The Mediterranean Corsairs 

The  island of Malta today seems like the most benevolent of places. It’s hard to believe that three centuries ago, this whole Mediterranean  region bristled with slave-ships, fighting a bitter battle for god and gold. 


This conflict pitched the forces of Christendom against the might of Islam. Nominally a holy war, a continuation of the Crusades on the high seas, it was equally a pirate battle that sometimes approached the proportions of a small naval war. 


On the Muslim side were the Barbary Corsairs. These were slave galleys of the Barbary states — semi-autonomous city states on the North African coast of the Mediterranean. The Muslim fiefdoms there had been building and equipping rowed galleys to raid Mediterranean shipping from the early sixteenth century onwards. Captured Christians worked the oars in a punishing ritual that has been used in the succeeding centuries as a talisman of Muslim cruelty.


But the story from the other side of the religious divide is less well known. Christian forces based in Malta also sponsored piracy in actions that precisely mirrored those of the Barbary Corsairs. Furthermore, the organisation that equipped and organised these counter offensives is still with us. Though changed beyond all recognition, the Knights Hospitaler of St John of Jerusalem is ironically now a charity organisation.

Piracy in the Mediterranean in earlier times


Piracy in the Mediterranean is an ancient calling. When tiny merchant ships made their first halting voyages on the sea’s relatively calm waters, pirates were never far behind. When trade in the Mediterranean expanded, so too did piracy. As early as the seventh century bc Phoenician ships suffered regular attacks by pirates. 


The Greek and Roman civilisations also suffered the unwanted attentions of pirates. A Greek myth describes how Dionysus turned himself into a lion when captured by pirates. The terrified brigands jumped overboard, and the wine god transformed them to jumping dolphins in the water. (In the corresponding Roman myth it is Bacchus who exacted his poetic revenge.)

It was the Crusades, though, that established the pattern for later piracy in the region, and provided both Islamic and Christian raiders with a justification for their illicit trade. 


The traditional school-primer history of the Crusades is simplistic and one-sided, but it provides some useful pointers in exploring the piracy that followed. Crudely expressed, the purpose of these military pilgrimages was to recapture the Holy Land from “the infidel” who had controlled the region since the 7th century. Launched in 1096 by the Western Church with the Pope at its head, the Crusades also had the secondary purpose of buttressing the beleaguered Byzantine (Eastern) Church based in Constantinople (now Istanbul), which was threatened by nomadic Turkish warlords.


The Pope’s plea mobilised not only the properly armed and equipped knights at whom it had been aimed, but also a ragged army of poor pilgrims. Many died on route to the Holy Land; those who survived were massacred on arrival. However, the army of knights that followed captured the coastal region of the Holy Land and established Crusader kingdoms there. This dramatic and decisive success proved hard to repeat in subsequent campaigns. The balance of power in the region see-sawed between Christian and Muslim forces, and after two centuries of bloody warfare, the real achievements of the Crusades must have seemed slim to their Christian advocates. 


One tangible advance, though, was that the Crusades secured the Mediterranean for European (i.e. Christian) shipping. The Crusading states needed to keep open the supply routes to the Holy Land, so they vigorously defended not only the military vessels, but also the cargo ships supplying their outposts at the eastern end of the sea. The Italians were the main beneficiaries: the cities of Genoa, Pisa and Venice developed a domination of the Mediterranean carrying trade that they were to cling to for centuries. 


Equally important from the point of view of later piracy in the Mediterranean was the establishment of military orders. These “fighting knights” initially aimed to nurse sick pilgrims and Christian warriors, and to defend the roads that they followed on their path to the Holy Land. The Knights Hospitaler of St John formed in Jerusalem, taking their name from the Hospital dedicated to the saint in the holy city. The Pope gave the group his approval in 1113. A French knight started another brotherhood, the Knights Templar, six years later. The wealth and influence of the Hospitalers and the Templars grew rapidly, and they soon acquired vast estates in Europe and in the Crusader states. These increasingly corrupt military-religious orders were among the most fanatical of the Crusaders, and were to continue the Holy War long after the Crusades themselves ended. 


While they lasted, though, the Crusades fueled the fires of religious fanaticism throughout the Islamic and Christian worlds. Eight centuries on, it’s difficult to unravel fact from propaganda, but it’s clear that both sides committed bestial atrocities and indiscriminate massacres. The Hospitalers and Templars arguably had particular reason to hate “The Turks” after the rout of the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin in 1187. There victorious forces led by Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin) spared the lives of most Christian captives but singled out captured Knights of both orders, and butchered them in cold blood. This legacy of hatred provided the Hospitalers with their justification for a continuing Holy War at sea.

The Ottoman Empire

The Hospitaler’s wrath would eventually be directed against the Ottoman empire. However, at the time of the last crusade in 1270, the Ottomans were relatively unimportant warlords based in a small state in northwest Turkey. Ottoman expansion began slowly, but rapidly accelerated. In 1453, they captured Constantinople; early in the following century the ruthless Sultan Selim the Grim (1470-1520) conquered Persia, Syria and Egypt. By the time of his death, the Islamic world was united under Ottoman rule. His successor, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), consolidated Selim’s gains, turning the Ottoman state into a great world power. 


Retreat of the Hospitalers

When the fortunes of the Crusaders declined, those of the Hospitalers naturally fell too. With the defeat of Acre (the last Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land) by Moslem forces in 1291, the Hospitalers retreated to Cyprus. 18 years later the Knights captured Rhodes from the Byzantine Empire, which had long before dissolved the always-fragile Crusading alliance with Rome. The island was to remain the home of the order for more than 200 years. 


Ottoman expansion evicted the Hospitalers from Rhodes in 1522, and they retreated to Crete, bruised but not quite humiliated. Charles V (1500-58), King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, granted the Hospitalers the rocky island of Malta as a base, and with it the fort at Tripoli. They clung to Tripoli for nearly thirty years, but on its (more or less inevitable) loss to the Ottomans, the Hospitalers consolidated their forces in Malta, and became known as the Knights of Malta.


With this turbulent history perhaps it is not surprising that racism and religious fanaticism run through early accounts of the war against the pirates of the Barbary coast like letters through a stick of rock. As late as 1980, a popular writer on piracy felt able to describe “the corsair menace to sea trade” that “remained a scourge until 1700, when their activities were curtailed by an English admiral…” without once mentioning that Maltese corsairs continued a corresponding business from their island base.


The Barbary corsairs

Since the earliest times Christians had used the name “Barbary” to describe the southern coast of the Mediterranean, from Egypt to the Atlantic, and on beyond Gibraltar. The origins of the name are unclear: the usual explanation is that it is a corruption “Berber”, which itself derives from a derogatory ancient Greek word for anything non-Greek. This in its turn was the root of our word barbarian.


The Phoenicians and Greeks had established colonies in Barbary, and the Romans conquered and subdued the region. The Byzantine Empire briefly controlled the coast in the 6th century, but by 711 most of the North African shoreline was under Arab rule, and the Muslim world additionally took control of the Spanish peninsula soon after. Muslim domination of the North African coast was to continued virtually unchallenged until the early 16th century. However, Christian power grew in Spain, until by 1248 only Granada at the extreme south remained in Muslim hands. The expulsion in 1492 of the Moorish rulers of Granada by Ferdinand V (1452-1516) marked an intensification of the religious feud between the Christian and Moslem worlds that faced each other across the great sea. 


Attacks by Spanish and Portuguese privateers in the early years of the 16th century gave the Europeans a brief and uncertain foothold on the North African shore. The most important conquests were Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. 


Spanish forces took the first of these towns in 1510, and fortified the island of Peñon that overlooked the harbour area. After a revolt six years later, the Algerians appointed an Arab leader, and laid siege to Peñon. The stalemate continued for an amazing 13 years, but the Spanish were finally expelled in 1529.


Tuscan galleys

Tuscan Galleys fight in a vicious battle with Barbary Corsairs.

The capture of Tunis followed in 1535, and the Spanish controlled it for more than three decades. They again took the port in 1573, before finally relinquishing it the following year. 

Tripoli was a Norman possession from the 12th century to 1510 when the Spanish took the town. With the fall of Tripoli to Ottoman forces in 1551, the major ports of the Barbary coast were in Muslim hands. Prior to their capture by the Spanish, the towns had been used to supply and shelter pirate ships. On their return to Muslim control, corsair activity expanded and became more institutionalised. 


Corsair leaders

Two brothers were largely responsible for building the ports into corsair bases. Maritime adventurers Aruj (c 1474-1518) and Kheir-ed-din (“Defender of the Faith”) came from a Greek family that had converted to Islam. The older brother, Aruj, was the first to rise to prominence. He began his maritime career working on the cargo ship of his father, a potter. As a young man he served in the Turkish navy, but eventually took command of a privateering vessel. By 1504 he had begun to cruise on the Barbary Coast. He called at Tunis, and struck a deal with the King there. In exchange for harbor facilities, the pirate would pay over a fifth of everything he captured. The arrangement quickly bore fruit: commanding a small galleot off the coast of Elba, Aruj captured two of the Pope’s grand galleys. It was an extraordinary achievement, and it earned Aruj fame in throughout Barbary. Within five years he had eight ships under his command. News of the corsair’s skills also spread among European sailors, who dubbed him Barbarossa on account of his red beard.


