when a Barbary state had declared war on a European nation, the Sultan in Istanbul would publically make sympathetic noises to foreign diplomats complaining about the pirate infestation in the Mediterranean, while being thoroughly pleased with his pirate proxies waging war on the infidels. But as Tinniswood points out, the Barbary city-states were never a coherent bloc; they often quarreled among themselves.

Initially, the corsairs used galleys, which were fast and easily maneuverable, but the problem of supplying their rowing crews and soldiers, which could total some 184 men, limited their range. But European renegade sailors, such as John Ward, “without any doubt the greatest scoundrel that ever sailed from England,” as a courtier put it, and Danseker the Dutchman, known as the “Divil Captain,” were on hand to supply the expertise needed for a shift to sailing ships.

They could now raid along the British and the Irish Channels — they would even reach as far north as Iceland. Throughout the century, their raids caused havoc in coastal communities, with sailors and fishermen refusing to go to sea. In the Mediterranean, whole stretches of coast in Spain and Italy were deserted. According to Tinniswood, some Sicilians were so scared they leapt into “the affrighting fires perpetually burning” of the Stromboli, rather than allow themselves to be captured.

How does one respond? The arguments in the European state councils echo the ones heard today, and so does the frustration among the men sent out to fight the pirates. The author quotes the complaint of an admiral: “So many banners and colors are promiscuously used at sea, to disguise themselves and entrap others [that it is not possible] to know which ships are piratical or not.” Another complains that “there is scarce a ship, but is both merchant and a pirate, many times in the self same voyage.”

James I, for one, hated the notion of giving in to pirate demands, finding it both morally reprehensible and counterproductive in that it would only encourage net outrages. “By God, I’ll hang the pirates with my own hands,” he fumed. Unfortunately, he had starved his navy of funds, so his concilors recommended a pragmatic course of offering an amnesty for English pirates, which was proclaimed in 1612. For a while, this yielded some positive results, until London trading companies appealed for help against fresh outrages from Barbay corsairs. Negotiations were conducted to dispatch a joint force of English, Dutch, and Spanish ships, but the idea was dropped because of the mutual suspicion between these nations.

Instead, an English force of eighteen rickety ships set off for Algiers under Sir Robert Mansel in 1620 with the demand that 150 captured merchantmen and their crews be returned. His mission was no great success. Hilariously, Tinniswood recounts, the Pasha first pretended not to be able to read the demands, then claimed he could not understand them. Talks going nowhere, Mansel tried to send in fireships, but this proved useless, as the wind shifted. Some of his men courageously rowed into Algiers harbor and set fire to the pirate ships, but the Algerians managed to put out the flames in all but two. With dysentery spreading among his force, Mansel lacked the means for a lengthy blockade. He decided to return to England.

So in James’s reign, one finds both approaches being used, the pragmatic one of issuing pardons and the punitive one. This became the pattern: European powers would regularly pay ransoms and tribute, alternating with punitive expeditions when things became too intolerable.

What was to become the manual on how to deal with pirates appeared in 1618 under the title Discourse on the Beginnings, Practises and Suppression of Pirates. Its author was Henry Mainwaring, himself a reformed pirate, who had turned himself in under James I’s amnesty. As Tinniswood notes, his credentials as an ex-pirate were impeccable, and as a born public relations man he would boost them by telling tall tales of his exploits, as on the occasion when, running out of shot, he had loaded his cannon with pieces of eight and blasted them at the enemy.

In Discourse, Mainwaring lays bare the inner workings of the pirate world — for instance, how some English sailors would happily join their captors but asked for papers saying that they had done so under duress. If caught by their country, they would produce the papers and escape punishment.

He strongly advises against paying ransom, because the knowledge that they will be ransomed will make sailors less inclined to resist capture. Ironically, he also disapproves of pardoning: “Your highness must put on a consistent immutable resolution never to grant a pardon.” Those who joined should know the consequences of getting caught beforehand: The king should “put them all to death, or make slaves of them.” They could profitably be used in improving harbors and coastal forts.

