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  • Writer's pictureA J Lewis

The Corsairs of Algiers

Updated: Mar 18, 2018

Corsairs commissioned by the Dey of Algiers were known in Europe and around the world as the Barbary Pirates, when in fact they were privateers, legally sanctioned in the manner of militias everywhere. In their own societies they were celebrated as defenders of the faith.

Corsairs commissioned by the Dey of Algiers were known in Europe and around the world as the Barbary Pirates, highway robbers of the high seas, brigands in boats, cutthroat killers, slavers and Saracen infidels. In August of 1783, a Spanish fleet of seventy ships sent to bombard Algiers into submission fell into a trap and was destroyed. In July of the following year, a fleet consisting of even more warships from Spain, Portugal, Naples and Malta was similarly repelled and forced to retreat without success.

The give and take between Muslim corsairs and those who confronted them in the Mediterranean Sea continued unabated for centuries. Between 1740 and 1798, Malta-based privateers took 148 Muslim ships. In the last two decades of the Eighteenth Century more than 500 Muslim sailors were enslaved each year and taken for sale in the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies. During the same time period, Algerian corsairs took 150 ships as prizes and likewise enslaved thousands. In the downward spiral of bloody conflict, it began to appear that for every ship lost by one side, another was taken by the other side.

Bloodshed in the Mediterranean continued for the reason that it was far too profitable to quit. If it appeared to many that the centuries-old struggle there was between the two religions, the truth was otherwise. In fact, it was the clash between the Turkish and the Austro Hungarian empires that was the true reason for the hostilities. The mainly Protestant enemies of Catholic Austro Hungary in Europe, the French, the English, the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and others had long since sided with Algiers and the Turks. After all, a great deal of wealth was to be had from trade in the Mediterranean. Trade between Algiers and the southern ports of France flourished. Algerian traders had even constructed a mosque in Marseilles, and were granted land there for a graveyard of their own. The other reason the Northern Europeans signed articles of peace with Algiers was that any enemy of the Spanish was their friend. The great American statesman, Benjamin Franklin once said: “If there were no Algiers, it would be worth England's while to build one.”

In exchange for tribute, the Dey allowed safe passage through waters controlled by the Algerians to ships carrying passports from treaty countries. The Beys of Tunis and Tripoli did the same. When the British colonies in America declared their independence, the North African city states no longer honored their British Admiralty passports. Though the Dey tolerated the Yankee traders in his waters for several years thereafter, they refused to pay him tribute, and the Algerians detained the first American ships and crews in 1785, barely three years before this story begins.

With regard to Algiers and the Turks who ruled over it, however, all was not as it seemed. The assumption about Algiers on the part of most people was that the city thrived on the business of piracy, from the sale of ships and cargo taken at sea, from the ransom of wealthy merchants and the occasional noble, and from the trade in slaves. That was only partially right. From Roman times, and even before, North Africa was the bread basket of Europe, owing to its rich soil, sunshine and multiple growing seasons. The city of Algiers, for example, is surrounded by a fertile plain called the Mitidja which extends for forty to sixty or more miles in every direction other than the sea. For centuries Algerian ports have handled shipping from all over the world.

Internally, a dispute continued unabated between proponents of trade and commerce and those of the Corsair Captains Guild who maintained, under the banner of jihad, that the best use of the Algerian fleet was in defense and privateering. For the Deys of Algiers, the argument over maritime policy was often won for the jihad faction by the continuing aggression of European enemies. By 1788, both traders and raiders had strong arguments to make, and either profitable cargoes or booty from rich prizes to back them up. On the one hand, the Revolution in France displaced landowners and farmers, resulting in the need for Algerian imports to feed the French people. On the other, European attacks on shipping during the same period necessitated an increase in the arming and fitting out of corsairs.

The internal politics of the period were therefore based on conflict and compromise. Though the Turks had ruled Algiers for nearly three centuries, they were interlopers nonetheless, and had remained in power, despite their small numbers, through the considered use of force. Their brutal methods were often resisted by their Arab, Berber and Morisco subjects; and the Kabyle mountain people, mostly Berbers, revolted frequently against Turkish tax collectors.

Throughout their history, the Turkish Deys had either to deal judiciously and diplomatically with each contending party or else suffer the consequences, often leading to their overthrow by rival Turkish factions. The law laid down by the Sultan in Istanbul stipulated that the rulers in the Regency of Algiers in the West, the Beys and the Deys, must be chosen from among the Turkish military class of janissaries, and that the Dey might come from even the lowest ranks if he had sufficient support to form and maintain a government. In short, the best peacemakers from among the warriors usually made the best rulers.

In 1788, the year this saga begins, Dey Muhammad Ben Osman had ruled for nearly thirty years, the first Dey in more than a century to do so. In time, Muhammad Amalfi would come to admire him, to mourn him, and to serve those who succeeded him as their Caid, Caid al-Fahs, Chief Commissioner of the Hinterlands of Algiers.

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