Aruj’s career was not without setbacks: he lost an arm while trying to seize Bougie from the Spanish in 1514, and while he was recovering, his brother Kheir-ed-din took control. Further setbacks followed, but the fortunes of the pair were transformed when they responded to the call to wrest Algiers from Spanish hands. Aruj and his followers rapidly took control of the town, put down a rebellion, and repelled a flotilla of Spanish ships. By 1517, Aruj controlled most of what is now Algeria, with the exception of Peñon and a handful of isolated Spanish garrisons. 


Kheir-ed-din and Dragut

Aruj’s reign over Algiers ended with his death in a land battle against Spanish forces and their local supporters. His place was taken by his younger brother Kheir-ed-din. Like Aruj, Kheir-ed-din was a superb seamen, but not from the salty-sea-dog mould. He was cultured and sophisticated, and fluent in six languages. 


There is no reliable record of how Kheir-ed-din consolidated his control over central Barbary, but some accounts suggest that his first step on succeeding his brother was to pay homage to the Sultan, and his reward was to be made Governor General of Algiers, backed by a force of 2000 Janissaries — the elite fighters of the Ottoman army.


By 1525 Kheir-ed-din had reinforced his hold over Algiers, had begun building it into a powerful corsair base, and strengthening Ottoman power on the waves. His formidable successor, Dragut, recovered Tripoli from the Knights of St John.


However, by the end of the 16th century, the role of the Barbary states was starting to change. As regencies, the Barbary ports had enjoyed a certain degree of independence, and this continued after their recapture from the Spanish. The coastal towns were in principle outposts of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice they grew into self-governing fiefdoms. In the early years of Ottoman rule a Pasha, nominated by the Sultan, controlled the ports. However, his authority was guaranteed by a corp of Janissaries. 


The Janissaries enjoyed relatively high status in the Barbary states. When the corp was established in the 14th century, it recruited exclusively from Christian slaves who had apostatised (converted to Islam). The Janissaries were highly trained, subject to severe discipline, and were forbidden to marry. To ensure their loyalty, they were salaried — whereas the bulk of the Turkish army was recruited under a system of feudal obligation. The Janissaries had a fearsome reputation, both in the Islamic world, and among the European fighters who had to face them. Far from Constantinople, they were mercifully free of some of the more rigid rules that governed their lives elsewhere in the Ottoman empire.


Throughout the later sixteenth century the balance of power shifted away from the Pasha, and towards a council of Janissary officers called the Divan. The Divan appointed a Bey or Dey, and it was these figures who actually controlled the Barbary kingdoms. The system bordered on the anarchic, and corruption, assassination and political intrigue were commonplace. But despite their sometimes chaotic political life, the Barbary states blossomed into military powers with the capability to prey on Christian shipping over wide areas of the Mediterranean. 


The corsair ships

The weapon of the Barbary states was the slave galley. This narrow, sleek ship was the traditional fighting machine of the Mediterranean. To the casual eye it was little different from the trireme of ancient Greece. However, closer inspection would reveal many differences; for example, the oars of the Barbary galley were arranged in a single bank, rather than the superimposed rows of the Greek craft. And though the 16th century North African slave ship had a pointed prow, this was above the waterline; the ship’s ancestor from the Aegean had a ram at water level, to hole and sink its victims.


The Barbary slave ship was enclosed at the stern to provide shelter for the company of Janissaries who formed the ship’s fighting force. But the rest of the vessel was open to the elements forward to the bows. There was fixed a canon, but on a low deck area, rather than in a raised forecastle that is such a characteristic element of northern European “round ships” of the period. Further swivel guns were mounted amidships. 


A single lateen (triangular) sail propelled the galley when there was enough wind, but it was the oarsmen who provided the power in a chase, when sailing into the wind, or on a calm day.


Vessel Benches Slaves/oar
Galley 24-48 4-5
Galleot 17-23 2-3
Brigantine 6-16 1
Frigate 6-12 1
Fellucca 3-5 1

Galleys were the largest of the Barbary vessels: this chart, adapted from Earle, 1970, summarizes the nomenclature and key features of smaller vessels.


From the early 17th century the Barbary corsairs began to supplement their galley fleets with the round ships that by then dominated Atlantic warfare ; this development is discussed below.


Galley slaves

The slaves sat naked on benches, four or five of them pulling on each oar. They were encouraged by the crew of the vessel, who would not hesitate to apply the whip to the shoulders of any slave who was not (quite literally) pulling his weight. This description, written by a Frenchman who had felt the lash upon his own back, vividly evokes the privations that slaves endured:

They are chained six to a bench; these are four foot wide covered with sacking stuffed with wool, over which are laid sheepskins … When the captain gives the order to row, the officer gives the signal with a silver whistle which hangs on a cord around his neck; the signal is repeated by the under-officers, and very soon all fifty oars strike the water as one … 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 round and put pieces of bread soaked in wine into the mouths of the wretched rowers, to prevent them from fainting … if one of the slaves falls exhausted over his oar (which is quite a common occurrence) he is flogged until he appears to be dead, and is thrown overboard without ceremony.”


It is not easy to judge exactly how fast the slaves could drive the ship forward. Five miles in the first hour of rowing seems a reasonable guess, but some naval historians have suggested speeds as high as 12 knots (14 mph/22 kph) in short bursts.


The crew

Command of the ship was the responsibility of the raïs or captain. He controlled all aspects of sailing and navigation. His crew was often a mixture of captured Christian and Muslim sailors — European “sea artists” were highly valued and their skills secured them a more comfortable position than the slave’s bench. 


The Christian seamen needed freedom to work the ship, and — unlike the slaves — they were shackled only when attack was imminent. By contrast the slaves, who greatly outnumbered the Turks on board, had almost nothing to lose, and mutiny was prevented only by their constant confinement in chains. 


The ships’ fighters

In addition to the oarsmen and crew, every Barbary galley carried a complement of Janissaries — between 100 and 140 on a large vessel. The Janissaries played no part in sailing the ship, and were there simply to fight. This they evidently did with considerable courage and tenacity, attacking with musket, bow and arrow, and scimitar.


Though the Agha — the commander of the Janissaries — had no say over the sailing of the ship he was the superior officer, and made decisions about whether or not to engage a vessel. In this respect the Agha was in overall charge of the cruise.


A quick sum will reveal that a Barbary galley carried an enormous number of people, and with so many mouths to feed, cruises were necessarily short. A typical trip might last six to eight weeks; perhaps less if the galley was quick to find a prize. There was another compelling reason to return to port at regular intervals. The Barbary galleys relied on speed for their success, and this was impossible without frequent careening. The galley would be beached, and laboriously scraped to remove the coating of barnacles and weed that adhered below the water-line. A coating of wax helped it to slip smoothly through the water. Careening took about ten days, and had to be repeated every two months or so.


Where they hunted

Until the late 16th century, the galleys of the Barbary states were more or less integrated into the fleet of the Ottoman Empire, but by the end of the century Barbary vessels were operating independently. Ships of the three states had their own hunting grounds, but necessarily there was some overlap. Tripoli galleys cruised between Sicily and Gibraltar — and beyond, out into the Atlantic. Those from Tripoli harassed shipping to the east of Sicily. Tunis, roughly mid-way between the other two Barbary states, launched vessels in the central and eastern Mediterranean.


The practices of all three fleets were essentially opportunistic. If their quarry made seasonal voyages — perhaps transporting a new harvest — then they would change their routes and timings to take fullest advantage of the increase in maritime traffic. 


The chase and capture

The tactics of the Barbary pirates naturally varied with time and circumstances, but in the era of the galley there seems to have been a fairly consistent approach to pursuit and capture. As the pirates closed in on their victims, they would fire the canon at the bows, but more by way of a warning than for the destructive power of the ball. Firing the smaller swivel guns amidships might usefully clear the decks of opponents, but gunnery generally was not a priority.


The Janissaries did the real work of attacking and boarding the ship. The attacking ship’s captain would aim to ram the victim, so that the fighters could swarm aboard from the raised prow. 


Not many vessels put up a fight, and indeed many were so lightly armed that they were incapable of doing so. The crews of those ships that carried sufficient cannon to fight back, or enough sail to flee were often so frightened that they surrendered anyway. To encourage submission, the janissaries made themselves as terrifying as possible, shouting, screaming and hurling abuse, and hammering on the sides of the approaching vessel.

A few ships resisted, or scuppered their vessels rather than surrender. The Dutch in particular had a reputation for going out with a bang, setting fire to the ship’s powder magazine when it was clear that further resistance was pointless.


The fate of those they captured

Once aboard, the pirates set about releasing any Muslim slaves, and put Christian crew in their places at the oars. The vessel was plundered for anything of value in the cargo or in the personal possessions of those on board, but the main object of the attack was to take slaves, which were as good as money on return to Barbary. 


Furthermore, 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 considerable ransom. A servant or labourer, on the other hand, had a far lesser value. 


The anticipation of imminent capture occasionally produced some tragi-comic effects on board Christian ships. Wealthy passengers did their utmost to conceal valuable jewellery: some went so far as to swallow heavy gold coins or precious stones; others threw their valuables overboard rather than surrender them to “The Turk”. Aristocrats tried to reduce the inevitable ransom demand by swapping clothes with their servants.


