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Throughout this study we've used the words corsair and pirate as if they were synonyms, but this is really not quite correct. In the strict sense a pirate is a sea-going criminal, while a corsair operates like privateer who is granted “letters of marque” or a commission by one government to attack the shipping of another. A privateer is only a criminal from the point of view of the ships he attacks; from his own point of view he's committing a legitimate act of war. In the case of the corsairs, the situation is complicated by the concept of a religious war which transcends national interests. Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli commissioned privateers in the name of the Sublime Porte, which expected the corsairs to honor all Ottoman treaties, and not to attack ships of nations at peace with Turkey. Several times attempts were made to discipline corsairs who broke this rule; if the attempts were half-hearted and usually unsuccessful, the corsairs-by their own lights-were simply obeying a higher power, the demands of the permanent jihad. Brown quotes Moroccan historians to demonstrate the ideological basis of Sale's actions:


In a chapter headed “The Fleet of the Holy War or the Slawi Piracy” (ustul al-jihab aw al-qarsana as-salawiya), Muhammad Hajji has pointed out that piracy, the Arabic qa/lvana} is not to be understood in terms of the foreign derivations of its original Latin meaning, that is, the French course privateering. “Rather,” he writes, “I mean by the Slawi corsairs those warriors (mujahids), Andalous and Moroccans, who boldly embarked in their ships on the waves of the ocean to defend the territory of the homeland or to rise against the Spaniards who forced upon the Muslims of al-Andalus the worst kind of suffering and unjustly made them leave their homes and possessions.”


Thus, for the people of Sale, fighting and looting on high seas or the coasts of Europe was justified as a continuation both of the holy wars of the earlier dynasties and of the defense of the coast by the likes of al-Ayyashi. The corsairs, “men of noble and proud character,” had the blessings of the saints of Sale and were integrated into the community of the city. That is not to deny, however, that at least some pirates were renegades and that their original purpose in coming to Sale was to share in the general wealth brought by the “holy war,” “Look in the trunk of the Hassar family and you will find an old Christian sailor's cap. The uluj [Christian slave] origin of the Fenish family is no more hidden than the blue of their eyes” are derisory comments still heard in Sale when people talk about some of the old renegade families of the city. Although there were aslamis (coll., converts to Islam) in Sale, their origins were not an obstacle to complete assimilation to the norms and values of the community, nor to their reaching positions of power in Society. The pressures toward social and cultural integration in Sale made these renegade pirates into warriors in the name of religion.“


[Brown, 1971: 53] Sale-Rabat of course, was beholden to no outside government in the first half of the 17th century, but commissioned corsairs in the name of the Republic; and the Republic consisted-more-or-less-of the corsairs themselves. Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli have been called “corsair states”, but in truth only “Sallee” deserves that definition.

The easiest way to understand the difference between a pirate and a privateer is to examine the different ways they split up the booty. Pirate captains very frequently took only one-and-a-half or two shares, the ship's officers took one-and-a-half or one-and-a-fourth, the crewmen one share, and noncombatants (boys and musicians!) one-half or three-fourths. By contrast a privateer captain usually took 40 shares to the crewman's single share. Of course, one share in a successful privateering cruise could be worth far more than a salary in the merchant marine-or unpaid impressment into a Navy- but the contrast with piratical egalitarianism is very striking. Pirates were very nearly communistic in their pure state. Scholars who see them simply as proto-capitalists are making a big mistake. Pirates don't fit the Marxist definition of “social bandit” (i.e., “primitive revolutionary”) because pirates have no “social” context no society of peasants for whom they serve as focal elements of resistance. Marxists like Hobsbawm never include the pirates among their approved “precursors” of true radicalism because they see the pirates-at best-as individuals involved in resistance simply as a form of self-aggrandizement and primitive accumulation. They forget that groups of pirates formed their own social spheres, and that the “governments” of these groups (as expressed in ships' “articles”) were both anarchistic in affording maximum individual freedoms, and communistic in eliminating economic hierarchy. The social organization of the pirates has no parallel in any of the states of the 15-18th centuries- except Rabat-Sale The Republic of Bou Regreg was not a pure pirate utopia, but it was a state founded on piratical principles; in fact, it was the only state ever founded on these principles.[Unless it be G. d'Annunzio's infamous Republic of Fiume (1919), which financed its brief existence by piracy, and had a constitution based on the idea of music as the only force of social organization. See Philippe Julien, trans., D'Annunzio.]