He vividly describes corsair tactics, how at dawn they would lie dead still in the water waiting for their pray; when they spotted a ship on the horizon, they would set sail, ostensibly just a fellow merchantman on the same course. He lists all their favorite safe havens for repairs and re-victualing. And he dispenses some practical advice to merchants, such as mounting a watch while in harbor and not leaving the sails on board, an invitation to mischief. Finally, he recommends the arming of merchantmen and coastal patrols by the navy. The effort earned Mainwaring a knighthood, un-pedagogical proof that you can play both sides of the fence and come out a winner.

Under charles i, the pirate problem became acute. In 1631, an Algerian fleet under command of the Dutchman Jan Janzoon (operating under his new name, Murat Reis) hit the coastal village of Baltimore, in County Cork, Ireland, and abducted 109 inhabitants. Some 5,000 Englishmen were at the time languishing on the Barbary Coast. Merchants worried about the loss of their ships and the wives of abducted sailors kept petitioning Parliament for help. In response, a ships levy was imposed to fund a punitive expedition. Three ships under William Rainburrow successfully blockaded Sale in 1637 and liberated its Christian captives, having played local leaders off against each other. But Algiers, with its impressive fortifications, was a tougher nut to crack.

An ambitious parliamentary plan to end trade with the Ottoman Empire and to hit evil at its center by sending off a fleet of 40 men-of-war to Istanbul came to nothing, as civil war intervened. Historians have argued that anger among merchants over the king’s lack of funding for coastal defenses was a contributing reason to the war. As regards paying ransom, collections were taken in British churches, but the money shrank on the way because of cuts taken by various middlemen, including admiralty officials who arranged the payments. (In Rome, two religious orders handled negotiations with the pirates, though, as Tinniswood notes, they concentrated on Catholic victims.) To make the pleading letters from slaves carry extra conviction, their masters treated them extra harshly before handing them pen and paper.

A number of books by former captives appeared. One was by William Okeley, who was captured in 1639 and who provides a catalog of the savagery surrounding him in Algiers — of lashings; arms and legs broken with sledgehammers; crucifixions; people hanging on meat hooks; amputations after which the victim’s hand is put on a string and tied around his neck. The lucky ones like Okeley would be allowed to run small shops, whereas those unfortunate enough to be selected for the galleys would sit in their own filth, chained to their oar.

After five years of captivity, with the help of some fellow hostages, Okeley ingeniously managed to produce a boat as a kind of assembly kit in the cellar of his tobacconist shop. Thus the keel came in two parts, and the ribs also came in sections. On the agreed night, the men would carry the parts down to the beach and quickly assemble them; they used a canvass skin, waterproofed with tar, to cover the skeleton. They made it safely to Majorca, and Okeley reached England in 1644. Okeley’s book of his ordeal, entitled Eben-ezer, appeared in 1675. Almost half a century later, Daniel Defoe lets Robinson Crusoe, that most mishap-prone of sailors, be captured by “a Turkish rover of Sallee”; Okeley’s story must certainly have been known to Defoe, before switching sources to Alexander Selkirk’s account of being marooned. Defoe advocated a common European response against the pirate menace.

As for the resort to force in the 17th century, Tinniswood demonstrates that the record is mixed. Oliver Cromwell, who knew the value of blunt messages, ordered Admiral Robert Blake into the Mediterranean with a fleet in 1655 to punish the Tunisians; Blake entered the harbor of Porto Farina and destroyed the nine pirate vessels docked there. (Still, the British ended up paying for the release of the 72 captives held by the Tunisians.) The Earl of Sandwich’s attack on Algiers in 1661 and the continued presence of his vice admiral, Sir John Lawson, along the coast secured the British three peace treaties, protecting its commerce for a while.

