Post-classical history


Prosperity at Sea: The Mediterranean World


On a wintry day in December 1609, a solemn group weaved its slow and stately way by barge down the Thames from Marshalsea Prison in Southwark to Wapping. The tide was out, and as the first barge came to rest, the sound of the water lapping at the foot of the steps and splashing over the thick, stinking mud was drowned out by the shouts and laughter of a crowd which had gathered in front of the wooden cranes and warehouses.

The figures made their way through the jostling mass of people toward a gallows, which cast its long, sinister shadow over the riverbank. At the head of the procession was a marshal from the High Court of Admiralty, who carried a little silver oar as his baton of office. He was followed by the hangman, by a chaplain from the Marshalsea, by constables—and by seventeen men who walked with their heads down and their hands clasped tightly in front of them. All seventeen were Barbary pirates. None of them would see the sun go down that night.

Piracy is a hard business. To be a good pirate captain you need excellent seamanship, good leadership skills, a streak of brutality, and a disregard for conventional morality. And, because you face death for a living on a regular basis, you need to be brave.

These men were brave. As they faced death together and alone on that cold winter’s day, every one of them must have shivered to think about what they might have done differently—a path not taken, a stone left unturned. None of them realized—how could they?—that they were key players in a tradition that shaped relations between Christendom and Islam in the seventeenth century, a tradition that continues to inform those relations to this day. These Barbary pirates couldn’t see beyond the sunset.

The first to entertain the noisy crowd was Captain John Jennings, whose bloody career in the western Mediterranean and the Atlantic had lasted a decade before his own crew betrayed him to the authorities. Two of his men had remained loyal: their reward was to hang with him, and it was to them rather than the jeering spectators that Captain Jennings addressed his final speech. The pair had followed him “through the foot-steps of transgression on earth,” he reminded them, where “bullets like hail have fallen about our ears”;a and they must follow him still. “I go before you on the highway to my salvation in heaven, where we shall meet amongst the fellowship of angels.”1 With that rather optimistic prediction he turned and climbed the gallows to his death.

One by one, the other sixteen pirates followed him—some sullen, some penitent, all frightened, and all determined to die well. William Longcastle, William Taverner, and John Moore, who had always denied that they stole a merchant ship as it lay in a Moroccan harbor, now made a full and public confession; Taverner kept his eyes on the sky the whole time, declaring as he mounted the scaffold that “this is Jacob’s ladder, on whose steps I assure I shall be reared up to heaven.”2

Bristol-born Captain James Harris, leader of a gang which preyed on merchant shipping all the way along the Barbary Coast from Morocco to Tunis, went boldly to meet his maker, nonchalantly tossing away his hat as he climbed the ladder. He sang psalms in a loud voice and, when someone in the crowd asked if he had not had news from the king about a rumored reprieve, replied, “None, sir, but from the King of Kings.”3

Two of the last to hang were the brothers John and Thomas Spencer, both members of Captain Harris’s crew. John died cleanly, but the awful slowness of Thomas’s death silenced the jeers of the crowd as he swung wildly on the short rope, beating his fists on the chest of his dead brother while he choked.

The seventeen executions were over in an hour. Harris, whose corpse had been bought by a relative, was cut down and taken away to be given a Christian burial. The others were left to hang, a traditional warning to others, until three high tides had washed over them. Then they were either sold for dissection, or tarred and caged in gibbets along the Thames, where their bodies twisted gently in the breeze, a reminder to passing sailors of the dreadful penalty for piracy.

Captain Harris had made a full confession, and copies were on sale all over London within hours of his death. He spoke of how he had turned to piracy after being captured and imprisoned in Tunis. How he had preyed on the small trading ships which plied their trade in the Narrow Seas—the English Channel, the Irish Sea, and the stretch of the North Sea separating England from the Netherlands. How he had cruised from the Atlantic coast of Spain down to the Straits of Gibraltar in the hope of coming across homeward-bound East India ships, merchants on their way back from the Near East, perhaps even a straggler from the Flota de Indias, the annual treasure convoy which brought silver, gold, and gems from the Americas back to Spain. “Making my felicity out of other men’s miseries,” he recalled, “I thought prosperity at sea as sure in my grip as the power to speak was free to my tongue.”4

Harris’s career came to an end early in 1609, when he was ambushed by one of the king’s ships as he put in for supplies at Baltimore, on the Irish coast. Pirates often sought shelter in the remote creeks and harbors of southwest Ireland, where the natives were friendly and eager to offer all kinds of hospitality, much to the exasperation of the English crown’s representatives. Prostitution was rife, and pieces of eight and Barbary ducats were accepted in alehouses and shops along with the English shilling. “Until the sea coasts shall be planted with more honest subjects, and the harbors better secured,” said the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Arthur Chichester, in 1608, there would be no hope of controlling the problem.5 Ireland “may be well called the nursery and storehouse of pirates,” said the ex-pirate Henry Mainwaring.6