Once again, an examination of the division of spoils will give us a precise structural insight into corsair society. In the Ottoman Barbary states:

  • The scale for division of the profits of a cruise is instructive. In the 1630's the pasha took 12 percent in Algiers, 10 percent in Tunis, the repairs for the mole 1 percent; the marabout, 1 percent. Of the remaining 88 or 86 percent, half went to the shipowners, and the other half to the crew and soldiers. Of the second half the reis received 10-12 parts, the agha 3 parts, the pilot 3 parts, navigator 3 parts, sail master 3 parts, master of the hatch 2 parts, surgeon 3 parts, sailors 2 parts; if there were Moors aboard, they were given only 1 part “because they are people on whom one does not count much.” If any of these people were slaves, the patron took their shares and sometimes gave part of it to the slaves. Dan's account of the division corresponds approximately with those of other informants.

[Wolfe, 1979: 144. The Marabout is the Sufi or shrine-guardian who blesses the ships and prays for their success.] We see that ship owners receive half the profits after “taxes”, but in many cases the captains owned their own ships. Even so, this practise certainly seems proto-capitalist. On the other hand, the captain as captain (rather than as owner) receives only 10 to 12 times as much as the worst paid crew man, while European privateer captains were paid 40 times. This seems to indicate a somewhat egalitarian approach.

The data from Sale is a bit difficult to interpret. According to Coindreau,

the usual method of divvying the spoils under the Moorish Republic was as follows:

  • -10% to the central authority (the Divan of Sale);
  • -half the remainder, to the outfitter [l'arnzateur] (or to the rais) to indemnify him for damages incurred on the expedition;
  • -the other half-45% of the total booty-to the ship's crew. Officers, pilot, master gunner and surgeon usually received 3 parts, while the master of manoevers, the calfat, and the cannoneers-two parts.

[Coindreau, p. 64] No prey, no pay, as all pirates agreed-but even in the event of a fruitless voyage, the crew was not charged for provisions.

This doesn't tell us what the captain received if he was not the owner/outfitter of the ship, but rather commissioned directly by the Divan (which owned ships in its own right) or by some group of shareholders or shipowners. Assuming the captain owned and provisioned his ship, he earned 45%, more or less the same as a European privateer captain. If not, he probably made something more like the 10-12% of the Algerian captains. Captains who owned many ships could become exceedingly wealthy, as in the case of Murad Reis, the Dutch Renegado who actually rose to the leadership of the Republic.

Clearly Rabat/Sale was not organized like a pure pirate venture-but it was not organized like a European or Islamic mOnarchy either. The big difference between Algiers and Sale was that the “tax” off the top went to Istanbul in the first case but in the second case, stayed in Sale. It was used to benefit the cOrsairs (repair the ramparts, finance expeditions, etc.) rather than to fatten some distant sultan. Sale's wars with the Saadians, the Marabout al-Ayyashi, and the Alewite dynasty, ete.} all centered around the 10%, which was both the symbol and the cost of corsair independence. Sale was neither as anarchic nor as communistic as “Libertatia” (see below) or Other real-life pirate utopias-but it was far more so than any European country. Its Governor-Admiral and its Divan were elected and could be un-elected every year if they failed to represent the people's interests. Everyone capable of shipping on a cruise stood a chance at wealth. Even “captives of war” could earn freedom and wealth as Renegadoes. As for the Professional pirates who joined the Republic, once again we see that although they lost the pure autonomy of real piracy, they gained a home, a society, a source of backing, a market, and a place to enjoy their wealth-everything a pirate might well lack and most yearn for. It was worth taking a cut in pay to gain all that, obviously.

The mouth of the Bou Regreg river, which served RabatSale as a harbor, was protected by a treacherous sand-bar which prevented enemy ships and European naval fleets with their deep keels from getting close enough to shore for an effective bombardment-but this feature also limited the corsairs in certain ways. For one thing, their vessels-even the “round ships”-had to be small and shallow-draft, which made long cruises difficult. Fleeing into port under pursuit, they might be detained by a low tide and suffer capture within sight of home, as happened on several sad occasions. But whatever the Saletin ships lacked-storage for provisions, for example, or sufficient tonnage to support much heavy cannon-they made up for in speed and maneuverability, and in the profound seamanship of their captains. Moreover, Moslem navigators were familiar with (and even invented) such scientific devices as the astrolabe, and no longer depended on dead reckoning or coast-hugging tactics. Officers and crew alike made do with very short provisions and very uncomfortable quarters. Thus the area of activity of the corsairs was greater than might be expected; the raid on Iceland was an exception, but even the English channel was unsafe (a Sallee Rover was once captured in the Thames estuary).

