Wednesday, 8 July 2009

More Barbary Terror

From Frederick C. Leiner, The End of Barbary Terror: America’s 1815 War Against the Pirates of North Africa:

... historically, the major point of contact between the Barbary regencies and Europe was slavery: corsair ships sailing out of the Maghreb seized European merchant ships and sold their crews and passengers into captivity.

For centuries, the Barbary states had run a lucrative racket of enslaving Christians. Algiers, which Mordecai Noah, later the American consul to Tunis, called “the sink of iniquity and curse of humanity,” was the “great depot” of Christian slaves. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Algiers alone was said to have held thirty thousand captives—in the 1620s, more British subjects lived as slaves in Islamic North Africa than as freemen in the colonies of North America. At the height of the corsairs’ activity, their audacity shocked Europe. In 1631, corsairs descended on the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, and seized the entire population, carrying them back to slavery in Algiers. Algerine corsairs raided villages as far away as Cornwall and Devon in England for men, women, and children. Of course, the coastal areas of Tuscany, Sardinia, Sicily, and the Greek isles were closer to the North African ports from which the corsairs sailed, and easier and more constant targets, since they did not have a coast guard or military force sufficient to stop or deter hit-and-run raids.

By 1800, the racket was simple and time-tested. Ships of all the mercantile nations wanted to trade throughout the Mediterranean. Barbary mariners have loosely come down through history as “pirates,” but in fact the corsairs were state-owned or state-syndicated, and their practices were not outlawed under the slowly evolving notions of the law of nations. Indeed, under Islamic law, the seizures of ships from Christian countries were an article of faith, part of the jihad against nonbelievers. Armed Barbary ships darted out from a dozen ports to seize European ships and their cargoes, which, upon their return to port, Barbary courts condemned as lawful prizes, with the result that the European seamen and passengers carried back to Algiers, Tunis, or Tripoli, were enslaved.

White slavery on the Barbary coast was essentially a system of regulated commercial kidnapping, the Christians seized from Europe or America in the first instance with the notion of being trading back for cash. In fact, the entire Barbary enterprise was regulated by foreign nations. For generation upon generation, European kingdoms entered into treaties with each of the Barbary regencies, paying an annual bribe called “tribute” as protection money against the seizure of any of their subjects for the duration of the treaty. From time to time, Spain, France, Holland, Denmark, and Britain sent naval squadrons to deter or punish the Barbary corsairs—or at least to try to force upon the Barbary rulers a new treaty reducing the amount of tribute exacted. But for the most part, the European nations were willing to pay cash, or tribute in the form of naval stores, gunpowder, or ships, for the privilege of having their ships and mariners remain unmolested. That paying tribute was a protection racket was widely understood, but paying the Barbary rulers a “license” for trade was less expensive than constantly convoying ships or attacking the Barbary powers in their heavily fortified ports. Besides, wealthier kingdoms recognized that while they could afford to pay off the Barbary powers, other, poorer, European nations could not. With a wink and a nod, the payments by the wealthy kingdoms of northern Europe tacitly encouraged Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis to seize the ships of the poorer maritime nations of southern Europe, thereby disproportionately raising their costs of doing business. Based on that logic, in the 1780s, Benjamin Franklin wrote that the Barbary “Corsaires” might “be privately encouraged by the English to fall upon [American vessels], to prevent our Interference in the Carrying Trade; for I have in London heard it as a Maxim among the Merchants, that, if there were no Algiers, it would be worth England’s while to build one.” The poorer and smaller mercantile states that could not afford regular tribute suffered large losses of seafaring men—the bagnio contained mostly Portuguese, Neapolitans, Sardinians, Sicilians, and Greeks—which helped preserve the mercantile dominance of Britain, Sweden, and Denmark.

After British Admiral Lord Nelson’s triumph at the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, the Royal Navy was able to establish an effective blockade of French-controlled Mediterranean ports, which ranged from Spain through the Adriatic. The British naval ascendancy in the Mediterranean meant that the Barbary corsairs had fewer targets, and the Barbary regencies were forced to promote legitimate trade and to downplay slave taking. While the Barbary regencies were increasingly integrated into Europe by virtue of shipping goods during the Napoleonic Wars, it would be a mistake to think that the taking of Christian slaves was on the wane—particularly by Algiers. Taking and ransoming European slaves remained critical to the economies of Islamic North Africa, a foundation of their society and culture, and literally a life-and-death issue for the ruling dey, whose support among the janissaries required a constant refreshing of the number of slaves held captive. [pp.13-15]

No comments: