Barbary Coast



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The West African coast was a source of gold, pepper, and ivory.  Fierce competition, established trade routes served to produce a bustling world of maritime merchant markets.  This in turn strengthened the fabric of European economy and reinforced distinctions between nations.  Rivalry produced defining lines of business by splitting merchants and sailors into competing groups.  From this market, a different group of renegade sailors were also produced; pirates.  Later, these renegades would prove to have a strong affect on maritime production. 

Rich in Gold and black slaves, this region of Africa attracted the interest of imperial powers such as the Arabs and the Muslims.    Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers, however, prove to be the most dominant in their role of corsair and slave-owning states.

The world of piracy was never limited by race.  Along the Barbary Coast of the Mediterranean, maritime laborers of all origins were in danger of captivity.  The absence of a racial boundary lead the Mediterranean pirate to be only a larger menace to its enemies.  Making no racial distinctions between their victims supplied the pirates with a larger population to prey upon.  Piracy, however, was not always a threat to be avoided or fought against.  For people who could not experience a life of freedom or civil rights, they viewed the pirate as a symbol of rebellion and an exercise of free-will. 

  Ironically, pirates involved themselves in the slave trade and captured slaves of their own.  Piracy’s effect on maritime shipping was fed largely by the fear of captivity, both by European tradesmen and pirates.  In other words, piracy maintained its business through the capture of peoples and cargo, but was also supported by people hiding from captivity, aspiring to pursue careers as pirates. 

When mentioning the Barbary Coast, the main ports of commerce were located in the regencies, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.  It is from these locations that many tales of captivity, torture, and escape have originated.  Piracy and captivity have no better home than the boiling pot that was Barbary, North Africa.


The Barbary Coast, a term which Europeans used to name the Maghreb, also known as North Africa, was a meeting ground for various cultures to clash.  The word Barbary is believed, by many scholars, to have been derived from the Greek word barbaros or the Latin barbarus, meaning non-Greek or non-Roman.  These terms were used to describe uncivilized peoples.  The word Barbary referred to the Africans as “barbaric” and opposed to communication or trade with outsiders.  But native North Africans accepted the term as a symbol of commercial and cultural resistance to the European pressure.  Emerging from this reluctant and defensive position, were the Barbary corsairs. 

In the Barbary Coast the awesome power of nature was also an important element in producing a defense system against invading forces attempting to crush the pirate regime.  Strong winds and currents could keep strangers at a distance, not allowing them to near pirate bases or destroy enemy ships against the rocky coast.  Mountains along with conveniently shaped terrain provided the corsairs with clear vantage points in which they could spot unsuspecting ships at a distance.  Some areas made suitable traps in which cargo-carrying ships had little choice but to risk a raid by the Barbary pirates


 “The trade in slaves was the reason, the support, the reward, of the Mediterranean pirate.”  Companies stationed in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli were created for the sole purpose of doing business with pirate ships that were sent out to capture and enslave peoples. Once the captives were brought into port they were sent to underground prisons, which were known as bagnios.  They were then to be inspected by various interpreters to see if they possessed any special skills that were of use.  After this demoralizing inspection they were to be auctioned off to whoever was interested.

 Not all captives, however, were sold off.    Some converted religion and were able to escape technical captivity and lived as renegades.  Some of these outcasts ended up turning toward piracy as a way of life.  One of the worst places a captive could be sent off to were the galleys.  A slave would be chained to a bench along with five or six other men, in front of them was a large oar in which they had to row for days on end.  On a plank that ran along the middle of the vessel stood the Comiti or boatswains who carried long whips that they used constantly on the bare flesh of those who started to tire or slow down.


The first hand account of captivity cannot be equaled nor will it be the same among different captives.  Every account is unique as it reflects the personal trials of each experience.    For many letters that were written the authors were never heard from again.  An English captive named Thomas Sweet was captured by pirates of the Barbary Coast and his price for redemption was high.  He was writing mostly in fear that he would be sent into the interior of Algiers where the chances of ever coming back were slim to none.  In his letter he mentions that he had sent multiple letters to London, but had never gotten a response from any of his friends or family.  The letter ends with, “Your sorrowful friend and brother in Christ.”  The letter reflects both a touching and typical plea for redemption of many captives who supposedly had friends or family that were capable of sending help. 

While many slaves were treated with the harshest cruelty, some captives were able to dodge the chains, prisons, and galleys that were held with such dread.



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