The dreaded pirates of Barbary

“From bases on the Barbary coast, North Africa, the Barbary pirates raided ships traveling through the Mediterranean and along the northern and western coasts of Africa, plundering their cargo and enslaving the people they captured.” [wikipedia]

Sometimes people get the impression that the pirates of Barbary were the only pirates and slavers in the Mediterranean, and everyone else was trying to trade peacefully, poor things. And I cannot stress enough how that is NOT the case. At the height of Barbary’s power, maritime raiding was normal, casual, and basically the default for pretty much everyone who sailed that sea, while buying stolen goods (including people) from pirates was a fundamental part of the economy.

Like, the English ship that carried the new ambassador to Istanbul and the ascension gift for the new sultan in ~1600 kept delaying “to take prizes, including some belonging to Ottoman subjects” – which is freaking hilarious. That’s how casual it was. Or, around the same time, the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John (aka the Knights Hospitaller) wanted to give a gift to the Pope, and offered 100 Turkish slaves, taken by piracy. No sweat.

Now, to be fair, the Barbary pirates (or corsairs – it’s complicated) made a living almost exclusively from piracy, whereas Venice and the Ottoman Empire etc also traded normally, and exported their own goods and all that. So a good comparison would be with the aforementioned Knights Hospitaller, who were sitting atop a massive slave market in Malta, and other than raiding ships and coastal settlements, did absolutely nothing productive. Of course, they had the pretext of holy war. But then again, so did Barbary, and neither was as adamant to protect their own and only fight infidels in practice as they were in theory.

Here are the reasons why we have (still!) a biased narrative where evil Barbary pirates disrupt Mediterranean trade all by their lonesome:

  1. Eurocentrism, duh
  2. The primary sources are extremely uneven, for both facts and perspectives.
  3. Perspectives: Western sources include many memoirs and testimonies of people who were enslaved by Barbary pirates, and then were freed or escaped. (Like Cervantes.) We have zero such memoirs by Muslims, and yet we know they were enslaved and sold and bought, ending up as slave workers in agriculture, or domestic slaves, or galley slaves. Same thing for memoirs of corsairs themselves. First person narratives are a huge deal.
  4. Facts: So hey, you know how court documents are a super important source for anything crime-related? For that to happen, the courts need to keep documents, and they generally only do that when there’s a concept of legal precedents, and jurists/judges need to reference them later. Well, the Ottoman legal system held legal precedents SO high, that scribes scraped all the factual information off court cases (who did what to whom, where and when) and kept only the result that judges would need (“when Ottoman subjects of Christian faith fall prey to Ottoman pirates of Muslim faith, the state must compensate them by so-and-so”). And poor historians try to piece together what the heck happened to result in such a guideline. It ain’t easy!
  5. Language: Comprehensive histories of piracy in the Mediterranean were written by people who couldn’t read Ottoman and Arabic documents at all, and didn’t have access to translations either.
  6. Orientalism, duh. As Said summarised it, it’s all “Oriental despotism, Oriental splendour, cruelty, sensuality”, oh my.
  7. There’s an emphasis on late 18th-early 19th century (when the Eastern Question (TM) arises, the Ottoman Empire has basically started to collapse and doesn’t even know it, and Barbary is like a relic stuck to practices that make increasingly less sense in the new balance of powers) – but you can’t extrapolate from that particular mess back to previous centuries, when the balance of powers was a giant clusterfuck.

So, to illustrate WHO exactly was committing piracy in the Mediterranean, I wrote a little song for you (with apologies to Cole Porter).

Turks do it, Greeks do it
Pirates and privateers do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

In Spain the best upper sets do it
Arabs, Englishmen and French do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

In Malta Knights of Saint John do it
Not to mention corsairs
Folks from up north do it
Think of the renegades

Some Genoese in the breeze do it
People say in Venice even geese do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Tunisians in Barbary do it
Ottomans in the White Sea do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Fishermen, lords, rich and poor do it
Christians, Muslims and Jews do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships

Corsicans in the Big Blue do it
It will shock you, I know
The navies too do it
Isn’t that what they’re for?

Shipwreckers in shallow reefs do it
All the sailors in this fucking sea do it
Let’s do it, let’s raid some ships!

P.S. Couldn’t fit in the lyrics: Catalans, Albanians, Sicilians, Armenians, Algerians, Egyptians, Florentines, Moroccans, Flemings FROM THE TOP OF MY HEAD.

[original post; header image: A French Ship and Barbary Pirates (detail) by Aert Anthonisz, c. 1615]

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