What Makes Piracy Work?

By Virginia Lunsford

Religious ideology characterized and permeated this conflict, with each side—the North Africans and the Europeans (and later Americans), respectively—citing their Muslim and Christian identities as the primary reason they were locked in a state of opposition. While the loss of trade goods was bad enough, what most terrified the Europeans was that the corsairs routinely seized sailors and passengers from Western ships, using them as slave labor on board corsair ships or in their sponsoring cities, collecting ransoms from their faraway kinsmen and countrymen, or selling them in the slave markets of North Africa and Turkey. People were the corsairs' primary targets. Ships and property were beneficial, but they were secondary objectives.

The corsairs were based in several large North African port cities, including Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Sal and Mamora (later Morocco). While nominally controlled by the Ottoman Empire, the denizens of these settlements were actually granted wide latitude from the Sultan to behave as they wished. The corsairs' origins lay in the Spanish Catholic evictions of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula (circa 1300-1500), which had created a population of embittered refugees in the North African cities and instigated the early 16th-century Spanish invasions of North Africa.

Lacking a naval response to repel the Spanish aggressors, each of the port cities adopted Ottoman naval technology, combat techniques, shipboard operations, and raiding strategies, and accepted Ottoman financial support, all in exchange for a loose allegiance to the empire.

The resulting arrangement was a win-win situation for both the Turks and the North Africans. The port cities now had the means to combat the aggressive Spanish, and the Ottomans were happy to have a naval bulwark along the southern Mediterranean coast, thereby impeding European endeavors to control the sea. 

Muslims versus Christians

Since these events followed closely on the heels of and indeed were inextricably entwined with the tensions stemming from the Crusades and European Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the confrontations that ensued were articulated in the ideological idiom of religious conflict: Muslims versus Christians. At the same time, however, a less obvious but no less important reason for the clash stemmed from the shift in trade patterns from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and Indian oceans, a change that deprived North African port economies of commercial activity.

Each port city sponsored and sheltered its own fleet of corsairs, pledging financial support and rewards, political protection, and physical refuge. Accordingly, corsairs brought their captured goods, ships, and prisoners to their respective sponsoring city. It was a symbiotic relationship that worked well for the duration of the phenomenon, ensuring the corsairs protection and their city's economic survival.

Over the course of the 16th century, following the Ottoman naval model they had adopted, the corsairs used galleys commanded by local North Africans and rowed by slaves. As the 17th century unfolded, however, they also acquired European sailing ships and began to include an increasing number of dispossessed European sailors in their crews. Many of these so-called renegade Westerners ended up occupying the highest positions in the chain of command and had extremely successful careers as North African raiders.

In keeping with their ideological perspective of victims of religious persecution and attempted invasion, the corsairs did not see their actions as piratical in the least. On the contrary, they believed themselves to be revered warriors whose raiding activities defended their people and their faith and the economic sustenance and military security of their home ports. The West, however, condemned the corsairs as pirates, for their marauding did not at all conform to European rules of engagement or stipulations for legal commerce raiding.

Corsairs Extend Their Reach

As the raiding intensified over the years, the corsairs' hunting grounds expanded. While they always represented a grave threat to Mediterranean shipping, their attacks were by no means confined there, especially after they acquired the means and equipment to operate European-style sailing ships. Rather, in their quest for Christian quarry, the corsairs regularly prowled the Canary Islands and the African coast, even going as far as the Red Sea region. They also ventured into European waters, cruising along the coasts of Portugal, Spain, and France, and into the northern seas as well, making their way into the waters surrounding the Netherlands, England, and even around Iceland, which they raided spectacularly on at least one occasion.

After the mid-17th century, the corsairs increasingly took to the seas in large, powerful fleets, each including at least 20 vessels. They attacked ships and coastal settlements, and everywhere they went, the goal was still the same: hunt down Western goods and kidnap Western people.

The Barbary corsairs became infamous for their reputed violence. Regardless of how savage they really were, the perception among early-modern Europeans was that the North Africans were uncivilized and ruthless. Some modern scholars argue that accusations made against the corsairs were borne more out of fear and prejudice than actual circumstances. Moreover, it is important to remember that many practices, which in our eyes are shocking examples of cruel and unusual punishment, were by early modern standards quite normal; all early-modern states—including those of Europe—employed harsh means of corporal and capital punishment.