Only one of the king’s ships was permanently stationed in the area, the twenty-two-year-old Tremontane, which was leaky, decrepit, and easily outrun by every pirate ship she met. And the provincial governor of southwest Ireland, Sir Henry Danvers, adopted a distinctly relaxed approach to piracy. On one occasion, after a group of pirates appeared on the coast of County Cork and left again unchallenged, word reached London that Danvers had somehow acquired twenty chests of sugar and four chests of coral. His superiors complained that this was “a token of too much familiarity,” and recalled him.7

For the pirates, the problem with Ireland was that such familiarity couldn’t be relied on, as Captain Harris found out, to his cost. One of the captain’s gallows-mates at Wapping, John Jennings, also had his career terminated during a visit to Ireland. He was captured in Limerick after he got so drunk that he was unable to stagger back to his ship; in the meantime his comrades had made a deal with the authorities, and they sailed away, leaving him to his fate.

The real hunting ground of pirates like Harris and Jennings was the Mediterranean—the “sea in the middle of the earth.” Stretching from the Straits of Gibraltar in the West to the Holy Land in the East, and with a total area of nearly one million square miles, the Mediterranean was not only “the meeting place of many peoples, and the melting-pot of many histories,” as the great French historian Fernand Braudel describes it (quoting Paul Valéry),8 it was also the biggest marketplace in the world. Its tides ebbed and flowed over the shores of more than thirty kingdoms and republics, sultanates, principalities, and duchies. Those waters carried ships of all shapes and sizes: lumbering three-masted argosies from Venice and Ragusa (modern-day Dubrovnik); small lateen-rigged caravels hugging the coastline; fast, streamlined galleys with banks of oars and ranks of sweating, shaven-headed slaves to pull them; island-hopping polacres and settees and bertons and barks. And their cargoes consisted of anything and everything that might conceivably be bought, sold, or exchanged, from a salted cod caught off the Newfoundland Banks to a Nubian slave caught on the banks of the Nile.

The dominant power in the Mediterranean, and the largest market, was the enormous Ottoman Empire, a vast conglomeration of conquered territories and vassal states which stretched for thousands of miles from the shores of the Caspian Sea in the East almost to the Atlantic, and south as far as the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Its center was Istanbul, and citizens of Algeria, Athens, and Armenia paid tribute to the Ottoman sultan at the Topkapi Palace; so did Bulgaria and Baghdad, Cairo and the Crimea, Hungary and the Yemen.

Christian Europe was frightened of the empire. Ever since Sultan Mehmed II’s armies conquered Constantinople in 1453, Spain and Venice, the major Catholic powers in the Mediterranean, had felt challenged by the threat that the Turks posed to Catholic Europe’s cultural identity. Some of that same anxiety was also permeating the nations of northern Europe. In Germany, Protestant congregations beseeched God “graciously to preserve us from the monstrous designs of the Turk,” while their ministers preached fear and loathing from the pulpit and warned that the Turk “is an enemy who not only robs us of money and possessions, wife and child, and maltreats people in the most horrible manner, but whose whole purposes and intention is to root out the name of Christ and put his own devil, Mahomet, in His place.”9 In 1575 the English clergyman Thomas Newton wrote that Turks and Saracens were once “very far from our clime and region, and therefore the less to be feared, but now they are even at our doors and ready to come into our houses.”10 By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Islam was being called “the present terror of the world.”11

Christian culture demonized Muslims as cruel, aggressive, and debauched, and it legitimized those who wished them harm. Ideologically motivated attacks on Muslim shipping in the eastern Mediterranean by the religious and military order of the Knights of St. John were just one expression of a crusader mentality which taught that it was a Christian’s duty to fight, as the Bishop of Carlisle says in Shakespeare’s Richard II, “for Jesu Christ in glorious Christian field, / streaming the ensign of the Christian cross / against black pagans, Turks, and Saracens.”12

And the empire fought back. Ottoman Janissaries marched down the valley of the Danube, threatened Vienna, fought with Spain, took Cyprus and Crete from the Venetians. And in the Mediterranean, Istanbul allowed—sometimes actively encouraged—its satellites to wage proxy wars against encroaching Christendom from bases along the 2,000-mile-long Barbary Coast of North Africa, which stretches from Morocco, where the western Sahara meets the Atlantic, north through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains to the Straits of Gibraltar and eastward along the southern rim of the Mediterranean until it reaches the Gulf of Sidra and the Libyan Desert.