In the 17th century Winter was still an off-season for merchant shipping, corsairs, and even grand navies. The corsairs followed a seasonal pattern and spent at least three or four months every year at home in Sale, attending to politics or love affairs, married life or debauch, wheeling and dealing, repairing and shipbuilding-or perhaps even to the practise of Sufism-according to their wonts and wants.

Come Springtime, usually in May, a corsair would look for a position with the fleet, which probably consisted (during our period) of forty or sixty small ships of the types depicted by Coindreau:

Roughly half the fleet would head north, probably to the lucrative hunting ground off the Iberian peninsula, and the other half would turn south toward the Canaries and Azores, where they would lurk in wait for stragglers from the huge flotillas of Spain and Portugal returning from the New World with cargoes of gold. For ordinary cruising purposes two or three ships would stick together; in case a prize was captured, a vessel could be spared to escort it back to Sale while the rest kept prowling the waves. Each ship held scant provisions of boucan [On Hispaniola the Buccaneers were hunters who prepared boucan or smoked dried meat for ship provisions.] and cous-cous for perhaps two months at most. If ships needed to re-provision or repair, they might call in at any of several Moroccan coastal towns (at least during periods when these were not held by European powers) such as Tetouan, Mamora, Fedala, Azemmour, or Safi. Sometimes some of the fleet headed through the Straits of Gibraltar and raided the shipping and even the coasts of Mediterranean Spain and France- but this was usually considered the proper stomping grounds of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. But the other Barbary state corsairs seldom if ever made it as far into the Atlantic as the Sallee Rovers. In 1625 they carried off captives from Plymouth in England; in 1626 five ships were seized off the coast of Wales; in 1627 they reached Iceland and sacked the city of Reykjavik, where the booty was scant but the blond captives no doubt proved popular in the slave markets. A great deal of activity centered in the waters between England and Ireland, and we assume that the corsairs used some of the remote lawless smugglers' ports of Southern and Western Ireland as friendly harbours. In the Newfoundland banks the Saletin fleet captured more than 40 fishing vessels in the space of two years, and in 1624 a dozen or so ships from Sale appeared on the coasts off Acadia or Nova Scotia. When the English fleet came to Sale in 1637, the purpose was to ransom poor fishermen from English vessels seized off Newfoundland.

One musn't imagine the typical Sallee Rover-or indeed any sensible pirate-as lusting for violence, or even as particularly cruel. The Comte de Castries put it thus: “Rather than chance the glory of combat they preferred their prey disarmed and peaceful.” [Quoted by Coindreau, 1948: 133] It's an historian's cliche to say that the 17th century was “cruel”, or indeed that any century prior to the l9th or 20th was “cruel”. Once the modernist Euro-American chauvinism is stripped from such remarks, we are left with a perceived difference between “then” and “now”. The modern era has succeeded in repressing consciousness of its own cruelty by mediating between the act and the perception of the act, by means of technology. We call up and revel in images of violence in ways that would seem utterly diabolical to the meanest thug in the Bou Regreg Republic, and we create death and destruction in precisely the same disembodied and alienated fashion: by pushing a button. In the 17th century, despite advances in artillery, most life-and-death struggles had to be decided in hand-to-hand combat, using a technology not much advanced over that of the Bronze Age. (In fact, one credulous European traveller, William Lempriere, was persuaded by a humorous “native informant” in Sale that the corsairs' chief tactic was to hurl rocks at other ships-and this seemed quite reasonable to him, if a trifle primitive.) [Lempriere, 1791] A few pirates, like Low and Blackbeard, appear to have been sea-going sadists in a very precise and clinical sense of the term, and no doubt Sale attracted a few such types. But the truth is that combat is dangerous, and it's hard work. Corsairs were interested in booty, not “glory” (as a Frenchman might assume) or “manliness” (as an Englishman might assume); they were happy to be considered “cowards and bullies” so long as they won. And therefore they resorted to trickery and camouflage first, and only whipped out their flintlocks and scimitars as a last resort. Piracy can be viewed as an extreme case of the zerowork mentality: five or six months lolling around the Moorish cafes, then a summer cruise on a nice blue ocean, a few hours of exertion, and hey presto, another year of idleness has been financed. If pirates weren't lazy, they'd be cobblers or lead miners or fishermen-but like gangsters in old movies they thought “work is for saps,” and used every expedient to avoid it. As Pere Dan said, “The corsairs give chase to no Christian merchants without believing themselves the stronger; for if it be not the case that they enjoy an advantage of several to few, or of a great fleet to a small one, they rarely attack-for it's true that these infamous pirates are dastardly cowards at heart and never give battle without possessing great advantage.” [Coindreau, 1948: 134]

Naturally every corsair vessel would carry a fine collection of the flags and pennants of all nations, and would first attempt to pass as English to an English ship or Spanish to a Spanish; their own flag, the Man in the Moon, was doubtless rarely seen. [The flag of Sale, using an Islamic crescent but adding the image of a human face, seems to symbolize the Renegado's creed with heraldic precision. One is reminded of the legend that the Templars worshipped the Head of Baphomet and that the Moor's Head is a symbol in Rosicrucian alchemy; it's interesting to note that some modern Christian Fundamentalists consider the Man in the Moon a satanic device.] The trick of switching flags with Algerian corsairs has already been described.

