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A COMPANY OF ROGUES

We must skip over the fascinating unfolding of political structures in the subsequent history of Algiers, simply because it cannot offer us much help in understanding our chief interest, Sale. As for what we might call the specific ethnography or socio-history of Algerian piracy, we will certainly return to it for comparative material when discussing, say, the erotic mores or economic arrangements of the Corsairs of Bou Regreg in Morocco. But one more Algerian theme must detain us before we depart for the Far West- the Renegadoes.

A huge proportion-some say the majority of Algerian captains and crews were indeed “foreigners” of some sort or another. Andalusian Moors and Moriscos from Spain introduced new techniques in armow and cannon, and many of them proved experienced mariners as well. A medley of “Levantines” from the Eastern Mediterranean-including Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, islanders, and the usual riffraff and scum of every port-served the jihad in Algiers. Albanians and other Balkan/Ottoman mountaineers and brigands floated in along with the Turkish contingent. And of course there were Renegadoes from every country of Europe (especially the Mediterranean littoral), whether volunteers or converted captives:

  • Between 1621 and 1627 there were said to be twenty thousand Christian captives in the corsair capital, including “Portuguese, Flemish, Scots, English, Danes, Irish, Hungarians, Slavs, Spanish, French, Italians; also Syrians, Egyptians, Japanese, Chinese, South Americans, Ethiopians,” which attests to the polyglot ethnicity of seafaring in those days. The records kept by Redemptionists on apostasy are equally revealing, although painful to the apostolic ego. Between 1609 and 1619, Gramaye observed, renegades who willingly abjured their faith for the comforts of Islam included “857 Germans, 138 Hamburgmen, 300 English, 130 Dutch and Flemings, 160 Danes and Easterlings, 250 Poles, Hungarians and Muscovites.”

[Spencer, 1976: 127] Once a whole army of Spaniards embraced Islam to avoid captivity, and were apparently completely absorbed- and even a few Black Africans, brought north in slave caravans, who purchased their own freedom and joined the great corsair gold-rush. Jews, both native and foreign (including Marranos and Convertados from Spain, and other Sephardic groups), served all the Barbary states as merchants and financiers, and frequently obtained great power in the councils of government. European merchants, consuls, and redemptionist friars and priests provided a small shocked audience for this exotic rainbow coalition of rogueS, and luckily some of them wrote up their impressions and memoirs. The pirates themselves have left us not a word.

The hero and beau ideal of the Corsairs was Khaireddin (Khizr) Barbarossa (Redbeard), the greatest scion of a family of sea-rovers (probably Albanian in origin but resident on Lesbos), who first arrived in the Western Mediterranean as an agent of the declining Mameluke power of Egypt. From Tunis, he and his brothers joined with Moors from Granada to raid Spanish coasts. They raised their own freelance fleet and sold their services to various North African regimes; when possible they would assassinate the local ruler and take over the town (Bougie, 1512, Jijelli, 1514, Algiers, 1515); the island of Djerba for a time served as their headquarters. Around 1518, hard pressed by Spain, Khaireddin appealed for aid to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (the “Grim”), and was appointed vice-regent or beylerbey of Algiers. He finally managed to expel the Spaniards from their island fortress in the bay of Algiers in 1529, and took Tunis in 1534.[When Khaireddin was about 50, he captured a young Italian noblewoman, Marie de Gaetano, and married her. Wolfe mentions also that the wife of one of the later Deys of Algiers was "an English renegade". Perhaps we can permit ourselves to imagine that not all such wives were unhappy captives, but that some of them enjoyed the adventure.] The emperor appointed him admiral of the entire Turkish fleet. The Ottomans had a treaty with France at the time, and Barbarossa appeared off the coast of Provence as an ally. But so powerful was he that he prohibited the ringing of church bells (an offensive sound in Islamic tradition) while his fleet was anchored in port. He died in bed in his palace at Constantinople, and was succeeded as beylerbey of Algiers by his son Hassan Barbarossa. A true pirate epic, rags to riches: the Renegadoes' dream. [Spencer, 1976: 18]

In the next generation the Renegado hero was Morat Reis, another Albanian, who made a name for himself by capturing a Sicilian duke and plundering a papal galley.

His most daring adventure, however, was to take a squadron of four galiots through the Straits to Sale, where he was joined by three pirate captains, and then on to the Canaries. The corsairs sacked Lanzarote, captured the wife and daughter of the governor and hundreds of people of lesser importance. After a cruise around the islands and several further landings for more booty and prisoners, they hoisted a flag for parley and allowed the ransom of their more important captives. The rest were carried back to Algiers or Sale as slaves. The Spanish, forewarned of the corsairs' return, tried to intercept them at the Straits, but Morat Reis successfully evaded Don Martin de Padilla's armada in a storm and brought his little flotilla into Algiers. It was a daring raid made more daring since the galiot was not really a suitable vessel for the Atlantic. Christians liked to believe that God punished Morat Reis by causing his son to die just before his return, but the story, told in the testimony about the raid made before the Inquisition, may not be completely correct. [Wolfe, 1979: 146-7]

