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John Finnemore

The Barbary Corsairs

Ever since the time when men began to "go down to the sea in ships, and have their business in great waters," there can be no doubt that pirates and sea-rovers sailed the deep too, eager to harass their honest brethren of the main, and seize by force the riches stored in a peaceful merchant vessel. Our own Saxon forefathers were feared as the most terrible of pirates and sea-robbers, and men of all nations have sailed under the black flag to harry and plunder all that came in their way and were too weak to resist their attack.

Dotted over the map of the world are coasts and groups of islands famous or notorious for having been the haunts of pirates, corsairs, buccaneers, or rovers, to use some of the names by which these wolves of the sea are called. Some of these haunts were dreaded but for a short time where a nest of pirates was swiftly rooted out by ships of war, some were dreaded for a longer period where the rogues could not be so easily attacked, but no haunt of sea-rovers ever held the nations of Europe in terror for so long as the shores where lay the towns of the Barbary Corsairs.

The Barbary shore is that strip of North African coast which lies south of the Mediterranean Sea. To-day it forms the coastline of the States of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli. In Corsair times its chief ports were Algiers and Tunis, and of these Algiers was the more important. From these ports swarms of Moorish vessels would sally out to attack the shipping of all nations, to seize the cargoes and enslave all on board. Or if no shipping offered, the Moslem Corsairs would land on some Christian shore to burn the villages and smaller towns, sack the houses, and carry off the inhabitants. But it was not often that they were driven to make a raid for want of vessels to attack. Look on the map for their position, and then remember that in the days of their prime all the wealth of the East was poured into Europe by way of Alexandria and Smyrna. Think of the big, clumsy merchant vessels loading at those ports in the far east of the Mediterranean, and then slowly forging their way westwards towards Sicily, Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, France, Spain, or on through the Straits of Gibraltar for the great trading countries of England, Holland, and other lands of northern Europe.


A galleon.

On they come, those great galleons, huge and stately for their day, but slow even in a fair wind, and helplessly becalmed when the breeze falls.

When the shipmaster views Sicily to the north, his brow wears an anxious and uneasy look. His heart will not beat freely again until he has run the gauntlet of the dangers which lie along that threatening strip of coast to the south, until he has passed through the Straits, and the terrors of the Bay of Biscay will be faced with a cheerful mind as compared with the terrors of the sea-wolves of Barbary.

On he goes. He has passed Tunis in safety. He has passed Algiers.

He will soon be within sight of the Straits. But one morning as the grey dawn creeps over the sea, the lookout hails him from the top and reports a vessel lying to the south-east. The shipmaster goes up, and sees a long low vessel lying on the water like a great snake. It has a single mast carrying a lateen sail, but the latter is furled. He does not like the look of it: the craft seems to his fancy too much like an Algerine galley. He orders his crew to make more sail, for, luckily, the wind is fair. But now there is movement aboard the galley. He, too, has been seen. Up goes the great lateen sail and fills, and the galley bears down towards him. Ha! what is that? The galley now throws out on either side a bank of long oars. It is like a great bird spreading its wings, and with the swiftness of a bird she moves. The oars rise and fall, beating the water in perfect order and with great power, the lateen sail swells with the favouring breeze, and the long, slender galley darts down the wind upon the broad-beamed clumsy merchantman, like a falcon swooping upon a lumbering heron.

Still the people on the trader are uncertain. It may be a Christian war-galley coming down to speak with them. Then a sharp-eyed fellow on board catches a glimpse of turbans, and they know the worst at once. The dreaded Moors are upon them; it is a Corsair galley, and they must fly, or fight for their lives and liberty. They crowd on sail, but soon that is seen to be useless; the rovers are coming up under oar and sail with dreadful speed. They cast their guns loose, for in those rough days every merchantman must go armed against the many dangers of the sea. But the decks are littered, and many bags and sacks and barrels, for which no more room could be found in the hold, have been stowed along the gunwales.

The merchant crew strive hard to clear their decks and load their guns, and meanwhile the Corsair galley is sweeping up to them faster and faster. Now she can be clearly seen. At the prow of the vessel is a high platform, and this is packed by a body of desperate ruffians, coal-black Moors, brown-faced Turks in turbans, or renegades in Greek caps, but every man with his arms bared, his musket primed, and his scimitar or pike ready for action. With a final tremendous sweep of the oars the galley is laid alongside the merchant ship and the fighting men pour a volley among the distracted crew, then leap aboard and lay on with pike and scimitar. Their furious onslaught soon sweeps all before them. In a few minutes the vessel is theirs. Those who resist are cut down, those who yield are swiftly bound. No one is slain for mere love of slaying, for every captive will fetch a good price in Algiers. The Corsairs are full of delight, for they find that the ship carries a rich cargo; and now all is theirs, the ship, its splendid freight, and the men who manned it.


Corsairs chasing a galleon.

This is no fancy picture; it is the literal truth. The like of this happened hundreds, ay, thousands of times during the centuries that slipped by while the Barbary coast with its Moslem rovers remained the terror of all Christian shipping. The Corsairs attacked all alike. Their prisons were full of captives of all nations. English, Dutch, Spanish, French, Italians, every speech in Europe could be heard in the mouths of their slaves. Every rank, too, was there. Gentlemen and ladies, travelling abroad for business or pleasure, were often seized on board ships; and these, perhaps with their children, all became captives, and were sold for the benefit of their captors, or were forced to pay heavy ransoms.

Now, you may ask, why did the great countries of Europe allow their people to be treated in this manner? Were the Corsairs so mighty that such powerful nations as England, France, Spain, Holland (at that time very strong on the sea), were all afraid of the pirates and dared not face them? Not at all: not in the least. At any moment these nations could have joined and crushed the Corsairs as easily as a man crushes a wasp with his foot. Of the chief nations any one of them, by putting forth all her strength, could have shattered the Corsair power with ease.


A Barbary galley.

It is the shame of Europe that this was not done until after centuries of bloodshed and plunder. It was simply because the nations of Europe would not combine against them, that the Barbary rovers were allowed to exist. Nay, more, there were great powers who would have been unwilling to see the Corsairs overthrown. They used the pirates as a tool to further their own ends.

Perhaps there was ill-feeling between two countries. It never went as far as open war, but one desired to do harm to the trade of another. Very well. The first secretly stirred up the Corsairs to attack the ships of the second, or to make a raid upon the hostile shore. Or even if a power did not go so far as to incite the Corsairs against an enemy, its rulers heard with pleasure of great raids upon the people whom they did not love: it was all a weakening of their enemy's strength, and thus gain to themselves. So they refused to lift a finger against the pirates whose evil deeds gave them satisfaction. The Corsairs understood this as well as anyone, and took full advantage of this jealousy and ill-feeling among the Christian nations to plunder all and sundry. Again and again the Crescent trampled down the Cross. Well might the Barbary Corsairs be known as the "Scourge of Christendom."