In the early years of the sixteenth century two brothers had emerged as dominant figures in the Muslim fight against Spanish ambitions in North Africa. Known in Europe as the Barbarossas on account of their red beards, Oruç and Hızır were the sons of a retired Turkish cavalryman who ran a successful pottery business on the Greek island of Lesbos. According to one source, Oruç was attacked by the Knights of St. John while returning on his father’s ship with a third brother, Ilyas, from a trading mission to the Levant. Ilyas died in the fight and Oruç was captured and set to work as a galley slave.

When he was ransomed three years later, he took to privateering, basing himself first at Antalya on the Turkish coast, and then, with his younger brother Hızır, at Tunis, from where the two corsairs preyed on Italian merchant shipping and waged a sea-jihad against the Knights of St. John. Their change of career coincided with the last stages of the reconquista of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, which, after the Spanish conquest of Muslim-held Granada in 1492, had evolved into a policy of establishing garrisons at strategic points along the Barbary Coast. In 1510, Oruç and Hızır were operating from the island of Djerba, fifty miles off the Tunisian coast, combining lucrative privateering with war against Spain, and often working in partnership with local leaders to repulse Spanish attacks. In 1513, and again in 1515, Oruç led unsuccessful attempts to retake the Algerian port of Béjaïa, which had been occupied by Spanish forces; he lost an arm in the first assault and wore a silver prosthesis for the rest of his life.

In 1516 the brothers moved their base of operations to Algiers, and Oruç extended his authority and his political ambitions westward, taking control of Algiers itself, repulsing Spanish attacks, and leading assaults on territories where local warlords had acquiesced to Spanish rule. Europe regarded him as the man “who first brought the Turks into Barbary, and taught them to taste the sweets of the western riches,”13 the warrior who “launched the powerful greatness of Algiers and of Barbary.”14 In 1517 he invaded Tlemcen, an important religious center 280 miles to the west of Algiers whose rulers had submitted to Spain. He took the town easily and immediately began negotiations with Moroccan leaders, with a view to bringing them into the jihad. But he had overreached himself: a Spanish force from the garrison seventy miles away at Oran combined with Bedouin tribes to attack Oruç in Tlemcen. After a six-month siege he escaped from the town only to be overtaken by the Spanish and, after a battle in which he fought like a lion, he was overwhelmed and killed.

Hızır was left in charge of Algiers, and he responded to the news of his brother’s death by asking Istanbul for military aid against Spain. In return he offered to bring the Sultan, Selim I, “all, or the greatest part of Barbary.” 15 At this stage the Ottoman Empire’s African possessions extended no farther than Egypt, which had been conquered by Selim in 1517; now presented with the opportunity to expand farther westward into the Mediterranean, Selim accepted Algiers as a sanjak, or province of the empire, and appointed Hızır as its governor. He also sent 6,000 troops to reinforce Hızır’s garrisons along the coast.

With imperial backing, Hızır recaptured Tlemcen, consolidated his influence along the Barbary Coast, and turned Algiers into a formidable naval base. By 1529 he commanded a fleet of eighteen galleys “and was become nothing less dreaded and renowned than had been his brother.”16 In that year he captured the vitally important fortress of El Peñón in the mouth of Algiers harbor, which had been occupied by the Spanish for nearly twenty years, and constructed a long earthwork connecting the rocky island on which it stood to the mainland. This 300-yard-long causeway, dubbed the Great Mole, vastly improved Algiers as a harbor, creating an anchorage that protected Hızır’s fleet both from the elements and, because defensive batteries were placed at strategic intervals along it, from unfriendly intruders.

From Algiers, Hızır and his captains took the sea-jihad to southern Europe, raiding the Balearics, Sardinia, Sicily, and Calabria. He was so successful that in 1533 he was summoned to Istanbul by Sultan Sulaimān the Lawgiver, who was concerned about Spanish and Genoese activity in the Mediterranean. Sulaimān appointed Hızır admiral of the Ottoman fleet and chief governor of North Africa, giving him the honorary name by which he is best known today, Khair ad-Din, “Goodness of the Faith,”17 and charging him with the task of building up the Ottoman fleet.