But the stories are still sobering. Allegedly first-hand accounts written by witnesses and survivors of Barbary captivity describe dreadful places where thousands of pitiful Christian slaves (in 1621, supposedly more than 32,000 in Algiers alone) were, among other things, tortured, worked harshly and ceaselessly; and housed in dark, hot, vermin-infested prisons, where lice and fleas ate at their skin. North African youths jeered and threw stones, urine, and feces at them and burned them alive.

Methods of torture included bludgeonings, setting feet and hair afire, public whippings, impaling on pikes and giant hooks, genital mutilation, burial alive, and even crucifixion. Over the course of their existence, the corsairs captured and enslaved tens of thousands of Christian men, women, and children. Those who were not ransomed successfully could be worked to death and then denied the decency of a proper burial. Instead, early modern sources decried, their corpses were left to rot and be eaten by dogs. Together these texts provide vivid anecdotes testifying to the corsairs' cruelty and rapaciousness.

How Europe Coped

How did Europeans deal with the scourge of the Barbary corsairs? First, enormous effort went into liberating European captives through the payment of ransoms. To this end, liberation societies were born, associations whose sole purpose was to collect funds for the deliverance of Western slaves. In addition, many states and communities imposed a "Turk's rate" tax as a means to amass money for slaves' emancipation. Finally, Western governments sometimes presented the North Africans with gifts and/or monetary remuneration to expedite the process. Officially designated agents drawn from an extensive network of Catholic orders and Jewish merchants acted as middlemen and took the collected funds to North Africa to purchase slaves' freedom.

Second, European governments negotiated diplomatic agreements with the various North African city-states, and even the Ottoman Sultan himself. These treaties were typically uncoordinated efforts, meaning that they represented an agreement solely between one Western nation and one North African settlement. They often involved the payment of special sums of protection money to the sponsoring North African cities, thus avoiding Barbary harassment. (This was a technique employed especially by Western nations that lacked a strong naval presence in the Mediterranean.) Frequent expirations and changeable terms necessitated a constant revisiting of these diplomatic accords. Overall, the efficacy of the treaties ebbed and flowed over the years.

Third, Western navies also patrolled the waters to stamp out the corsair nuisance. Sometimes, these naval forays resulted in concentrated attacks against a particular North African port city, or demonstrations of naval might in a city's harbor to intimidate the city leadership and encourage the release of slaves. Naval missions departed regularly and enjoyed some success, capturing Barbary raiders and either executing them or selling them into slavery. Such fleets typically cruised the Spanish and Portuguese coasts and Mediterranean Sea. If they apprehended a corsair vessel, they liberated any captive Christians, confiscated the weapons, auctioned the goods at the nearest friendly port, and took the enemy crew prisoner for later strategic disposal.

Western governments also pledged handsome rewards to any of their ships that seized a Barbary vessel. Special incentives included bonus wages, equal access to profits earned from the sale of the ship's goods, and for the captain of each conquering naval vessel the right to take the ship's provisions and small weaponry.

Fourth, European trading nations enacted protocols to protect their shipping against Barbary harassment. Directives from the 17th-century Netherlands, for example, included instructions to ship owners regarding the minimum size of vessels, type and quantity of weapons, and size of crews. Dutch ships were also required to convoy with at least one other similar vessel and were forbidden to transport any ordnance or naval stores to North African cities. Guilty parties were punished with severe fines and even execution. To detect any recalcitrant ship owners, the government developed an inspection system using the local magistrates of the relevant ports. It also created incentives for these local authorities (as well as for fellow mariners) to report ships not in compliance with the rules. 

The Secret to the Corsairs' Success  


To a degree, these solutions saved Western lives. Still, though, they did not directly undermine any of the five fundamental factors accounting for corsair potency and durability. Consquently, the Barbary menace was impossible to eradicate for some 300 years. Why?

The North African corsairs were effectively organized following Ottoman naval tradition. They were sheltered by secure bases of operations in the form of the North African ports and economically and politically supported by both their sponsoring cities and ultimately, the Ottoman Sultan. And among themselves they were animated by sturdy bonds of ideological solidarity. Even the European renegades converted to Islam.

The West finally suppressed the corsairs, but not until the early decades of the 1800s when they were in a less vigorous state. In a series of confrontations, Western navies were able to forge (sometimes coerce) diplomatic treaties (e.g., the 1796 agreement with the independent Morocco). They also fought the corsairs and their North African sponsors in wars (e.g., the 1801-05 war between Tripoli and the fledging United States, whence comes the reference to the "shores of Tripoli" in The Marines' Hymn ). And finally, they were able to vanquish sponsoring cities (e.g., the 1830 French invasion of Algiers, which signaled the definitive end of the Barbary corsairs). All of these Western triumphs were predicated on the use of sufficiently strong navies. But naval power alone did not do the trick.