The corsairs had answers to most of these ruses. The threat of basinado alone was often enough to extract the location of hidden treasures. Some pirate crews administered a powerful emetic mixture to outwit the swallowers. The crafty change of clothes was perhaps the simplest of tricks to see through — merely by examining the hands of captives, the corsairs could quickly sort out the smooth-skinned noblemen from the callused, rough labourers.


The treatment of women has been widely misrepresented in the past, especially by those campaigning for the suppression of piracy. Far from suffering a fate worse than death, women seem generally to have been treated reasonably well. One account, written in 1719, describes the consideration with which a corsair treated his female captives. A group of women on board the ship seized by the pirate captain is advised to remain in their own vessel, rather than entering the galley that took them in tow:

“That she was at her own option, whether she would remove into the cruiser, or continue in the tartan, [A small ship with a large lateen sail and a foresail] where indeed she might be much quieter and more at liberty than on board his ship, wherein were nearly two hundred, between Turks and Moors, among whom there was no very safe trusting either herself or the young females she had with her” 


Other sources suggest that Janissaries or crew who molested women passengers were themselves severely punished.


If the ship itself was suitable for use in the Barbary fleet, the corsairs would put a crew on board and sail it home. 


Subterfuge and false colours

The speed advantage of the corsair ships was so great that capture (or at least engagement) was almost inevitable once the prey was in sight. 


However the corsairs were not above subterfuge if change of wind came to the aid of their target. Flying false colors was an age-old pirate trick, and it was as effective in the Mediterranean as it would later prove to be on the Spanish Main. 17th century traveler Le Sieur du Chastelet des Boys described his relief when six Dutch ships appeared, just as a Barbary corsair was closing in for the kill. However, his relief turned to horror when 

… the Dutch flags disappeared and the masts and poop were simultaneously shaded by flags of taffeta of all colors, enriched and embroidered with stars, crescents, suns, crossed swords and other devices … 

The similarities between Christian and Muslim ships were so great that the true identity of the attackers often did not become clear until the ship was alongside. To make the disguise complete, the Janissaries hid from view; perhaps renegade Christian members of the crew (see below) stood at the deck rail with a welcoming wave. Since the innocent victims expected turbaned Turks, they were easily taken in.


Attacks on land

Not all of the Barbary corsairs raids took place at sea. The pirates frequently landed on the coasts of their adversaries, carrying off livestock and valuables, and taking captives for auction in the slave markets of the Barbary states. The larger raids, by small fleets of galleys, were sometimes highly organised, with help from renegade locals who knew the area. Religious motives also played a part: some corsairs groups desecrated churches in the course of their raids.


How the booty was divided

Those taken captive by the Barbary corsairs often commented on how disciplined the crews and Janissaries were about the division of the spoils. There were well-established rules about who was entitled to what: the ship’s equipment and cargo, for example, were part of the prize, and had to be accounted for. But the possessions of passengers and crew could be pillaged with impunity. Those who broke the rules and cheated their comrades could expect swift retribution. 


Islamic law reserved a portion of the goods seized “for God”. In practice this share — usually 1/7 or 1/8 — went to the state as the embodiment of God on earth. Port fees and payments to officials took a share, and the expenses of the ship had to be paid. What remained was divided equally between the ship’s owners — often a consortium of investors — and the crew. Those seamen who had distinguished themselves during the engagement in which the vessel was seized got a bonus, and the remainder of the crew’s share was divided in proportion to seniority. The captain received 12 times more than a sailor, and a janissary could expect half the sailor’s share. 


The conditions of slaves on land

Those whom the corsairs captured eventually found their way back to the Barbary states, facing at worst indefinite slavery, or at best, a long wait for a ransom to arrive. First, though, they had to endure the humiliation of the slave auction. In an initial sorting procedure the Dey creamed off the very best captives; the remainder were taken to a slave market … 

There are ready the dilaleen or auctioneers, who walk them up and down the street, publishing the quality, profession &c. of each, specifying the last price has been offered, ‘till no higher bidder appears.

A description of a slave auction, from Morgan, J. Several Voyages to Barbary; London 1736, page 43

This sale, though, was just a preliminary to the main event that took place later in the Dey’s courtyard. There the Dey was entitled to buy any slave at the price originally bid, and a second auction followed, at which the prices generally rose much higher. 


The difference between the winning bids at the first and second auctions went into the public purse, and the first lower bid was divided up according a time-honored formula (see below). 

In Algiers, those slaves who did not join the join the Dey’s retinue ended up in one of three bagnios, or slave prisons …

“… wherein they are every evening locked up after each has answered to his name, and all have been exactly counted. They are by day employed in different services of the public … in the vilest offices and drudgeries at the Dey’s house; in public works, which consist chiefly in demolishing walls, hewing rocks, drawing carriages laden with materials for building &c.”

This description was written by a traveler aiming to whip up support for the redemption or ransoming of bagnio slaves. Not all were worked to death in quarries or on building sites. An editor commented in a footnote 

“As for the slaves at Algiers, they are not indeed so unhappy: the policy of those in power, the interest of particular persons, and the somewhat more sociable disposition of those who inhabit the towns occasion their lot to be less rigorous, at least for the generality of them…”

Slaves earned a small amount of money, could rest on the Muslim Sabbath, and daily for three hours before sunset. Arguably they lived better than many in England at the time, where enclosure had created a class of landless, rootless poor. A few enterprising slaves even borrowed money and set up bars in the bagnios, eventually earning enough to buy their freedom. “… but still they are slaves, always hated on account of their religion; incessantly overburdened with labor”


Christians in turbans

There was one other route to freedom open to slaves: by apostatising — renouncing the Christian religion — slaves could throw off their chains and theoretically become the social equals of their gaolers. In the eyes of Christendom they were exchanging discomfort and imprisonment on earth for eternal torment in the afterlife, but this prospect does not seem to have had much of a deterrent effect.


On the contrary many slaves apostatised. Christian sailors captured by the Barbary corsairs often seemed casual about “changing sides” and would as happily crew a galley as serve on a European merchant ship. Furthermore, the Barbary States even acted as a magnet to Christian freemen eager to “take the turban”.


However, it would be misleading to represent this change of allegiances as a Pauline conversion taken after many months of silent contemplation and prayer. Many converts to the corsair cause had motivations that were anything other than religious. Indeed, Western European mariners have never been known as a particularly god-fearing crowd, and as late as 1812 a ship’s chaplain commented that 

…to convert a man-’o’-war’s crew into Christians would be a task to which the courage of Loyola, the philanthropy of Howard, and the eloquence of St Paul united, would prove inadequate”

A ship’s chaplain’s complaint in 1812, from C. Thompson, Sailor’s Letters, 1757, quoted by Christopher Lloyd, The British Seaman, London, 1970 pg 216



Life on a corsair ship must have seemed attractive to those used to serving in a vessel from either a European navy, or from the merchant fleet. European sailors were used to very harsh discipline, punishing work routines that broke the health of or killed many, a social status only a little above that of barnacles and negligible prospects for advancement. By contrast, in Barbary their skills were in demand, and they could expect to share in the successes of the ships on which they served. There were fewer barriers of class and creed to prevent their rise, and if they openly embraced Islam they could enjoy reasonable social status and living conditions.


The ranks of the renegade Christian sailors were swelled by those from bagnios seeking a way out of punishing labor and a life of servitude. Some were under relentless pressure to embrace Islam, but many were undoubtedly seduced by the exoticism and lush, leisurely life-style of the narrow green fringe where Africa meets Mediterranean, as a European redemptionist observed:

[Slaves in the bagnios are] everlastingly in danger of renouncing their faith; either through debauchery, if they have a little liberty, which is but too frequently in the Cafe, or through despair, if their treatment is too rigid.

The word debauchery is used here in its obsolete sense, to mean corruption or seduction from religious duty, rather than through indulgence in pleasures of the flesh. From Morgan, J. Several Voyages to Barbary London 1736 42

Freed slaves and those who came voluntarily to Barbary were probably outnumbered by a third group of former Christians: those who had been taken as children by the Corsairs, and raised as Muslims. Most came from Greece and Albania, and the Barbarossa brothers, the most famous of all, were from a Greek family.


Life of a renegade in Barbary


Those who apostatized could amass considerable wealth and power in the Barbary states: they could aspire to high posts in the civil and military hierarchies. The influence of Christian renegades reached a climax in the late 16th century, when up to two thirds of the galleys and galleots operating out of Algiers were commanded by renegades. 


Even those with little ambition could live well. Though the Barbary states were notoriously military, their economies were solidly founded on agriculture, and visitors to Algiers commented on the abundance and variety of food available compared to northern Europe cities. Moderated by the ocean, the climate on the coast was pleasant, and the streets themselves were kept clean and dotted with fountains and well-tended gardens.


The religious and political atmosphere in Barbary was largely one of tolerance and freedom from doctrinal excesses, and the Western European renegades seem to have got away with some appalling behavior that would at the very least have raised eyebrows in their homelands:

“They 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 permitted to them”

Indeed, even before embarking for Barbary, one renegade corsair made no secret of his hankering for such a life, harking back to an earlier, happier pirate era:

“Where are the days that have been, and the seasons that we have seen, when we might sing, swear, drink, drab [go whoring] and kill men as freely as your cake-makers do flies …” 

The Barbary regimes tolerated these snakes in their African Eden because they brought back valuable prizes and shared the booty with their hosts. But some of them were clearly extremely difficult guests who overstayed their welcome.