Other nations fought, too. In 1638, the Venetians attacked a combined Algerian Tunisian fleet in the battle of Valona and sank sixteen galleys, inflicting a severe blow to the credibility of the pirates’ legendary commander, the Italian renegade Ali Bitshnin. To ensure order at the subsequent war council in Algiers, the Pasha had to threaten everyone with instant execution should he remove his thumbs from his girdle. “The contending parties, blaming each other for the late miscarriage, could only vent their spleen by bitter invectives and reflections, scurrilous language, punches with the elbows and as occasion offered, now and then throwing the head in each others’ jaws.” But the Venetian triumph paled somewhat when, after the Sultan Murad IV threatened to slap an embargo on Venetian trade and execute all Venetians in his empire, the Venetians coughed up a compensation of 250,000 sequins.

The French certainly showed the flag. In 1682, the French Admiral Dunesque used ship-mounted mortars or, as a British consul called them, “Allamode tennis balls,” against Algiers to great effect. When his fleet reappeared the following year, the Algerian dey panicked and set free 560 French hostages without demanding ransom. For this act of weakness, he was forced to flee; a new dey, a tougher character, took over and threatened to blow an old priest and a batch of 20 merchants from a cannon in full view of the French fleet. Unmoved, Dunesque began pounding the city, with unfortunate consequences for the priest and the merchants. It took a third French attempt, a two week bombardment, to finally persuade the Algerians to sign a peace treaty with France.

But the pirates were subtle, displaying a sure instinct for detecting weakness. When they entered a treaty with one European power, they continued to prey on the others, as their economies could not afford a general peace. It also worked to their advantage that the Europeans were often at war among themselves and were perfectly happy to see the corsairs prey on the opponent’s shipping. As for the setbacks, a humiliating loss was suffered by the British in 1680. Through marriage, Charles II had acquired Tangiers in 1662, which was deemed an excellent base from which to impose some order on the coast. As Tangiers had no natural harbor, 340,000 pounds had been spent on constructing a pier, which, still incomplete, was 500 yards long, 90 feet wide, and 18 feet high, and regarded by the author as one of the great engineering feats of its time.

The locals, however, would not tolerate infidels on their shore, and the colony came under constant attack, with the Moroccans waging effective siege warfare. By 1680, it was clear that Britain would have to cut its losses. The diarist Samuel Pepys was sent to ensure that all the paperwork was done correctly. One glance was enough to convince him of Tangiers’s vulnerability: “But Lord! How could anybody ever think this place fit to be kept at this charge, that by its being overlooked by so many hills can never be secured against an enemy.” It did not help matters that the main spring supplying the colony now was in enemy hands.

At least it was a very orderly retreat: To deny it to the victors, the pier was destroyed, all its stones chucked back into the bay. Meticulous inventory lists of the contents of the houses in the city were produced. As Tinniswood felicitously notes, among the city’s library books, the copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost was recorded as “lost.”

The book’s focus is on the 17th century, but the author provides a brief overview of later developments, where the American influence makes itself felt. After the War of Independence, Britain no longer protected American merchant ships. John Adams’s policy had been one of paying tribute, but Thomas Jefferson thought this was a bad idea, so when he became president in 1801, he dispatched a naval squadron to Tripoli to blockade the city. The blockade worked fine until one of the ships, the Philadelphia, ran aground and its captain and crew became prisoners. The following year, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur pulled a magnificent stunt by managing to set fire to the Philadelphia, and in 1805, the Marines were sent in to install a new ruler, providing the Marine Hymn with its “shores of Tripoli” reference.

But believing the American resolve had been weakened by the War of 1812, the Algerians rashly declared war on the United States. James Madison sent off Decatur with two squadrons in the summer of 1815. Decatur destroyed a number of Algerian vessels and declared that the tribute payments to the dey would end. The Algerians caved. Decatur got similar results from Tunis and Tripoli.

In post-Napoleonic Europe, the Europeans were also getting their act together, ending the ability of the North Africans to play them off against each other. Piracy was completely stamped out when the French invaded Algeria in 1830, after, as Tinniswood notes, “Hassan the dey of Algiers had hit the French consul across the face with his flywhisk.”

Today, of course, nobody displays much keenness in going into Somalia and cleaning it up, but at least we should punish the pirates we catch. Just letting them go, or letting them off with a slap on the wrist, is ridiculous.


Henrik Bering is a writer and critic.