Henry Mainwaring, in his memoirs, relates that the Sallee Rovers would strike all their sails at dawn and send a look-out aloft to scan the horizons for possible prey-once sighted, the potential victim would be scrutinized at length and discussed: merchantman or naval vessel? Too big to tackle or too small to bother? What strategy to adopt, what flag to unfurl, etc.? [Quoted in Coindreau, 1948: 137]

Having decided on pursuit and action, the corsairs would hope that a few cannon shots would induce a rational mood in the enemy captain (especially if his ship was insured!), and an immediate surrender. If not, they would have to board. “It is a terrible thing,” says Pere Dan, “to behold with what fury they attack a vessel. They swarm aboard the poopdeck, sleeves rolled to elbows and scimitars in hand, all together making a great hullabaloo to wither the courage of their victims.” Hopefully the show of menace and the wild shrieking would do the trick-real combat was the last resort and least favored tactic of all.

Whether or not a ship carried specie or cargo of any value, its crew and passengers constituted a guaranteed source of income.["From 1618 to 1626 alone, 6,000 Christians were captured and ransomed and prizes taken to the value of more than fifteen million pounds. In ten years, 162939, the Morisco Customs registered a total of 25 or 26 million ducats." [Caille, 1949 224] In 1626 a petition was presented to the Duke of Buckingham by "the distress'd wives of almost 2,000 poor mariners remaining most miserable captives in Sallee in Barbary." These poor husbands are "suffering such unspeakable misery and tortures that they are almost forc'd to convert from their Christian religion." [Norris, 1990: 66] The price of saving 2,000 souls from turning Turke might well be too high even for a Duke.] In Islamic Law “Captives of (holy) war” were not considered in the same category as “slaves”, but in some ways their position was worse. Slaves had distinct rights in Law, after all, but captives were simply human booty. That Sale financed its freedom by the ransoming and sale of human beings naturally tarnishes that freedom in our eyes, but we should hesitate to apply our modern sentiments to Sale alone. The Knights of Malta practised the same economics, but enjoyed no protodemocratic freedoms-and the British Navy “impressed” unwilling recruits into virtual slavery. In any case, since Moroccan sailors had given up the use of oar-driven galleys, few of their captives would suffer the fate of thousands upon thousands (like Miguel de Cervantes, or the early American anarchist William Harris of Rhode Island) [See Wilson, 1993] who languished as “galley slaves” in Algerian ships-or for that matter, in Maltese or Spanish ships.

He that's condemn'd to th'oare hath first his face,
Eyebrowes and head close shaven (for more disgrace
cannot betide a Christian). Then, being stript
to th' girdle (as when roagues are to be whipt),
Chain'd are they to the seates where they sit rowing,
Five in a row together; a Turke going
on a large plancke between them, and though their eyes
are ready to starte out with pulling, he cryes
“Worke, worke you Christian curres,” and though none needs
one blow for loytering, yet his bare back bleeds
and riseth up in bunches.
_ from “The Lamentable Cries of Prisoners in Algiers under the Turkes” (1624) [in Norris, 1990: 66]

Defoe describes Robinson Crusoe's life as a Sallee captive in more realistic terms than the fund-raising fanatics who toured Europe edifying audiences with tales of exotic tortures and rapes, and who were frequently suspected even then-of “yellow journalism”. Sale had no vast agricultural lands upon which to use their slaves, as in America, nor any industries in which to employ unskilled forced labor. The captives were primarily merchandise and as always with merchandise the rule was, you break it, you buy it. No one pays ransom for a corpse.

Thus the corsair's first task, which began immediately after taking a prize, was to determine the identities, or at least the qualities, of their captives. Renegadoes who spoke their languages would interrogate them, using guile by preference to torture, to elicit details. The corsairs developed a fascination with banA.s: soft hands of an aristo or merchant, calloused hands of a mere mariner, peculiar signs and deformations of certain trades and crafts, the telltale inkstain of literacy, even the lines of chiromancy to determine health, fate, personality. Certain captives, too poor for ransom but possessed of valuable skills, would be offered freedom if they turned Turk- armorers, metallurgists, shipbuilders, and the like were highly prized, and a literate man might aspire to the rank of seagoing scribe (one for each crew, to read captive ships' manifests and logs), or even a clerk's job in the Divan, or with some merchant or consul.

