For over three hundred years, the Barbary corsairs were among the most feared pirates in the Mediterranean. They seized merchant ships, carried out raids on coastal towns, and between 1530 and 1780, they captured and enslaved approximately 1.25 million Christians for the Ottoman slave trade.
Although nominally part of the Ottoman naval forces, they largely operated autonomously, believing they were destined to fight an eternal Holy War against Christianity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they exercised significant control over trade between Europe and the Islamic world and posed a genuine threat to international relations between the two regions.
Consequently, there were repeated, yet unsuccessful, attempts to quell their power. The featured item is an example of such an attempt; a very rare printing of thirteen articles agreed between the Emperor Charles VI and the Captain Pasha of the Turkish fleet. Dated from 1726, the articles attempted to restrict Algerian piracy in the Mediterranean. The item highlights how the interrelationship between trade, piracy and diplomacy shaped Christian-Muslim relations throughout the period and encouraged cross-cultural contact and understanding. Despite such attempts, the Barbary corsairs successfully maintained their dominance for three centuries.
Indeed, by the eighteenth century, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands, all had strong enough navies to destroy the corsairs. Instead, however, they used their powerful position to force guarantees from the corsairs enabling them to continue raiding towns in return for carrying out attacks on smaller European maritime states, with the aim of eradicating potential competition against the European powers. The corsairs also received monetary gifts, thereby not only ensuring their survival but also operating in a unique form of state-sanctioned piracy.
By the end of the eighteenth century however, their control was rapidly diminishing. The French Revolution and American independence from Britain caused dramatic shifts in power and the corsairs’ agreements with the old powers no longer held sway. The United States fought two wars against them, the First Barbary War (1801-1805), and the Second Barbary War (1815-1816). The British and Dutch also carried out an attack in 1816 and by the French conquest of Algeria in 1830 the Barbary corsairs were finally defeated.
Ezra, J., 2016. Diplomacy, Piracy and Commerce: Christian-Muslim relations between North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and Britain c.1580-1685. In: D. Thomas & J. A. Chesworth, eds. Christian-Muslim Relations. A biographical history volume 8. Northern and Easter Europe (1600-1700). Leiden: Brill, pp. 15-34.
Jamieson, A. G., 2012. Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs. London: Reaktion Books.
Historic UK, 2018. Barbary Pirates and English Slaves. [Online] Available at: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Barbary-Pirates-English-Slaves/ [Accessed April 2019].