Corsairs of Malta and Barbary in the 1600s

The corsairs of Malta and Barbary were a mirror image of maritime predation, two businesslike fleets of plunderers set against each other and against the enemies of their faith, but united in motivation, organisation and customs, these being known generically as ‘the custom of the corsairs’. They both kept their vessels clean and fast by careening at least every two months, an essential measure for all pirates which involved completely unloading the ship, guns and all, hauling it down on one side and then scraping or burning off all the weed, barnacles and other marine accretions before making the hull watertight by sealing the seams between the planks and coating them with pitch. Both used the same deceptions, those used by all pirates and privateers such as flying false flags and luring ships into danger by pretending friendship. Both rewarded the vigilant and brave among their crews—the first man to sight a prize, the first ten men to board it. Both usually captured their prizes without a fight by fear and overwhelming strength, neither having any desire to kill any of the captured crews, since dead men paid no ransoms and could not be sold as slaves. Both knew all the likely hiding places aboard a ship and both used torture to discover what could not be found, though this was mild compared to the practice of many pirates, a beating usually sufficing, on the feet by the Barbary corsairs, on the buttocks bent over a gun by the Maltese. And other factors were almost identical, right down to such detail as the small share of Barbary prizes given to the marabouts who prayed for their success and of Maltese prizes which went to the nuns of the Convent of St Ursula in Valletta ‘who pray continuously for victory against the Infidel’.

The corso, Muslim and Christian alike, was underpinned, indeed made possible, by a very sophisticated commercial network of merchants, sea captains and ransom brokers whose activities spread through the whole of the Mediterranean world. [Shall we call them the ‘media’, or the ‘international community’, or ‘NGOs’?] Such men bought the prize goods at auction and then recycled them into legitimate trade, having first taken the precaution of altering the marks on bales so that they could not be identified by their original owners. They were also in the forefront of the ransom business, raising loans for captives, negotiating with their friends, relatives and business partners, seeking out Muslim slaves to exchange for Christians or vice versa, arranging for the passage home of those who had raised their ransoms. Such men could be found in all the corsair centres and in the great commercial cities of the Mediterranean, such as Alexandria and Marseilles, from where they built up networks of correspondents many of whom were kin. But there was one city which stood out above all others as the financial nexus of this strange world of the corsairs. This was Leghorn [Livorno] in Tuscany, the great commercial entrepot of the central Mediterranean whose slave market rivalled those of Malta and Algiers and whose merchants were in the forefront of every aspect of corsair and pirate business, whether this derived from Christian or Muslim sources. Much of this business was handled by Jewish merchants and bankers, the nearest thing to neutrals in this holy war between Christendom and Islam, who had close commercial relations with the large Jewish populations in the corsair cities of North Africa and in Malta. Jews had no monopoly of such profitable business, however, and they were joined by Greeks and Armenians, two other groups who were able to span effectively the gulf between Islam and Christendom, as well as by Muslim and Catholic merchants throughout the Mediterranean. Such commercial networks were a necessary feature of piracy wherever it should flourish and they were always to be found.

These corsairs are difficult to fit into a history of piracy, since in a legal though not functional sense they were not pirates. They were sponsored by their governments and their captains carried licences which entitled them to rob and enslave the so-called enemies of their faiths. As a result, a career in the corso was perfectly respectable and unlikely to suffer from any shortage of recruits, given the dual motivation of religion and profit. But, legal and respectable or not, the corsairs were a terrible scourge which sowed fear and did an immense amount of damage throughout the Mediterranean and along the western Atlantic seaboard, a scourge which seemed at times as though it would bring the normal rhythms of maritime commerce to a halt. And of course it was a scourge which coincided in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries with the great upsurge of English and other Western European privateering and piracy. It was not a good time to go to sea unless you were a predator.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 50-52

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