In addition to navies, other forces were at work and created favorable conditions for Western success. Compared to the glory days of the 17th century, the Ottoman Empire was weaker economically and politically and thus less interested in corsair activities. Its bonds with the North African ports were even more tenuous, if they existed at all. For their part, the North African city-states were less supportive of corsair activities and less impervious to attack than they had been.

Furthermore, with refugees from the Iberian Peninsula long since absorbed and the absence of a steady pool of Western renegades, it was no longer as easy demographically to outfit a fleet of corsair ships. Among the corsairs themselves, ideological motivations still had their power, but less so. Therefore, the corsairs were less passionate about their enterprise and less willing to risk all. By the 19th century, then, superior Western navies were dealing with a weaker phenomenon, and so strong naval action could result in decisive victory. 

What About Today's Pirates?

As the rest of the world considers what to do about the increasingly problematic modern Somali pirates, it would behoove us to think beyond superficial and simple naval solutions on the high seas and consider the five factors underlying the long and productive careers of the Mediterranean corsairs. To analyze Somali piracy more deeply and ultimately suppress it, we must ask ourselves these vital questions:

  • Who are these Somali pirates?
  • Where do they find recruits, and how many of them are available?
  • Why do they take up piratical activities?
  • Do we know the exact number, character, and location of all of their havens?
  • Are these pirates organized, and if so, how are they organized, and is this organization strong and effective?
  • Do the Somali pirates enjoy any outside sources of support?states or groups (including terrorist groups) that are providing money, goods, weapons, intelligence, or other help to their cause?
  • Do these pirates maintain close bonds between one another with a keen sense of solidarity and cohesion, and if so what is the nature of this solidarity, from where does it come, and is it powerful and abiding?

We know some of the preliminary answers to these questions from intelligence gathered by American agencies. Today's Somali pirates are, in general, trained militia fighters based in the semi-autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland. They do not call themselves pirates. Organizationally, the piracy is based on the clan system so influential in Somalia. But it is allegedly controlled by elements within the Somali government as well as businessmen in Puntland.

The pirates are based in camps located adjacent to coastal port villages, and they also deploy previously captured ships as sea-going bases, or mother-ships. We do not know how intense the bonds of solidarity are among these raiders, but one would guess that relations are strong since the piracy overlays the indigenous clan system. At this time, analysts discern few clear links to terrorism, but this possible development is of ongoing concern.

The key to eradicating Somali piracy lies in interrupting the larger, complex system that supports it. It is essential that the pirates be intercepted in action on the high seas, and the United States and its allies should continue to meet this objective. However, the situation is more complicated than that, and the longer the system is permitted to stay in place and grow, the more intractable the piracy problem will become.

Possible courses of action include somehow interrupting the flow of recruits (by introducing alternative economic possibilities, for instance), establishing some sort of compelling alternative to the clan system (an action that would weaken the pirates' organizational structure and feeling of solidarity), and eradicating the base camps. Diligent efforts must also be made to prevent the Somali pirates from acquiring outside sources of sponsorship and support. The danger is that al Qaeda (or some other terrorist group) will seek involvement in the enterprise, especially since Somalia is an Islamic country. Al Qaeda has experience both in international shipping and allegedly the piracy affecting Southeast Asia.

Above all, we must not ignore this contemporary African piracy or underestimate its potential severity simply because we arrogantly assume that pirates in small speedboats (the Somalis' raiding craft of choice) can do little harm. Indeed, one of the vital lessons the history of the golden age of piracy imparts is that pirates can do serious damage with what seem to be unformidable naval assets. As in the case study of the Barbary corsairs, it is ultimately the support system—based on the previously mentioned five fundamental factors—that determines the success of piracy.

*All data come from "Piracy and the Horn of Africa," U.S. Central Command Brief, April 2008.

Dr. Lunsford is an associate professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, specializing in maritime and European history. She holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Harvard University and is the author of Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and is currently at work on Dead Men Tell No Tales: A Cultural History of Piracy in the Modern Age , under contract with Routledge.







Dr. Lunsford is an associate professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy, specializing in maritime and European history. She holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Harvard University and is the author of Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and is currently at work on Dead Men Tell No Tales: A Cultural History of Piracy in the Modern Age, under contract with Routledge.

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