Eight months later Khair ad-Din launched a successful assault on Spanish-held Tunis. His victory was short-lived—the Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, Charles V, counterattacked the following year, and the Turks had to evacuate Tunis in a hurry—but within months Khair ad-Din was back in Algiers and raiding the coast of Spain itself. By the early 1540s he was at the head of the most powerful naval fleet in the Mediterranean, commanding 110 war galleys, forty lighter galleys known as “foists,” and three great sailing ships filled with munitions. He also commanded a force of 30,000 men. After François I of France entered into a secret treaty with Sulaimān against Spain, the admiral fought alongside the French to capture Nice, then ruled by Charles V’s ally the Duke of Savoy. To the horror of other Christian nations, Khair ad-Din and his fleet then put in at Toulon on the French Mediterranean coast. They spent the winter of 1543-44 there, François I having instructed the inhabitants to move out to make room for the Muslim troops. Even so, Toulon was crowded that year: there were fewer than 640 houses within its walls, and the surrounding fields were covered with a sea of tents. It was as if a second Istanbul had been built in Europe, muttered France’s enemies.


A European impression of the Ottoman emperor Sulaiman.

Khair ad-Din retired to Istanbul in 1545, giving up command of the fleet and handing over the governorship of Algiers to his son Hasan. Described as a man whose “stature was advantageous, his mien portly and majestic, well-proportioned and robust,” Khair ad-Din died on July 4, 1546, at his palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. He was in his late sixties. Two centuries later he was still held in such high regard by Ottoman mariners “that no voyage is undertaken from Constantinople by either public or private persons, without their first visiting his tomb.”18

His legacy in the Mediterranean was threefold. He confirmed the strategic importance of North Africa, and of Algiers in particular, as the Ottoman Empire’s front line in its struggle for regional dominance with the Holy Roman Empire. He showed the economic benefits which could accrue to a relatively poor state like Algiers from the proceeds of well-organized privateering expeditions. And he left behind him a group of effective and battle-hardened corsair captains.

In August 1551 Khair ad-Din’s chief lieutenant, Torghūd, took Tripoli from the Knights of St. John, who had been using the city for the past twenty-one years as a base from which to harass Islamic shipping in the eastern Mediterranean. Sulaimān subsequently made him governor, and he used the money obtained from privateering expeditions to build Tripoli into an important naval base and the capital of an Ottoman province. Torghūd was killed in an assault on Malta in 1565; but nine years later his chief lieutenant, Uluj Ali, the man who had carried his body back to Tripoli, took Tunis from the Spanish. And this time the Ottoman Empire held on to it.

With the conquest of Tunis, the question of who would control North Africa was effectively settled, and in 1580 Sulaimān the Lawgiver’s grand-son, Murad III, made peace with Spain. Both sides agreed to respect each other’s frontiers and not to molest each other’s subjects.

But Tunis, Tripoli, and Algiers relied on their attacks against Christian shipping to maintain their economies. Prize ships and their cargoes paid the wages of government officials and furnished the governor’s palace; they financed the building of mosques and mausoleums, harbor defenses and residential housing, while Christian slaves, taken in coastal raids and attacks on merchant ships, provided the labor. England could sell its woolen goods in the souks of the Levant; Barbary had nothing to sell but its prowess at piracy.

The situation at the beginning of the seventeenth century was that three Barbary states—Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers—owed allegiance to Istanbul. The Ottoman emperor sent governors to each of these cities to collect taxes and rule their citizens on his behalf, even though in reality all three possessed a considerable degree of autonomy. The fourth major presence in Barbary, Morocco, was an Islamic society like the others, but it was an independent state outside the empire—or, rather, several independent states, since it had descended into a state of anarchy after the death in 1603 of Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, “the Golden One,” when several of his sons laid claim to the sultanate. The result was civil war and the partition of the country into two kingdoms centered on Fez in the north and Marrakesh in the south.

There was also a European presence in Barbary. Spain and Portugal were clinging on to a number of bases in North Africa: at Ma’amura and Mazagan on the Atlantic coast of Morocco; at Ceuta and Tangier on the North African side of the Straits; at Melilla, near the present-day Moroccan border with Algeria; at Oran, on the Algerian side of that border. Where they had been ejected, the remnants of colonization often still dominated the architectural landscape. At Safi on the Atlantic coast, a favorite haunt of English pirates, the great Dar el Bahar, or “castle of the sea,” had been built in the 1520s by the Portuguese as the governor’s residence. On higher ground, 500 yards inland, stood a larger Portuguese fortress, the Kechla citadel; and behind the walls of the medina (the Arab name for the ancient heart of any North African city) stood an incongruous Gothic church, the choir of a cathedral which was still unfinished when the Portuguese pulled out of Safi in 1541.