Renegade roll call

Dutch renegade Simon Danser was born Simon Simonsen of Dordrecht, and turned pirate after an apprenticeship as an ordinary seaman. He moved his base from Marseilles to Algiers in 1606, capturing 40 ships over the next three years. In one spectacularly successful month, he took 23 vessels, and earned the nickname Captain Devil. 


However, Danser was as imprudent as he was ambitious, and by 1609 he was starting to become an embarrassment to his Barbary hosts: he had begun to force English and Dutch sailors to serve on his vessels against their will; he refused to apostatize; he was accused of taking Moorish lives. Finally, when he took a Spanish ship and 10 Jesuit passengers, the Spanish and French protested to the Sultan. Now persona non grata, Danser sailed for Marseilles hoping to ransom his prisoners and obtain a pardon, and he left with bronze cannon from the regency as a prize for his French patron. In France, he was able to rejoin his family and live in some style, but he had made many enemies of French merchants, and never went out without a posse of armed heavies. 


Danser’s demise came when the French king asked him to travel to Tunis to negotiate the release of captured French ships. The trip started well enough, but when Danser accepted an invitation for dinner with the Bey, he walked into a trap. He was confronted with all his past crimes, and summarily beheaded.


“Speaks little, always swearing. Drunk from morn till night. Most prodigal and plucky. Sleeps a good deal. A fool and an idiot out of his trade.” 

This eyewitness description of renegade corsair John Ward suggests that he epitomized the loutish European pirate in Barbary, and he is certainly among the most famous renegades. Born in Faversham, Kent, in 1553, Ward went to sea as a fisherman, and later enlisted in the navy. Before long, though, he and like-minded tars set off on their own account. They captured a bark, sailed it to Ireland, and there seized a French merchant ship. This they sailed to Tunis where Ward began his career as a corsair. By 1606 he commanded a small fleet, employing 500 seamen. 


A pamphlet of the time detailed 23 English ships captured by Ward, and the Venetians complained constantly of his attentions. In fact it was the capture of a Venetian galeasse that dramatically increased Ward’s notoriety. The Reinera e Soderina was valued at £100,000, and though direct comparisons with the present day values are difficult to make, a craftsman of the time earned a pound for three weeks work, so the prize might have been worth £90 million in modern money. Ward may have realized that he had overstepped the mark with this seizure — or perhaps he was simply homesick — for in 1609 he tried unsuccessfully to obtain a pardon from the English king, James I. 


He lived out his life in Tunis, under the protection of successive Beys. Ward converted a castle there into a “…a fair palace, beautified with rich marble and alabaster stones”, where he lived in some luxury with 15 of his crew. He died of the plague in 1622.

Ransoming arrangements


Penniless Christians in Barbary who refused to apostatise had little hope of release from their yoke unless they were fortunate enough to be bought out of slavery by a religious redemptionist organisation. These charities collected money in European nations on the premise that the funds would be used to buy the freedom of slaves in Barbary. Indeed, when the fathers eventually reached the Barbary coast, they occasionally had sufficient funds to redeem a handful of captives. However, more often, the expenses of collecting funds and travelling to their destination consumed the vast bulk of donations.

So once they arrived in Barbary and had spent what little remained of their funds, the redemptionist fathers played the role of intermediaries, passing messages between the enslaved and their families, making credit arrangements, ensuring that the release took place as planned, and finally, securing a passage for the ransomed slave on ships home. The most well known redemptionist figure is Father Pierre Dan, a priest who visited the Barbary coast in the early 17th century. His 1637 book, Histoire de Barbarie & de ses corsaires is the most comprehensive surviving description of the conditions for Christian slaves in Barbary; naturally, though, it can hardly be described as a balanced view. 


Slaves from wealthy families in the bagnios of Barbary could expect their period of imprisonment to be mercifully short, with the help of the redemptionist fathers. Some instead used the services of professional intermediaries, often Jewish merchants and agents, who would loan them the price of their freedom. This approach had the disadvantage that the middle-men were not charities: they expected a fee in proportion to the size of the ransom.


Sailors or innovators?

Christian renegades are generally credited with introducing the “round ship” to the Barbary Corsairs and certainly there is evidence that the decline in the use of galleys, and a corresponding increase in broader, fully-rigged ships coincided with the period when renegade influence was at its strongest. However, the suggestion that Christendom introduced the round ship to the Islamic world is an over-simplification, and is in stark contrast to the predominantly northwards and westward flow of nautical innovation. Both the stern-post rudder and the magnetic compass, for example, reached Europe via the Arab world. 


Nor were round ships with square sails new in the region. In the days of the Roman Empire the corbitae which carried grain from North Africa to Italy were similar to the northern European cog, and it seems unlikely that this tradition of shipbuilding ever died. Indeed, T.C. Lethbridge, writing in Singer’s Oxford History of Technology comments that:

“With the shifting of the center of power from Rome to Byzantium, a most serious gap appears in our knowledge of Mediterranean shipping, which has given an erroneous impression of the importance of northern vessels in the general trend of the shipwright’s art. With the exception of the building of great warships, it is improbable that any of the constructional skill of the Mediterranean shipbuilders was ever lost.” 

More recent commentators on Arabic shipbuilding even dispute Lethbridge’s exclusion of warships, pointing out that Arab shipwrights constructed warships that carried 1500 men. However, it does appear that the narrow, lateen-rigged galley was the traditional pattern for Muslim fighting ships, and the slower, rounder design was reserved for merchant shipping. Lethbridge continues…

“about the beginning of the 14th century … the northern type of ship (cog) with a single mast, square sail, and stern-post rudder was adopted by the Italian merchants.” 

It seems improbable that the Barbary Corsairs had not studied such vessels and enslaved their crew by the start of the 17th century. To suggest, as Lloyd does, that 

“…The two pirates who did most to introduce the square-rigged ship into the corsair fleets of the Western Mediterranean…were John Ward and Simon Danser” 

is perhaps simply a justification for the antics of the Christian rogues in Barbary. 


One source of this story was the redemptionist Father Dan, who stated of Ward that “He was the first who taught the corsairs of Algiers the use of round ships”. Peter Earle is more cautious: “The introduction of such ships into the fleets of Tunis and Algiers is normally credited to English and Dutch privateers…”


Perhaps the most charitable explanation for this confusion is that the influx of Christian renegades popularised the use of the round, fully-rigged ship from Barbary ports, where seamen had previously dismissed the design as too slow for corsair use. 

The Christian Corsairs


Close to Sicily the Mediterranean is less than 95 miles (150 km) across. This barely counts as a narrows when compared to, say, the straits of Gibraltar or the Bosporus, which closes to just a kilometre at Istanbul. Nevertheless, the Straits of Sicily funnel all eastbound and westbound Mediterranean shipping past a succession of islands, ranging from the small to the absolutely tiny. 


Some are little more than waterless rocks, but one group of three is slightly more hospitable. Malta has an area of 95 sq mi (246 sq km), roughly the size of Martha’s Vineyard, or twice the area of Jersey. It has a magnificent deep-water harbour, and from its rocky heights a sharp-eyed observer could spot a tall ship nearly 37 mi (60 km) away on a clear day. Gozo, which lies about 3 mi (5 km) to the northwest, is less than half the size, but is still capable of supporting a substantial farming population. 


Tiny Comino guards the channel between the two bigger islands. 


It was to Malta that the Knights Hospitaler decamped when they abandoned Rhodes to the Ottoman forces besieging the island. The Knights’ journey was not a direct one, though. They had become rather an nuisance to the major European powers, and considerable diplomatic manoeuvring was needed before they could find a new base. 


The Knights arrived at a time when the island’s fortunes were in decline. In the early middle ages Malta had prospered and thrived for two centuries under Arab rule. The Arabs brought new crops and irrigation techniques; they fortified some of the towns; the local people adopted and adapted their language; and the population increased. But Islamic influence had been falling since the bloodless conquest of Malta by the Normans in 1091; during the 13th century all Moslems had been deported; and by the 15th Malta was a fiefdom: a possession of the kingdom of Aragon (the northeast “corner” of Spain, bordering the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean), but ruled from Sicily. 


The economy of Malta had been disrupted by a series of attacks, launched against Arab territory by the Sicilian masters of the islands. The raids inevitably brought reprisals, leading to the abandonment of some of the most isolated farming hamlets. Plague and drought had taken their toll too, and the resources of the Maltese had been further sapped by a cash payment to the Aragon overlords in 1428 which they hoped would buy them greater autonomy. 


For the Knights, Malta was not an ideal base: it was far from self-sufficient, relying on imports from Sicily for at least half the year’s food. The fortifications on the island were dilapidated. And as part of the deal they had struck with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who then controlled Spain, the Knights also had to accept responsibility for one of Christendom’s last toe-holds in Africa — Tripoli.


Nor were the Maltese particularly pleased with their new landlords. They felt they had negotiated a greater degree of independence a century earlier, but the islands had once more been reduced to a fiefdom, handed out as a gift by a remote and uninterested king. However, the Maltese were given no choice in the matter, and could do little but accept the liveried and arrogant aristocratic cuckoos who had settled among them.

At first, the Knights looked upon Malta as a temporary home, hoping for something better. But a planned stay of months turned to years, and years to decades. Eventually it became obvious to all but the most gung-ho of the order that hot, arid Malta was the end of the line.


While they regarded Malta as a waiting-room, the Knights did little to develop its undoubted military potential. They tried instead to make do with the fortifications that were already in place. Eventually, more than a decade after they arrived, the Order commissioned a study from a military engineer. He recommended the fortification of the peninsula of Sceberras, which stuck out like a licking tongue towards the mouth of the harbor. This scheme, though logical, was deemed too expensive, and the Knights instead opted to strengthen their existing defences around Birgu on the south side of the Grand Harbour. 


It was left to the Turks to demonstrate the myopia of this decision. In 1551 they landed a huge fighting force in Marsamxett, the inlet to the north of Sceberras, and over-ran the peninsula. The Knights beat off the attack, but the Ottoman fleet sailed on to defeat Gozo, taking away with them some 5,000 of the islanders. Their next stop was Tripoli, where they defeated the Knight’s small garrison, and returned the town to Arab rule once more. 

The shock of this attack galvanised the Knights into action, and belatedly they began to fortify Sceberras. They built a star fort, named for St Elmo, at the tip of the island in 1552, and by the 1560s were planning a fortified town on the body of the peninsula. Before work could start, though, the Knights had to cope with an immediate Ottoman threat.

The siege of Malta


Turkish naval power had dealt the Knights some severe blows in by early 1560s. Besides the 1551 humiliation, there had been frequent raids and skirmishes. Indeed, apart from a 5-year period from 1555, landings and battles had become almost an annual fixture, with the smart money on the Ottoman team.


The play-off came in 1565. The Knights had known for some time that Turkish forces were planning a decisive action against the island. They postponed the building work that would have strengthened Sceberras, lest the attack, when it came, should catch them with the walls half built. They instead concentrated their energies on making the most of their existing fortifications. 


The Turks landed in the third week of May in 200 ships, and quickly decided to lay siege to Fort St Elmo. This proved to be a mistake, locking the Turkish forces into a slow war of attrition. The fortress resisted for a full month, during which the besieging forces lost as many as 8,000 men, including their legendary commander, Dragut. The morale of the garrison sank very low, but reinforced by sea each night, they managed to resist against overwhelming odds. When the fort finally fell, there was carnage: the Turks killed and mutilated those they captured, and floated them across the harbor towards the Knights’ positions. The Christians replied by decapitating some of their Moslem captives and firing the heads from cannons.


When St Elmo had fallen, the Turkish forces concentrated their efforts on the Knight’s heavily defended headquarters at Senglea and Birgu. Reinforcements arrived from Algiers, and the Moslem forces succeeded in breaching the Knights’ defenses. For a time defeat stared the Hospitalers in the face. However, a combination of luck and brilliant leadership saved them. Through a series of strategic blunders the Turks failed to capitalise on their successes; heavy losses demoralised them; and finally, time ran out. The weather began to change, and the attackers would have faced problems getting their troops off the island if they delayed lifting the siege. In early September news reached the Turks that reinforcements had arrived from Sicily, and the retreat began.


The Knights of St John and the Maltese people had fought heroically against overwhelming odds during the siege, and they deeply resented what they saw as a lack of support and backup from other Christian nations. The Order suffered terrible losses during the protracted battles, but in the long run, the siege proved to be pivotal. In its aftermath, the Knights made a whole-hearted commitment to the island; they spent huge sums of money fortifying the harbour area; and under their benevolent oligarchy, the islands began to flourish once more. Much of the expansion that followed was centred on Malta’s magnificent harbour. 


The navy of the Order


In its shipyards the Knights built and repaired their navy. They had not wasted the time spent on Cyprus and Rhodes. These island homes demanded that they master warfare on sea as well as on land, and accordingly they had developed a powerful naval force, building and equipping war galleys. Rhodes was in a strategic location in the Mediterranean, and as trade between Christian and Arab worlds had grown, the Knights found themselves in an increasingly important position. 


When they first came to Malta, the Knights brought just three galleys, but their fleet was eventually expanded to total eight, plus a number of smaller ships. The Knight’s galleys had a legendary reputation for speed and manoeuvrability; they could sail very close to the wind, and their 3-foot (1 metre) draught allowed them to pursue their quarry in the shallowest water. 


The Santa Anna, completed in 1524, was the most powerful warship in the Mediterranean. She carried 50 heavy cannon, and could transport and arm 600 Christian warriors. This floating fort was equipped to stay at sea for up to six months at a time. Even lesser ships of the fleet could operate through the Mediterranean winter, when storms blew the corsairs of Barbary and Malta back to port.


Later galleys sacrificed fire-power for show:

“They were superbly ornamented, gold blazed on their numerous bas-reliefs and carvings on the stern; enormous sails, striped blue and red, carried in the centre a great cross of Malta painted red. Their gorgeous flags floated majestically … Their construction, however, was little adapted either for fighting of for standing foul weather. The Order kept them as an emblem of their ancient splendour.” Luke 109


This description, though, was written in the late 18th century when the Order’s navy played a token role. In earlier years, the huge Maltese war galleys performed very practical functions. 


Until 1576, they effectively sailed as part of the Spanish fleet. Together, the warships engaged the vessels of the Ottoman navy, aiming to prevent Turkish domination of the Mediterranean. Later, their role changed to that of a corsair-chaser, harassing the galleys of Barbary, and guarding Christian merchant shipping. Their effectiveness, as H.J.A. Sire points out, can be judged from the fact that Algiers became the principal base for the Barbary corsairs: it was three times as far from Malta as Tunis and Tripoli.

Not all the ships of the Order’s navy were galleys. From 1478 the Knights had been using three- and four-masted carracks (a wide-bodied ship of a design that immediately preceded the galleon) as supply vessels, to extend the range of the galley fleet, and this practice continued until the middle of the 17th century. These round ships were then abandoned until 1705, when the order began to reduce the number of galleys, replacing them with ships-of-the-line. It was with this combination fleet of galleys and round ships mixed roughly half-and-half that the Order’s navy was eventually to crush the activities of the Barbary corsairs in the late 18th century.


The Knights and the Corsairs


In addition to building up a powerful naval presence on Malta, the Knights also encouraged and systematically organised of the island’s corsairs. A small corsair fleet predated the Knights arrival; indeed, Malta’s excellent harbour had often acted as a magnet for privateers and near-pirates, just as it had for legitimate shipping. In the pre-Hospitaler period the corsairs were licensed by Sicily to raid Turkish shipping; after 1530 they fell under the Knight’s jurisdiction. 


Initially, the system continued almost unchanged, and cultivated by the Order, the corso grew rapidly. By the end of the century the trade had become so busy, and involved ships of so many other nations, that some Knights became alarmed. However, in 1605 the Grand Master (the head of the Order) decided against reducing the scale of the corsairs’ activities, and instead opted for greater regulation. He set up a commission, the Tribunale degli Armamenti, to control the trade. 


The five commissioners appointed by the Grand Master set the ground rules for Maltese corsair activity in the 17th and 18th centuries. Corsairs using the islands were to fly the flag of the Order; they could attack only Moslem shipping; and they had to respect safe-conduct passes issued by Christian monarchs. The commission also set out the procedures to be followed if any of the corsairs broke the rules. These provided for injured parties to bring a case in specially-convened Maltese courts, with the Vatican as the final court of appeal. Corsairs that were judged to have overstepped the mark sacrificed the cash surety that they were obliged to lodge before setting sail.


The Maltese galleys


The galleys of the Maltese corsairs were similar to the Barbary ships in many ways, but the differences between the two types of vessel highlight the different skills of the mariners in each fleet, and how they deployed them. The Maltese were far more reliant on gunnery than their Barbary counterparts, so their ships were better armed. This in turn meant that the ships had to be more heavily constructed, for gunfire would “shiver the timbers” of a lightly-built craft. 


Both the corsair galleys and those of the Order’s navy were rowed principally by slaves. Most were Moslems, but Christian riff-raff took a few of the seats on the benches. Some were serving sentence for crimes committed in Italian city-states. There was also a sprinkling of oarsmen who were nominally free, though debt-slavery might be a better description of their condition; their small earnings at the oars went towards paying off the capital sum for which they had exchanged their freedom. These wretches were called buonavoglia. The word literally means “free-willer” but in the Maltese language it still connotes a rascal. They received virtually the same treatment as the slaves, among whom they were liberally sprinkled in order to prevent rebellion. Buonavoglia did, however, enjoy privilege as free men: they were allowed to wear moustaches, and were chained by only one shackle.


The conditions for Muslim slaves on board the Maltese galleys were if anything worse than those of their Christian counterparts on Barbary vessels, as this description makes clear:


“Many of the galley slaves have not the room to sleep at full length, for they put seven men on one bench; that is to say, on a space about ten feet long by four broad; at the bows one sees some thirty sailors who have for their lodging the floor space of the rambades (the platform at the prow) which consists of a rectangular space ten feet long by eight wide. The captain and officers who live on the poop are scarcely better lodged … the creaking of the blocks and cordage, the loud cries of the sailors, the horrible maledictions of the galley slaves, the groaning of the timbers are mingled with the clank of chains. Calm itself has its inconveniences as the evil smells which arise from the galley are then so strong that one cannot get away from them in spite of the tobacco with which one is obliged to plug one’s nostrils…” 


The smell of the galley is mentioned by other writers: one account states that the stench carried a mile down-wind.


The crews who sailed the ships were often Maltese, but their numbers were supplemented by mariners of many other nations. This was not unusual on any ship: some writers have described the sailors of the day as essentially stateless, serving on ships of any nation that would pay them.

The Knights themselves sailed on board the galleys. Some captained corsair ships, and there would be as many as thirty knights on the largest naval vessels. And like the Barbary corsair ships, these Maltese vessels also carried a group of paid soldiers, the Christian equivalent of the Janissaries.


Where they hunted


The Knights licensed corsairs to patrol specific regions of ocean: the ships were not free to hunt where they chose. The Aegean was out of bounds, as was the northern Mediterranean to the west of Italy. Corsairs were supposed to concentrate on either the Barbary Coast, or the Levant — the eastern Mediterranean. Seizures close to the coast of Palestine were progressively excluded to Maltese corsairs after reprisals against pilgrims there; at first the exclusion zone surrounded just three of the principal ports to a distance of ten miles, but it was later extended to exclude all waters within fifty miles of the coast. Licenses were granted for either region, or for both. 


Even with these restrictions, the Corsairs were free to roam over vast stretches of the Mediterranean. In practice they hunted in the few areas where shipping traffic was at its densest — the equivalent of modern-day shipping lanes. The most lucrative of these crossed the Sea’s eastern end, connecting Constantinople and Egypt. Heavily-laden Ottoman merchant ships traveled in convoy on this route and their substantial protection made them invulnerable to attack by all but the most powerful of the Knights’ galleys. A few of the more intrepid corsairs tried to cut out ships from the convoy, but it was generally safer to pick on smaller fry around the more important islands in the region: Rhodes, Crete, and Cyprus.


The chase and capture


The tactics of the Maltese corsairs differed substantially from their Barbary counterparts. Instead of relying on boarding to take possession of a vessel, the Maltese ships made far greater use of gunnery. Their gunners were more skilled, and the ships carried more cannon, often of a larger caliber. As the corsairs closed on what was obviously a hostile ship, they first attempted to bring down the rigging, perhaps by firing chain shot — a length of chain with a cannonball fixed at each end. When the victim had been comprehensively crippled, they would come alongside to take the prize, perhaps peppering those on deck with small-arms fire first to encourage an unresisted boarding. In a prolonged battle, the Maltese sailing ships used their height advantage to drop primitive grenades onto the decks of their adversaries.


More often than not, though, such desperate tactics were not needed. The corsairs generally picked as targets much smaller vessels that were unlikely to put up any resistance. They would hail the ship, then come alongside and question the crew about their destination, the ownership of the cargo and the nationality of the vessel, crew and passengers. If there was any suggestion at all that the ship was carrying Turkish goods or passengers, the Maltese would board and carry out an inspection.

The Maltese corsairs staunchly defended their right to carry out this procedure, which was called a visità . Their justification — as ever — was that it was simply a continuation of the war against the infidel. In an era when the Cross and the Crescent were bitterly opposed, this argument had some merit. But as the memory of the Crusades faded, it seemed more and more like a feeble excuse for piracy.


The visità was a cause of considerable friction between the Maltese and the other maritime nations of the Mediterranean. Even if the rummaging caused no real damage or injury to the crew and passengers (and it often did), a visità would nevertheless delay the voyage. The Maltese corsairs knew that the captain of any merchant vessel would have been keen to discharge his cargo, and load another, and the delay imposed by a visità was a potent bargaining chip. The very threat was sometimes enough to extract a ransom — effectively a bribe — from a master in a hurry.

Often Maltese corsair vessels joined forces creating a small flotilla, in order to intimidate their victims more effectively. Even the smallest of ships in the group could then pursue a likely-looking target, with the implied power of the whole group hovering on the horizon. When acting in concert like this, the corsairs divided any booty they captured equally between all participating ships.


What they seized


What were the precious prizes that the corsairs hoped to find on board their victims ships? One effect of inhaling the romantic smoke screen that surrounds any account of piracy is to make the imagination more vivid. Perhaps they seized spices from the orient? Gold and precious stones? Maybe nubile Egyptian virgins bound for secret harems in Constantinople? The truth was, sadly, more prosaic. Much of the trade in the Mediterranean was in foodstuffs and other essential goods, and a corsair ship was more likely to capture grain, cotton and ox-tails than gold, coral and onyx. Coffee, beans, flax, rice and sugar were also among the commonest cargoes.


Just as important as the cargo, though, was the ship itself and any Turkish passengers that might be on board. Both could be ransomed on the spot or, if they were considered very valuable, returned to Malta in the hands of a prize crew. From the only extant ledger of a cruise, it would appear that corsair captains tried to convert their seizures into cash at the earliest possible opportunity. Sometimes they were able to extract a ransom for the return of a ship and its cargo the following day; on other occasions captive Turks or cargo might stay on board for two or three weeks before the Maltese could locate a buyer. Some cargoes were not sold but eaten, since the corsairs often took the opportunity to resupply their own food stocks from those of their victims.


The fate of those they captured


The corsairs revealed the true nature of their calling in the way they dealt with passengers and crew of the ships they ‘visited’. Moslems, of course, did not expect to be well treated by those who claimed a holy mission against the infidel, but there were often unpleasant surprises for Christians, too. French traveler Jean Thévenot described how he was stripped naked by the corsairs, then left shivering in a shirt. Only the monks on his ship were spared the same treatment. Thévenot was prudent enough to hand over his gold ring as soon as it was spotted — the threat of a flogging was usually all the corsairs needed to discover the hiding places of other valuable items.


Thévenot was eventually dumped on the Palestine coast, and must have counted himself lucky to escape with his life. It was not uncommon for corsair masters to set Christian captives adrift in a small boat, leaving them to find their own way to land.


Moslems who were unfortunate enough to be taken back to Malta faced an experience which closely mirrored that of Christian captives in Barbary. The thriving slave market on Malta was the second biggest in the Christian world, and captives auctioned there found themselves at work for the Order or for private individuals on the islands. A few were sold on the international slave market, perhaps to pull on the oars of a Venetian galley.


The conditions of slaves in Malta


Those slaves who were not chained to a galley oar or sold abroad slept under lock and key in three large slave prisons built in the area surrounding the Grand Harbour. By day they worked outside the prisons doing all manner of heavy labor and menial work. Some slaves had domestic roles in households on the island. Others worked in quarries or on building sites: the grand fortifications that the Knights threw up to defend the port after the siege would have been impossibly costly had much of the labor force not been unpaid. The badges of rank of Maltese slaves were their Arab clothing — Christian clothes were forbidden to them — cropped hair and an iron ring on one leg.


Just as in Algiers, Maltese slaves were permitted to run businesses in an attempt to raise enough money to buy their freedom. In Malta, though, the scale of such activities was more limited. Slaves worked as barbers or kept bars; others sold goods from stalls. All had to return to the bagnios at night. The Knights granted exceptions only for those working on the other side of the island, and for small groups of slaves on galleys in the harbour.

The similarity between the conditions of captivity of slaves in Malta and Barbary seems uncanny, but there is a mundane explanation. If conditions worsened for one group, the captors of the other were quick to exact vengeance. These tit-for-tat reprisals maintained parity between the bagnios of Barbary and Malta.


Buying freedom


For Muslim slaves on Malta, ransoming was a possibility, just as it was for Christians in Barbary. The process was easier for slaves employed on the island than for those chained to the oars of galleys. Wettinger (1954) traced the fate of 1,336 captives taken in 1685 when the knights besieged the small Greek town of Coron on the south-west of the Peninsula of Morea. After sharing the human booty with their allies, the knights retained 223 slaves. Though a few were ransomed and left the island within a year, half were still there two decades later.


Galley slaves were so hard to obtain that many stayed at the oars until they were too sick or too weak to row any longer. Then they would be released without ransom. Those who remained fit might continue in the service of the knight’s navy into old age: one buonavoglia petitioned successfully for his release at the age of seventy (Wettinger 1965). An Egyptian slave who had rowed a Maltese galley for half a century petitioned to be release at the age of 80. Twice promised freedom for his exceptional services, he had been twice cheated! Galley slaves who hoped to secure their freedom, had to find not only the ransom, but a substitute — or even two — to take their place at the oars. Naturally this condition was an insurmountable obstacle for many.


On balance, though, the system of ransoming slaves in Malta was probably no more harsh than in Barbary. Agents existed in Malta to lubricate the ransoming process, and some slaves were even given allowed to return to their homes to collect the ransom payment. More often, though, one or two individuals would travel to Barbary to collect ransoms on behalf of a much larger group. Their colleagues remained captive to guarantee their safe return.


How the booty was divided


Profit from the sale of slaves was added to the value of other seizures recorded in a ledger by the purser on the corsair ship. At the end of the cruise the purser’s books were used to determine the profit that had accrued, so that the various parties that with stake in the voyage could claim their dues.


