Pirates of Barbary: Outcasts return to their shores as buccaneers

The corsairs who terrorised the Mediterranean, before expanding into the Atlantic and enslaving entire British and Irish villages, were often Europeans – outcasts and sea wolves who found a safe haven in Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli.

Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood (Jonathan Cape)
Powered by automated translation

Worst of the miseries of life in a 17th-century fishing village was the ever-present threat of a visit by pirates from the Barbary Coast and the prospect of a relocation package to North Africa as a galley slave.

For the best part of a century, corsair raiders terrorised and pillaged the Mediterranean, before launching raids deep into the Atlantic that consigned entire British and Irish villages into slavery and reached even as far as Iceland and Newfoundland.

Yet despite sailing from the Maghreb, as Adrian Tinniswood notes, many of the most notorious corsair captains were Europeans; outcasts and sea wolves who found a safe haven in Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli.

Men such as John Ward, a privateer from Kent, and Simon Danseker brought with them not just a penchant for casual violence but ocean navigation skills that transformed the corsairs from coastal raiders to a blue-water scourge that eventually demanded the attention of the fledgling United States navy.

The western powers eventually bombarded the corsairs into submission. But as the author points out, their spirit is still very much alive today off the coast of Somalia and Yemen.