Morat Reis seems to have inaugurated the special “Sale connection” in Algiers, which led to a unique scheme for the mutual benefit of both cities. When Algiers signed a peacetreaty with some European nation-a frequent occurrence in the complex web of diplomatic back-stabbing around the Mediterranean basin-then Algiers agreed not to raid the shipping of that country-say, England. Meanwhile, let's say, Sale is temporarily at peace with France, and thus French ships are taboo for the “Sally Rovers”. So…when an Algerian corsair approaches a French ship, it flies the flag of Sale, and thus arouses no suspicion. Having seized the French ship, it reverts to Algerian colors and returns to Algiers (where French prizes are permitted) to sell cargo and captives. And a ship from Sale can pull the same trick on a ship from England. Further ramifications can be imagined, especially as Algerian and Saletine ships could freely use each other's home port facilities for repairs, sale of booty, and R&R.

Ali Bicnin (a corruption of his name, Picenino) flourished in Algiers during the same period (1630's60's) which also saw the establishment of the Bou Regreg Republic in Morocco, and which seems to have been the real golden age of the Barbary corsairs.

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He was an Italian, some say a Venetian, named Piccinio, who arrived in Algiers in command of a pirate ship that he had sailed from the Adriatic; he converted to Islam and quickly rose to prominence in the taiffe through his daring and bravery. His prizes made him rich, and he reinvested in new corsair vessels until his own flotilla earned him the title of admiral of Algiers. He owned two palaces in the city, a villa in the suburbs, several thousand slaves, jewels, plate, and great wealth in merchandise. He built a sumptuous public bath and a great mosque in Algiers as a gift to the city. He had his own bodyguard of footmen as well as cavalry, recruited mostly from the Koukou tribesmen whose sultan became his father-in-law. In the 1630's the redemptionist fathers writing from Algiers looked to him rather than the pasha as the real ruler of the city. Francis Knight, who was one of his slaves, called him a great “tyrant” who respected no man, not even the Grand Seigneur. However, not all his slaves regarded their lot as “exquisitely miserable” or their master as a tyrant. One story tells of a Mohammedan fanatic who, wishing to gain paradise by killing a Christian, begged Bitchnin for the privilege of killing one of his slaves. The corsair agreed but armed a muscular young man with a sword and then invited his petitioner to meet him in an orchard; when he fled, Ali Bitchnin laughed derisively at him. Another slave returned a diamond that he had “found”; Bitchnin remarked about the folly of not taking advantage of a chance for freedom!

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Ali Bitchnin probably had ambitions to usurp control over the regency. His alliance with the sultan of Koukou, his bodyguard of hundreds of soldiers, his personal navy, his relations with the coulougli leaders all point to political ambitions. He suffered a serious reverse at Valona, where he lost eight galleys (Knight secured his freedom from him in that battle; he was a slave on board of one of the ships that was captured) and two thousand slaves. A few years later, when the sultan planned an assault on Malta, Ali Bitchnin refused to allow the Algerian naval forces to go unless the sultan would pay a subsidy in advance. The Sublime Porte sent a chaouch (messenger or emissary) to Algiers to secure Ali Bitchnin's head; both the chaouch and the pasha had to flee to a mosque to escape the wrath of the corsair admiral's followers. At that point, however, the pasha refused to pay the Janissaries' salary, and the corps demanded that Ali Bitchnin provide the money. Apparently, he had not yet prepared his men for a coup. He fled to his father-in-law's territory, and the Janissaries sacked his city homes as well as the Jewish quarter. What would happen next? The Sublime Porte obviously feared that Ali Bitchnin might return to Algiers with a Kabyle army; it sent him money, pardon, and honors just short of making him the pasha, but when he returned to Algiers with the sultan's chaouch, he soon sickened and died. His funeral was celebrated with near royal pomp, but many suspected that he had been poisoned on the sultan's orders.

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[Wolfe, 1979: 1489][Ali Bicnin's mosque, built in 1622, was based on Ottoman models, with "an octagonal cupola set on a central arcaded square courtyard, with smaller octagonal cupolas serving as the roofs of the arcades." [Spencer, 1976: 77] Building a mosque is no proof of a sincere conversion, of course, but it does demonstrate that Ali Bi,cnin at least wished to appear pious.] Simon Danser, the “Old Dancer” or “Diablo” Reis, was the famous corsair who (according to legend, at least) first taught the North Africans to abandon their outmoded Mediterranean rowed galleys with lateen rigs and take up sailing in “round ships”, i.e. European-style fore-and-aftrigged vessels (like the caravel, made famous by Columbus). Danser and his comrade Captain Ward (who will re-appear later) achieved enough fame to appear as characters in Thomas Dekker's play, If This be not a Good Play, the Divel is in it (1612) [Ewen, p. 3]. Originally a Dutchman from Dordrecht,

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Danser came to Algiers from Marseilles, where he had established residence, married, and engaged in the ship-building trade. It is not clear what caused him to turn renegade and undertake a corsair career, but within three years of his arrival he had become the taiffe's leading reis and had acquired the sur name of Deli-Reis, “Captain Devil,” for his audacious exploits. Using captured prizes as models, Danser taught his fellow captains the management and navigation of round ships equipped with high decks, banks of sails, and cannon. He personally accounted for forty prizes, which were incorporated into the corsair fleet, and from Danser's time onward the Algerians replenished their losses equally from captured ships and from their own shipyard.