As in Barbary, the state — in this case, the Order — had first claim. The Grand Master took a tenth of the profits. Next in line was a group called the Cinque Lancie. Four of these five lances were officials who had responsibilities associated with the voyage; the fifth lance was a Maltese convent where the nuns prayed for the success of the trip. The captain then claimed 11% of the profit, and what remained was divided into three. The crew received one third, and the balance went to pay off those who had financed the building, fitting out and supply of the ship.


Of these people, the first to be paid off were the bondholders, who received their initial investment (which might have been in goods or services, rather than money) plus an agreed percentage. There were often numerous bondholders, drawn from every social class, so the success or failure of a corsair voyage potentially affected whole island. The remaining money went to equity holders, and was divided up in proportion to their stake in the voyage. The main empty investors were wealthy businessmen and merchants from the island’s larger towns.


This simplified description conceals many perks and complications. The ship’s master, for example, had to supplement the pay of senior officers from his share, but was theoretically entitled to any loose money found in rummaging the ship. Tradesmen such as the cook could keep tools and equipment relevant to their craft.


Clearly a corsair captain stood to make a handsome profit from a successful cruise. Equally, though, he needed a lucky streak, for capture by a Barbary vessel would inevitably lead to a somewhat less comfortable job on board ship. This combination of risk and reward attracted characters who, like James Dean, aimed to “live fast/die young/have a beautiful corpse”. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the corsairs spent much of the profit of their cruises in the brothels and bars of Valletta, but reliable details of their lives are hard to find.


Alfonso de Contreras


The only well-documented corsair captain was a Spaniard, Alfonso de Contreras. Born in Madrid in 1582 to aristocratic but impecunious parents, he fled his home as a young man to escape charges of murder and robbery. He became a mercenary soldier, deserted, and crewed on the galleys of Naples and Sicily before jumping a Maltese galley and spending a year working for the Order on Malta. On his return to Sicily he again became a sailor, hunting Barbary and Turkish vessels on board Sicilian ships. It was on these galleots and galleons that he acquired his real knowledge of the sea.


After a drunken brawl that left an Italian inn-keeper dead, Contreras was again a fugitive, but managed to escape to Malta on a galleon. Within a few days he was once more at sea as a crew member on a corsair ship, and a series of swashbuckling tales began. In every one he emerged as a hero — and generally his autobiography is a shameless piece of self-promotion.

The ship on which Contreras was serving captured some valuable prizes, and he describes how the captain tossed dice and cards overboard, to prevent crew members from gambling away their share of the booty. The crew’s reaction to this neatly illustrates both their temperament and the conditions under which they lived. Drawing a circle on the deck, they put lice in the middle, and placed bets on which would be the first to cross the line.


In fact, Contreras was easy to part from his money. “What with my prize money and the bounty, there fell to my share more than 1500 ducats…” he comments “… which I squandered in a short time.” Most went into the pockets of a Maltese whore to whom he faithfully returned each time he was on shore.


Perhaps the most revealing aspect of Contreras’ bragging account of pirate life is the insight it provides into the casual etiquette of raid, torture, capture and ransom. When the ship he commanded came across a crippled brigantine, he suspected that the Greek crew were sheltering a Turk. Though he tortured every one of the crew, none would betray the man. But when Contreras threatened to kill a 15-year old, the boy’s father agreed to show where the Turk was hiding. The captive proved to be a man of some stature, and the corsairs sailed to his home close to Athens to collect the 3,000 sequin ransom. While this was raised, there  was feasting and games on the beach, and when a Moslem galley arrived, its commander joined the fun. This yarn hardly paints a picture of Cross and Crescent fighting a bitter holy war.


The corsair captain spent much of his time in the service of the Maltese spying on shipping off Barbary and the Levant, and dabbling in privateering and near-piracy. Eventually, though, his adventures took him farther afield — as far as the Caribbean — and on returning to Europe he even secured an audience with the Pontiff. With the Pope’s blessing, our hero returned to Malta, and was invested as a Knight of the Order.


The development of the Maltese corsair trade


Reorganised and regularised from 1605, the Maltese corsair trade seemed set to develop and expand throughout the 17th century. And expand it did. The fleet probably reached its zenith in the 1660s. According to Peter Earle’s revealing analysis of contemporary Maltese documents (Earle, 1970: 122), there were 30 corsair vessels operating from the island in this period, providing direct employment for 4,000 men — roughly one fifth of the adult male population of Malta.


This growth had a price. The corsairs licensed by the Knights were running commercial enterprises, and given the undoubted importance of their operations to the economy of the islands — and indeed, to the Knights themselves — there was clearly considerable pressure on every corsair crew to make a financial success of their voyage. Inevitably, many found it difficult to stick to the rules governing their conduct, particularly when pickings were slim. Just as English privateers were tempted to interpret their letters of marquee with considerable discretion, so too the urge to raid Christian shipping was sometimes too great for the Maltese corsairs to resist.


In the early seventeenth century it was Venetian ships that occasionally suffered from the unsolicited attentions of the Maltese corsair fleet, and merchants from the Serenissima successfully argued their case for compensation in the Maltese courts. To emphasise the point, in 1645 the Venetians seized those estates that the Knights owned within the borders of the Venetian empire. Later in the century, the corsairs turned their attentions to Greek ships. Some Maltese corsairs doubtless felt that the Greeks were legitimate victims because they were not proper (i.e. Roman) Christians, and instead owed their allegiance to the Eastern Church. It was also easy for a Greek Moslem captain to pretend to be Christian when his ship was raided. Greek ships often carried Turkish cargoes, and this too made them vulnerable to attack. However, it is clear that there were many Maltese corsairs who simply used these arguments to excuse what was really a blatant act of piracy.


The Greeks were initially also widely successful in their litigation in the courts of the Knights, though achieving satisfaction sometimes took years of legal action.


But the problems the corsairs created in the Mediterranean did not end when they stuck to the rules and avoided Christian shipping. Even when they acted against shipping that was unambiguously Moslem, friction often followed. Most of the Knights of St John came from France, and with the passing of time the corsair ships came to be identified as French privateers. Though Moslem shipping they attacked could not demand compensation in Maltese courts, the corsairs’ activity resulted in reprisals against French nationals elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire.


The French naturally resented such actions against their citizens, and brought pressure to bear on the Knights to control the worst excesses of their corsair captains. Gradually the French crown and the Vatican whittled away at the Knights, progressively restricting the freedom of operation of the corsair fleet.


France had a further reason to resent the Maltese corsairs. In the latter half of the 17th century French merchants were actively wooing the huge Ottoman market, and French shipping was carrying an increasing proportion of the Moslem trade. When these ships were raided by the Maltese, there was an inevitable diplomatic backlash. From the outset it was clear that the Knights would eventually have to back down and rein in the corsairs; most of the land that provided the Knights’ income was in France, and they risked confiscation of their assets if they continued to defy the French king.


French shipping was thus off-limits; English and Dutch ships were generally too well defended to be vulnerable to corsair attacks; so the Maltese concentrated once more on the Greek vessels. The final years of corsair history read like a tedious flag game, with rules of labyrinthine complexity, as the corsair captains using every kind of legal chicanery to justify their continuing harassment of the Greeks. When Greek compensation claims in the Knights’ courts failed, the ship-owners successfully appealed to the higher Vatican courts. So instead of flying the flag of the Order, the corsair captains sailed under the Grand Master’s flag — this had the advantage that there was no right of appeal to the Pope should a compensation claim against them fail in Maltese courts. This loophole in the rules had fallen into disuse at the beginning of the 16th century, but it was again widely exploited towards the end, and at the beginning of the 17th. When the Vatican eventually ruled that there was no practical difference between the two flags, the corsairs instead chose flags of convenience, sailing as Spanish or Tuscan vessels. Eventually even this loophole was plugged, after further reprisals against French commercial interests.


The corsairs were thus defeated not by their nominal “infidel” adversary, but by the diplomacy of their Christian allies, and by 1740 the corso was effectively extinct. This did not, however, spell the complete end of the Maltese galleys; the Knights retained their navy, and when an earthquake struck Messina in 1783, they were used for the last time to ferry relief supplies.


The Knights’ rise and fall


The events that brought about the decline of the Maltese corsairs were eventually to destroy the organisation that had nurtured and built up the fleet. However, the story of the Knights sojourn on Malta did not reach its final chapter until 1798. By then they had changed the island’s economy beyond all recognition.


Almost from the moment they stepped ashore, the Knights had spent freely, and after the siege they began to invest in the infrastructure of the islands. Under their guidance, agriculture prospered. The Order undertook a huge program to fortify the peninsula jutting into the island’s deep-water harbour; within the walls, the Knights created a city, Valleta. They built shipyards, churches, a theatre, factories, warehouses, docks. The Knights provided employment for the Maltese, and their capital helped to feed the population on Sicilian grain in times of shortage. In short, the power and influence of the order grew until the Knights controlled every aspect of life on the islands.


