Barbary Coast

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For about 300 years (ca 1500-1830) Barbary Coast was the name by which the coast of North Africa, from Morocco to Tripoli (present-day Libya), was known to Western seafarers. The name derives originally from the Berber population living in the area, but it got its ominous ring from the "barbaric" Moslem pirates who attacked Mediterranean shipping from their bases in Morocco, Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli.

Mugging the crusaders

Pirating traditions in the waters off the coast of North Africa date back to long before the times of the Crusades, when Moslem pirates made a reasonably comfortable living from plundering crusader ships and selling off crews and passengers as slaves. This in itself was hardly an unusual livelihood during the 11th-13th centuries. Particularly happy were the Venetians, who profited most of all from "servicing" the crusaders. The crusaders, on the other hand, were no blushing violets either. Comparable to raving, sword-happy gangs of Bible-belt rednecks, the crusaders were not above sacking and plundering Christian cities, whenever the opportunity presented itself. The most famous such incident came to pass in 1204, when discontent, angry crusaders, egged on by Venetian whispers in their ears, sacked the second holiest Christian city Constantinople, making it possible for the Venetians to appropriate Constantinople's art treasures. Most of these still adorn the fair city of the smelly canals. The beautiful horses on top of the Basilica San Marco in Venice are an example of 1204-vintage "imports" from Constantinople.

Revenge of the Moors

Renewed interest in piracy arose on the North African coast when the Moors were expelled from Spain to North Africa in 1492. Evidently sore losers, the evictees were intent on revenge. In these sad circumstances piratical attacks on the Spanish cost was all that the Moors were able to accomplish. For this they rallied local naval Berber talent, augmented by a number of Levantine Moslem adventurers. Two of the latter, the red-bearded brothers Arouj and Khair-ed-Din - natives of Mitylene on the Greek island of Lesbos - became highly proficient at terrorizing the Spanish. In self-defense the Spanish declared war on Moslem terrorism and began to conquer the Barbary Coast towns of Oran, Algiers and Tunis. Red-bearded brother Arouj fell in battle with the Spaniards in 1518, at which point brother Khair-ed-Din became so infuriated as to appeal to the Turkish sultan Selim for troops. Thus reinforced, Khair-ed-Din quickly drove the Spanish away from North Africa for good and was appointed representative of the Sultan of Turkey, with headquarters in Algiers.

Strategic piracy

In the 16th century struggle between the Ottoman (= Turkish) and Habsburg (= Spanish-Austrian) Empires, piracy was used as a strategy of naval war on both sides. Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli became Ottoman naval bases, from which Berber and Ottoman fleets were dispatched to prey on enemy shipping. A famous captive of the Barbary Coast "pirates" - at that time a rather unwarranted derogatory designation used by the Habsburg enemy - was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of what is claimed to be the first modern novel in the history of literature," Don Quixote". Cervantes was on his way from Naples to Barcelona in September 1575, when his ship "El Sol" was apprehended by Berber corsairs. He was brought to Algiers and his ransom set at 500 gold ducats - the captors could deduce that he was an important person from the letters of recommendation that he was carrying. During the following five years Cervantes made four unsuccessful attempts to escape, and was only released in 1580, when his ransom had been paid by two Spanish clerics.

The Turkish rule of the Barbary States, enforced by officially appointed pashas sent from the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, continued for more than a century, until a military revolt in Algiers in 1659 successfully severed the links to the Ottoman Empire. After the revolt Ottoman rule was a mere formality. The Barbary Coast cities became anarchical military republics, choosing their own rulers and living by plunder. Their lifestyle attracted adventurers from all corners of the world and for a while the main strength of the Barbary States was supplied by Christian renegades. A Flemish shipbuilder, Simon Danser, persuaded the Berbers to convert from galleys to sailing ships, which greatly increased the effectiveness of the Barbary Coast pirate fleets. The Barbary pirates could now venture into the Atlantic and attack cities and shipping as far away as Ireland and even Iceland.

Tribute to pirates

Eventually the piracy of the Barbary States became an institutionalized affair, involving payment of protection money. Instead of random attacks on shipping and foreign cities and demanding ransom for their captives, the Barbary states came up with the idea of demanding a yearly tribute from the European powers, in return for free and unmolested passage of their client's Mediterranean shipping. The scheme worked surprisingly well, largely due to the disagreements between the European powers themselves. France encouraged the Barbary pirates during her rivalry with Spain. When France no longer had any use for them, then the pirates were supported by England and Holland against France. And so on.

New problems for newly independent Americans

By the end of the 18th Century the effectiveness of the Barbary corsairs had waned considerably, but their reputation alone was enough to prompt European powers to pay the tribute to ensure safe passage of their shipping through North African waters. The newly independent United States of America was presented with a problem, however. Before independence American shipping had been protected by the tributes and subsidies paid to the Barbary States by Great Britain. During the revolutionary struggle itself, the French payments of tributes to the Barbary States had taken care of the protection of American ships, by virtue of the American alliance with France. But after its 1783 independence, the United States had to protect its shipping on its own. In 1784 Congress appropriated $80,000 as protection money to be paid to the Barbary States. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams - at the time US ministers to France and Britain - were directed to begin negotiations. Before the negotiations had even started, greed apparently won over prudence on the Barbary Coast. In 1785 the Algerians captured two American ships and demanded a ransom of $60,000. Jefferson was opposed to paying, fearing that this would only lead to further demands from the pirates, but the United States government nevertheless continued to negotiate for cash settlements with the Barbary States for almost two decades. In 1795 alone the payments amounted to nearly a million dollars.

... To the shores of Tripoli ...

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he refused to accede to Tripoli's demands for an immediate payment of $225,000 and an annual payment of $25,000. In consequence, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the United States. The Americans dispatched a naval force to The Barbary Coast. The show of force scared Algiers and Tunis sufficiently to make them break their alliance with Tripoli. Later Tripoli itself was attacked in a series of famed battles, remembered in the US Marine Corps battle song by the words "To the shores of Tripoli". In spite of all the bravery displayed, the US - Barbary Coast disagreements were not definitively settled until 1815, when at last the concluding treaties were signed, ending all US payments of tribute to the Barbary States.

The European powers continued to pay tribute until 1830, when France was finally fed up with the situation and conquered Algiers, which led to the collapse of the Barbary States. This marked the end of the Barbary Coast as a political and historical entity.


The Avalon Project : The Barbary Treaties 1786-1836 (Yale Law School)

Deardon Seaton: A Nest of Corsairs; The Fighting Karamanlis Of The Barbary Coast

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