The Pirates of Barbary Coast

The Coast of Barbary extends from the Straits of Gibraltar to Tripoli. Barbary is derived from Barbarians, but in fact it shouldn't be applied to its inhabitants. The term describes the truly barbarian pirates operating from there who were for a greater part Europeans. 400 years ago, cruising in the Mediterranean Sea was not the ideal holiday destination.

Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary was published by Jonathan Cape. In it, Adrian Tinniswood draws a compelling and gruesome picture of 400 years back, when things were much the same as they are today. History repeats itself, and this book shows that what is considered bad now was bad then. But unlike the Somali pirates of today, who capture and hold to ransom merchant ships and crews, pirates in those days went the more direct way of selling the crew into slavery on the slave markets of Tunis and Algiers.

If you like your history blood drenched, full of bad guys, and definitely off the beaten tracks of schoolbooks, then here is the thing to go for. Adrian Tinniswood revels in details, mostly of the gory and hair-raising kind, making the whole book more of an adventure story than a researched history book citing facts. But researched facts they are, and the author has done his homework well.

He tells the stories of individuals like Sir Francis Verney who stormed out of a family row to turn pirate. He also turned Muslim. But seemingly Allah was not with him, as he was an appallingly bad pirate, ending impoverished on Sicily spending time in prison. That was not the future expected of an Oxford graduate related to no less than seven reigning Royal families.

Sir Henry Mainwaring also graduated at Oxford. He turned pirate after being snubbed over the honor to convey the British Ambassador to Persia. But he was recalled and pardoned by King James I shortly after to become a vice-admiral of the fleet. He wrote a widely read book about piracy from the inside. There is nothing like firsthand knowledge when writing a bestseller.

There was Ward from Kent, who was named the Arch Pirate of Tunis. He had been a privateer (those were the official pirates of the crown) and didn't relish the new regime when King James outlawed it. With 30 followers he captured a ship, set off for Tunis. On the way there, he swapped her for a French vessel full of loot. He was made welcome by the Dey of Tunis (we know the title better as Bey of Tunis, but that change happened after 1705). After paying his taxes for this privilege, he went on to become a highly successful businessman mainly dealing in captured European slaves.

His contemporary counterpart in Algiers was Dutch Simon Danseker, who was named the Devil Captain of Algiers. Although he had a highly profitable partnership with the Pasha of Algiers, Danseker retired early from the game after a short but fruitful career. He chose Marseille to retire to and therefore was the obvious choice for the French King to ask out on a mission to free French slaves from Tunis. Danseker boldly sailed into Tunis where he ended the discussion leaving the Dey a head shorter.

King James I in his infinite wisdom had outlawed privateers, the state sanctioned pirates bringing in huge amounts of money to the crown's treasury. To counterbalance the losses, he disbanded large parts of the navy at the same time to save money. This in turn brought an influx of highly trained British sailors as pirates into Barbary and at the same time weakened the defense of the British Isles. As a consequence, the inhabitants of whole villages disappeared from English coasts over night. Men, women, and children, would later resurface in the slave markets of Tunis and Algiers.

In 1816, the British and the Dutch finally declared war upon the pirates' terror, and a combined fleet descended upon Algiers. They only left after they had reduced the city to a pile of very small rubble.

There are many stories collected in this book, and they are hauntingly similar to what is going on today. But it is also a highly entertaining book for anybody who likes his pirates bold and bloodthirsty.

Further reading