Inevitably, though, this patronage, and the Knights’ dissolute lifestyle caused resentment and at times outright rebellion. Despite their vows, the Knights were not saints, and some of the younger ones behaved no better than the spoiled aristocrat brat set of the present day. In the early years on the island some members of the Order became notorious for drinking and whoring, and there were feuds between the langues (literally “tongues” — the single-nationality fraternity lodges into which the Knights were organised). One Grand Master, La Cassière (r. 1572-81), made the foolish mistake of interpreting the Knights’ chastity vows quite literally: when he tried to rid Valletta of prostitutes, the Knights arrested and gaoled him.

These examples are extremes, but as a generality, the Knights undoubtedly lived in some considerable luxury, which must have contrasted sharply with the poverty and hard life of the average Maltese farmer. This differential, together with haughty manner of the Knights, did little to endear them to the local populace. In a 1775 rebellion, the Knights lost the fort of St Elmo, but they quickly regained control and executed some of the ringleaders.


In the event, it was not pressure from within, but changes in the wider world that destroyed the Hospitalers. By the 18th century the crusading religious zeal that gave birth to the Order had faded. The Knights, with their sabre-rattling and their tin-pot row-boat navy, looked increasingly anachronistic in a mercantile world where Christian and Muslim traded freely on land and sea.


The final blow was the French Revolution. The Knight’s organisation was openly — proudly — aristocratic, and a natural opponent of the revolutionary fervour sweeping France. Noble refugees escaped the guillotine by fleeing to the island, which hardly helped the Knight’s cause.

The huge French estates that provided the Knights with much of their income were seized in 1792. When Napoleon headed for Egypt six years later, he made a minor detour to Malta, ostensibly to take on fresh water. When the Knights refused his request, French troops landed and the emperor demanded the surrender of the islands. The Knights put up no resistance, and within a few days most had been unceremoniously bundled off the island. The Knight’s guttering candle was finally snuffed out, and the Maltese were generally delighted.


The wider picture


Pirate, privateer, missionary, businessman, slaver — a corsair was a mixture of all these. But as in any famous dish, the quantities varied from recipe to recipe. In many respects, the fight for supremacy in the Mediterranean was as much about commerce and politics as it was about religion.


Both Barbary and Maltese corsairs were essentially privateers; their licenses were little different from the letters of marque and reprisal carried by the captains of privateer vessels from the Maritime nations of northern Europe. Their privateering activities raked in huge amounts of capital, and on both sides of the Mediterranean investors took a stake in the trips, in the hope of reaping rich rewards. In this respect, it is fair to consider the corsair trade as simply a seedy aspect of maritime commerce. However, corsair warfare coincidentally also admirably served the purposes of the great maritime powers.


The ships of Holland, France and Britain are conspicuous by their absence from descriptions of corsair raids. This is no mere coincidence: as Christian nations, the British, French and Dutch were safe from the crusading corsairs of Malta. And by negotiating treaties with the Barbary regencies, they were able also to secure immunity from attack by the Moslem corsairs.


The result was a cozy cartel. British, French and Dutch ships could sail the waters of the Mediterranean with impunity, while relying on corsairs of both complexions to harass the shipping of their competitors. This cunning arrangement allowed British and French merchantmen to take a substantial proportion of the Mediterranean carrying trade. The French in particular played both sides against the middle. Income from vast estates in France flowed to Malta to finance the galleys of the Knight’s navy and the corso. Yet treaties with the Barbary regencies — sometimes negotiated at the smoking mouth of a cannon — gave French shipping freedom of the Mediterranean. In France there was clear and sometimes explicit understanding that the raids of the Barbary corsairs had advantages; “We are certain that it is not in our interest that all the Barbary corsairs be destroyed …” ran one anonymous French memo “… since then we would be on a par with all the Italians and the peoples of the North Sea.”

The main European maritime nations put on rather a different face in public. Naturally they deplored the Barbary corsairs and their actions. Of course they should be suppressed. To back up this rather bogus show of disapproval, France and Britain periodically sent fleets of varying strength to harass the Barbary coast and give the various Beys bloody noses.

Seen from this perspective, the sometimes confusing events in the Mediterranean begin to form a clearer picture of growing trade and jockeying for commercial advantage. This overview summarises the major developments


Shows of force and sabre rattling

  • For the last quarter of the 16th century, and the first half of the 17th, Maltese naval galleys concentrated on controlling the activities of the Barbary corsairs.
  • From 1650 onwards Holland and England launched expeditions against the Barbary regencies to gain immunity for their shipping; France soon joined them.
  • Between 1660 and 1675 the Maltese corsairs were at their most active, and switched their attention from the Barbary coast to Ottoman vessels plying between Egypt and Constantinople. As a result of their successes, France came to dominate the Mediterranean carrying trade.
  • From 1697 having expanded their trading interests in the Levant, the French, fearful of reprisals against their merchants there, pressed for greater control of the Maltese corsairs.
  • By 1670 corsair activity in Tunis had almost ceased as a result of the policing activities of the Knight’s navy, and by 1700 the Algerian corsairs had been greatly reduced 
  • By 1733 the activities of the Maltese corsairs were so hedged about with restrictions that the flag of the order was rarely seen at the masthead of a corsair vessel. The demand for corsair licenses all but dried up. 
  • By 1750 many of the smaller Christian nations had succeeded in negotiating immunity for their merchant fleets. However, lacking the naval power of the bigger states, they had to pay for the privilege in cash or in kind. The rulers of the Barbary states were the main beneficiaries and, since the treaties progressively whittled away at the livelihood of the corsairs ships, the agreements were frequently breached. 
  • In the early 1750s The Maltese corsair fleet, apparently extinct two decades earlier, enjoyed a revival. At first the ships sailed under the flag of Monaco and other flags of convenience, but before long the Grand Master’s pennant again flapped at the mast head. 
  • By 1793 the Barbary corsairs had begun to harass the shipping of the fledgling United States in the Atlantic. Th US appealed to the British for help, but were rebuffed, and instead had to pay tribute to the regencies.
  • In 1798 the French occupation of Malta brought a final end to the Maltese corsair trade. However, the start of the Napoleonic Wars gave the Barbary corsairs the opportunity to renew their attacks on shipping while the mighty European navies were preoccupied with “real” warfare. 
  • In 1801 an American squadron visited the Mediterranean to try and resolve the corsair threat to the country’s shipping there. This was repeated for the next two years, but the third visit turned to disaster when the fleet lost a frigate and many of the crew were held to ransom. 
  • With the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the world’s maritime nations concentrated their attentions on the Barbary coast once more. The Americans sent a fleet, this time with more success, extracting indemnities from the three main corsair states.
  • In 1816 a British fleet pounded Algiers, forcing the Bey to release 1600 slaves.
  • In 1830 a French fleet occupied Algiers, putting a full stop to the activities of the Barbary corsairs.

The legacy of the corsairs


The thinking of Western people is to this day influenced by a negative and essentially racist image of the Moslem world. This may seem to overstate the case, but the Oxford English Dictionary nevertheless still defines “A Turk” as…

“…a cruel, rigorous, or tyrannical man; any one behaving as a barbarian or savage; one who treats his wife hardly; a bad-tempered or unmanageable man.”


This definition is not marked “obsolete”, unlike two that follow: “A human figure at which to practice shooting.” and “A hideous image to frighten children; a bugbear”;


Today’s opportunist politicians quickly see the potential of the West’s underlying distrust of the Islamic world; when it’s expedient, they do not hesitate to use the ignorance and prejudice of the electorate to further their own ends. We need not look far to find a example, and one that contains ominous echoes of the hypocrisy that characterized French and English dealings with the corsairs of Barbary and Malta. The Western nations that allied themselves against Iraq in the Gulf War were precisely those who provided the arms the country needed to attack its neighbours. And though Saddam Hussein’s regime was undoubtedly despotic, his vilification by Western politicians and news media suggests that the OED’s evocation of a target and bogeyman are not after all so obsolete.


Despite the passage of more than seven centuries, echoes of the Crusades ring through these definitions. Arguably the battle between the corsairs of Barbary and Malta served to prolong and nurture mutual hostility between Christian and Moslem, sustaining it from the Middle Ages to the modern world.


This essay originally appeared in Pirates, edited by David Cordingly and published by Salamander Books , London, in 1996.

By far the best source on the Corsairs is Peter Earl’s Corsairs of Malta and Barbary; London 1970. The following books are also useful.

Bradford, E The Great Siege; Malta 1565; London 1961

Cavaliero, Roderic E. The decline of the Maltese corso in the XVIIIth century;published in Melita Historica Vol 2 No 4 1959 

Currey, E Hamilton Sea Wolves of the Mediterranean; London 1910

Fisher, Godfrey Barbary Legend; Oxford 1957

Hough, R. Fighting Ships; London 1969

Lane-Poole, Stanley The Barbary Corsairs; London 1880

Lloyd, C, English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast; 1981

Lucie-Smith, E. Outcasts of the Sea; London 1978

Luke, Sir Henry An account and appreciation of Malta; London 1960

Morgan, J. Several Voyages to Barbary; London 1736

Sire, HJA, The Knights of Malta; London 1994

Wettinger, Godfrey The galley-convicts and buonavoglia in Malta during the rule of the order; published in Journal of the Faculty of Arts, University of Malta; vol III No 1, 1965


Text and images © Richard Platt MMXII unless otherwise attributed.



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