Although they were unified by religion and, in the case of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, by their inclusion in the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary states never formed a coherent bloc; they frequently went to war with each other and with their own people, as well as with Christendom. But to Europe, Barbary was as much an idea as a defined geographical entity. The “Barbarians” were dismissively divided in the English popular imagination into “Turks,” who were part of the empire, and “Moors,” who lived in or came from Morocco. The distinction was not hard and fast: both terms were loose, generic, and often interchangeable. The inhabitants of Barbary manned the enemy’s front line; they occupied the westernmost parts of the dar al-Islam (the territories where Muslims could practice their religion freely); and they fought against Christendom on behalf of the empire, preying on Christian shipping in the Mediterranean, enslaving Christian mariners, and offering sanctuary to outlaws on the run from Christian justice.

Istanbul turned a blind eye: it suited Ottoman foreign policy to allow the Barbary states to chip away at the economic might of Christian powers, disrupting their trade, frightening their merchants, and intimidating their coastal settlements. The Christian Mediterranean responded in kind, and when Protestant and fiercely anti-Catholic northern Europe moved into the Mediterranean at the beginning of the seventeenth century, in the shape of England and the Netherlands, the potential for conflict and collaboration extended still further.

Yet they had to move into it. The empire represented a colossal market for European goods. Besides Istanbul itself—“the common mart of all commodities”19—there was Smyrna on the Aegean coast of Anatolia, famed for its local cottons and carpets “and all other commodities found in Turkey”;20 and the ancient city of Aleppo in Syria, whose lofty towers and massive walls were said by the Arabs to laugh in the face of Time. Aleppo was a natural trading center for goods coming from Persia and Arabia, and every year huge caravans from Basra and Mecca snaked in from the desert, bringing silks, gems, and spices.

Such a vast storehouse of luxury goods, such a vast center of consumption, was impossible to ignore. François I of France agreed to a trade treaty with Sulaimān the Lawgiver in 1536. Five years later Venice signed a similar treaty, followed by England in 1583 and Holland in 1613. Periodically renewed, amended, and added to—under Ottoman law they were only valid for the life of the sultan whose signature they bore—these articles of capitulation, as they were known, guaranteed the rights and liberties of English, French, Venetian, and Dutch citizens residing anywhere in the dar al-Islam. They guaranteed to Christians freedom of religion, access to their consul, and free passage throughout the empire, either by land or by sea. They capped the duty that merchants had to pay in all the empire’s ports:

The English merchants, and all under their banner shall and may safely and freely trade, and negotiate in Aleppo, Cairo, Scio [the Aegean island of Chios], Smyrna and in all parts of our dominions, and according to our ancient customs of all their merchandise, they shall pay three in the hundred for custom and nothing more.21

And they explicitly provided for protection from pirates:

If the pirates or Levents [sic], who infest the seas with their frigates, shall be found to have taken any English vessel, or to have robbed or spoiled their goods and faculties; also if it shall be found, that in any of our dominions, any shall have violently taken goods of any English man, our ministers shall with all diligence seek out such offenders, and severely punish them, and cause that all such goods, ships, moneys, and whatsoever hath been taken away from the English nation, shall be presently, justly, and absolutely restored to them.22

England, France, the Netherlands, and Venice all maintained ambassadors in Istanbul who combined their role as diplomat with that of commercial agent. Although he was appointed by the king, the English ambassador’s post was actually financed by the London-based Levant Company, which held the monopoly on English trade with the Ottoman Empire. The company also retained consuls at Smyrna and Aleppo, and employed representatives at dozens of smaller ports from Alexandria to Zante. By the 1620s its merchants were sending goods worth £250,000 a year to Turkey; and as the century wore on, Mediterranean markets as a whole came to account for half of all English exports.

This was the world which attracted English pirates like Harris and Jennings. Those pirates who were prepared to concentrate their activity against Muslims found sanctuary among the Ottoman Empire’s natural enemies, such as the Spanish islands of Majorca and Sardinia, or the fiercely anti-Islamic sovereign states of Malta and Genoa.

But for those who weren’t imbued with the crusader spirit, the Barbary Coast and its state-sanctioned piracy had a lot to offer: a friendly harbor where a ship could take on willing crewmen and supplies of food, fresh water, powder, and shot; a safe place where a sea captain could carry out repairs without fear of being ambushed; a ready market for goods which might have a complicated past and no discernible provenance.

More than this, the Barbary Coast offered the Protestant zealot a chance to continue the fight against Spain and popery. It offered the disenchanted outcast a chance to join a new and different social milieu, to renege on his own culture and religion and find a welcome in the dar al-Islam. It offered the brave, the unscrupulous, and the adventurous the thing they wanted most of all—prosperity at sea.

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