Britons never shall be slaves? In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this was a pious hope. For over 200 years, the Corsairs of the Barbary Coast (Algiers, Tunis, Libya today) roved around the Mediterranean and into the Atlantic Ocean capturing ships and raiding ashore for one main purpose – to take slaves.
The Corsairs were originally from north Africa and other lands subject to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. However, soon these were augmented by renegade Europeans who “Turning Turk” and joined in the slave hunts to make their fortune. They captured European ships which were more suited to ocean voyaging rather than the coastal craft originally used by the Corsairs.
The extent of these voyages is quite remarkable. The Corsairs even got as far as Iceland and surprised the inhabitants of the Island of Heimaey and took 400 Icelanders to be sold in the slave market of Algiers.
One of the most notorious instances was in 20 June 1631 when the slavers came ashore at Baltimore, a little fishing village near Cork. They chose their time well. They attacked at 2 o’clock in the morning and burst into the houses capturing 22 men 33 women and 54 children to be taken to the slave market. They captured the whole village. One man was away that night and came home to find his wife and seven children taken. None were ever seen again.
By 1636 there was panic along the south coast of England. Shipowners from Exter, Dartmouth, Plymouth, Barnstaple, Southampton, Poole, Weymouth and Lyme Regis got together to complain to the King that in the previous few years they had lost 87 vessels to piracy and in addition 1160 English seamen were kept in miserable captivity.
On arrival in Algiers, the treament of the captives was remarkably similar to that meted out to African slaves in Jamaica. They were exhibited for sales and prodded and examined by prospective buyers. The men could expect a very hard life either as galley slaves or heavy labour ashore.
It has been calculated that in the 200 years during which the Barbary Corsairs raided the coasts of Europe and its marine traffic, some 1,250,000 people were captured and sold as slaves. This is about one tenth of the number of Africans who were transported to the West Indies and the Americas during the notorious slave trade which Wilberforce and Buxton strove to abolish. Nevertheless it was a significant number.
What is remarkable is that while Britain and other European nationed railed against the Barbary Corsairs taking slaves from Europe, at the same time these same countries were estabilshing slavery in the New World. It is very difficult to understand from a viewpoint of today, how people could live with these contrasting practices.
But it can be seen that the concept of slavery was not confined to the trade across the Atlantic. Slavery was endemic and practised by many nations. The Arab nations had practised slavery for many years, taking slaves from Africa into the Ottoman Empire.