A young Irishman from Galway named Richard Joyce (or Joyes), emigrating to the West Indies in 1675, was captured by Algerian corsairs and held captive in Algiers for 14 years. There upon his arrival

  • he was purchased by a wealthy Turk who followed the profession of a goldsmith, and who observing his slave…to be tractable and ingenious, instructed him in his trade in which he speedily became an adept. The Moor, as soon as he heard of his release [i.e., that Joyce had been ransomed], offered him, in case he should remain, his only daughter in marriage, and with her half his property, but all these, with other tempting and advantageous proposals, Joyce resolutely declined; on his return to Galway he married, and followed the business of a goldsmith with considerable success, and, having acquired a handsome independence, he was enabled to purchase the estate of Rahoon…from Colonel Whaley, one of Cromwell's old officers.

[Quoted from J. Hardiman, 1820.] The secret of Joyce's success, according to Galway legend, was a ring he designed in Algiers based on Moorish symbols, a crowned heart (sometimes with a rose) held by two hands-the famous Claddagh Ring, symbol of love and friendship, almost as “Irish” as the Shamrock.

Joyce was not the only Barbary captive who ended by owing his fortune to some trade practiced or even learned in captivity. [For this and other fascinating legends (e.g. the first Claddagh ring was dropped in the lap of a young girl by an eagle!), see the delightful amateur history by Richard Joyce's descendant Gcily Joyce, Claddagh Ring Story, 1990.]

One of the rare first-hand accounts of Sale was written by a French captive, Germaine Mouette, “captured at sea December 16, 1670, sold at Sale on All Saints Day, for the sum of 360 ecus.”


His owners numbered four, of whom one actually held him as a slave. The other three each owned one-sixth of Mouette, having gone right away to the fondouk [or bagno, slave quarters] where he was taken after his sale [i.e., the other three bought sub-shares from the first owner]. The oldest was Muhammad al-Marrakohi, a government official, the second was a merchant of wool and oil called Mohammad Liebus, and the third was a Jew, Rabbi Yamin. M. al-Marrakohi took the slave home with him, where his wife gave Mouette white bread and butter with honey, and a few dates and raisins of Damascus. He was then returned to the fondouk, where he received a visit from the Jew who greeted him ceremoniously and promised him his freedom if his family would pay the ransom demanded by the four owners. If he did not at once write a letter to France to ask for this sum, he would be beaten with sticks and left to die in a pit. Mouette at once complied, but decided to lie and pretend to be no more than the brother of a cobbler-so the renegado who was serving as translator for the Jew declared that no profit could be expected in the sale of this slave. Next day Mouette was sent to the third owner, the wool and oil merchant, whose wife and mother-in-law took pity on the captive. At first they put him to grinding wheat, but when that task proved too tiring, they made him companion to the merchant's little son. When the good wife saw that the boy had grown attached to Mouette, she regaled him with more bread and butter, honey and fruits, and had removed from his legs the 25-pound chain he'd been forced to wear. She begged him to turn renegade and marry her niece.” [Mouette managed to weasel out of this situation by showering the woman with "the most tender and touching words in the world," ending up more in favor than before.]


Mouette remained there for a year without suffering too much, thanks to his supposed poverty. But at last the fourth owner, now Governor of the Casbah, grew impatient. He claimed his rights in Mouette and took him off to work in his stable. The slave was now reduced to black bread, and shared cramped and noisome quarters with other captives and poor Arabs. The governor renewed his demands for a ransom of 1,000 ecus, but Mouette still insisted on his poverty, and so now was sent to work with masons who were repairing the castle ramparts. The other workers mistreated him and beat him cruelly-thus finally inspiring him to raise the ransom money-and at last regain his freedom.


[Penz, 1944: 13-14] Compared with the horrendous tales of captivity circulated by Redemptionist Friars and other propagandists, Sieur Mouette's story has the ring of authenticity: clearly the captive's fate was no picnic, but it had its ups and downs, and even its possible routes of salvation or escape. Thus such accounts as the legend of Richard Joyce seem credible; and thus also we may understand how seductive the possibility of conversion to Islam might appear to captives like Joyce and Mouette. Those Moorish “nieces” for one thing! Those oriental women with their (almost) irresistible love magic!


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