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Danser also led the Algerians farther afield than they had ever navigated before. They passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, penetrated the Atlantic, and ranged as far north as Iceland, where a corsair squadron swept the coast in 1616

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Ironically, Danser, who seems to have retained his Christian faith at least in secret, utilized the capture of a Spanish ship carrying ten Jesuit priests off Valencia as a means of informing the French Court of Henri IV secretly of his intention to return to Marseilles, where he had left his wife and children. The French agreed on condition of the safe return of the Jesuits, which was done. In 1609 Danser was reunited with his family and restored to full citizenship by the Marseilles city council. But, once a corsair always a corsair, whether in the service of Christian France or Muslim Algiers, and in 1610 Danser presented to the king and the Marseilles councilors a bold proposal for an expedition against Algiers which- given his extraordinary inside knowledge of the city-would probably have overthrown the Regency government. Unfortunately, the French, distrustful of the loyalty of the former corsair, refused to entertain his project.“

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[Spencer, pp. 125-6] The Old Dancer, however, was in fact the causus belli of a war between France and Algiers. It seems that

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Danser, grateful for generous treatment by the French government, presented the Duc de Guise, the governor of the province, with two brass cannons, which, unfortunately for subsequent events, were on loan to him from the government of Algiers. Naturally the Algerians, shocked at Danser's “treason” demanded the return of the two cannons.

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The political crisis moved slowly but surely. Guise refused to give up his cannons, but it was events in France, quite unconnected with Danser, that delayed action. Henry IV was murdered, the regent Marie de Medici had troubles to worry about both in the Rhineland and in Paris. Nothing was done. This was the sort of crisis that the Algerian reis were waiting for: French Mediterranean commerce was plentiful and rich and tempting, and with the refusal of the French king to grant redress, it was an excellent opportunity for the corsairs.

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[Wolfe, 1979: 181-2] The cannon were eventually returned to Algiers- perhaps the worst humiliation ever suffered by France at the hands of its future colony.

We could go on digging up the names of many Algerian-based Renegadoes, and even the names of some of their ships and prizes, but we wouldn't learn very much more about their lives, much less their thoughts and feelings. Needless to say that some of them were Moslems, at best, in name only, and were despised by the pious for continuing to drink, curse, and “sing like Christians” even after their conversion. But what about that sailor from St. Tropez who caused a diplomatic incident because the French consul tried to prevent his turning Turke? What were his motives? And what about Ali Bic,nin's mosque and bath house? The architecture of a cynical hypocrite?-or perhaps the sign of a more ambiguous emotion, half selfinterest, half something else? True insincerity is-after all-rather rare in the history of the human heart. Most people tend to justify their choices and acts by some appeal to ideas and ideals-and first of all, to justify these acts to themselves. Ideologies are easily internalized when self-interest and self-image coincide with ideological rhetoric and goals. To assume that the Renegadoes were all Machiavellian schemers and poseurs would be to give them too much credit. It's far more psychologically convincing to imagine that some of them, at least, came to “believe” in what they professed to believe.

The ambiguity of the Renegadoes was mirrored even in language. The medley of peoples in Algiers must have produced a polyglot nightmare of mistranslation. A lingua franca was needed, and indeed came to be known as Franco, the language of the “Franks” (and by extension of all European foreigners), or Sabir (from the Spanish “to know”). Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, Italian, and Provençal were mixed in this typical seaport argot. If a parallel dialect developed in Sale, it might have utilized Arabic, Berber, HispanoArabic (Morisco) and Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. “New” languages reflect new and unique largescale social phenomena; they are not simply means of communication but also patterns for thinking, vehicles for the inner and outer experience of the speakers, for their new communitas, and their new (or newly-adopted) ideology. Franco died out with the corsairs, but its shadowy existence suggests that the Renegadoes had become-however tenuously-a “People”, a linguistic community. Given the right historical circumstances, a lingua franca can become a full-fledged literary language, like Urdu or Bahasa Malay. Franco never made the grade-but knowing that it existed must change our view of the Renegadoes. We can no longer see them as a random scattering of lost apostates. A language (however crude and jury-rigged) is a culture, or at least the sure sign of an emerging culture.

 

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Pirate and Mermaid | A Christian Turn’d Turke | Democracy by Assassination | A Company of Rogues | An Alabaster Palace in Tunisia | The Moorish Republic of Sale | Murad Reis and the Sack of Baltimore | The Corsair’s Calendar | Pirate Utopias

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