The forgotten slaves of the West Country


Dorset’s forgotten ordeal: Rupert Hardy explores the impact of Barbary pirate invasions on local seafaring and family histories

The Bombardment of Algiers, 27 August 1816 by George Chambers

In recent years, many have focused on the iniquities of the transatlantic slave trade – but it is often forgotten that for more than 300 years, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall were at the mercy of Barbary pirates from North Africa. Countries as far north as Iceland were attacked, with the west coast of England a particular target. Estimates of the slaves taken from Europe between 1530 and 1780 total well over a million men, women and children.
The story is a complex one and most of these ‘pirates’ were actually privateers or corsairs, operating under the mandate of sovereign states. Their existence owed much to the rise of the Ottoman empire, which expanded rapidly in the 16th century, threatening Europe. Privateers were effectively part of the Ottoman navy, checking all shipping and enforcing trade agreements. Their aim was not just to capture valuable merchandise and slaves for the slave markets in North Africa, or to ransom their captives – they also paid tax on all the assets captured. It wasn’t just North Africans – privateers included English and Dutch nationals who had fallen foul of their home countries. One of the most infamous was John Ward, who led a mass desertion from King James I’s navy in 1604. He is said to be the inspiration behind Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow.
The Christian propagandists liked to convey a picture of dreadful deeds committed by Muslims, with no mention of the part that Christian Europe played. In the 16th century, the Knights of St John in Malta were attacking Ottoman ships and selling Muslim slaves. They were effectively privateers too.

West Country attacks
The impact of the raids on England by Barbary corsairs was noted from the late 16th century – partly as a result of an ineffective naval deterrent. The situation was so terrible that an entry in the British Calendar of State Papers in May 1625 stated: ‘The Turks are upon our coasts. They take ships only to take the men to make slaves of them.’
Barbary corsairs raided coastal villages as well as ships out at sea. In August 1625, corsairs raided Mount’s Bay in Cornwall, capturing 60 men, women and children. It was feared that there were around 60 Barbary men-o-war stalking the English coast the English coast. The situation was so bad that in that same year Charles I sent a mission to North Africa to try to buy back 2,000 slaves – it was reported that there were up to 5,000 English people in captivity in Algiers alone.
Charities were also set up to help ransom the captives and local fishing communities clubbed together to raise money to free their own.
In 1645, another raid by corsairs on the Cornish coast saw 240 men, women and children kidnapped. The following year Parliament sent Edmund Cason to Algiers to negotiate the release of English captives. He paid around £30 per man (women were more expensive) and managed to free some 250 people before he ran out of money. By the 1650s the attacks were so frequent that they threatened England’s fishing industry, with fishermen reluctant to leave their families unprotected ashore when they put out to sea.

These images are from a series by engraver Andreas Matthäus Wolfgang, who trained with his father and then, with his brother Johann, in England.
On their return trip in 1684, the brothers were abducted by pirates and taken to Algiers where they were sold as slaves. They were only released, around 1691, after a ransom was paid.
The series can be seen in the Lichtenstein Collection here – left is a Captain of an Algerian pirate ship and right is an Algerian pirate steersman

Although the situation was worse in Devon and Cornwall, Dorset was hit too. In the 1620s the Mayor of Poole reported that 27 ships and 200 sailors were seized off the Dorset coast in a ten day period. There are documents in Lyme Regis Museum listing a number of mariners taken captive in the 1670s, and the large ransoms paid to free them. The Dirdoe family of Gillingham were also affected – two male members of the family were captured in 1636, but one was freed the following year thanks to the Admiralty organising a small fleet to rescue them and others.
Oliver Cromwell declared that any captured “pirates” should be taken to Bristol and drowned. Lundy Island, which corsairs had made their base, was attacked, but despite this, they continued to raid coastal villages.
There is a vivid account of the trade in Samuel Pepys’ diary in an entry from 1661:
“Went to the Fleece Tavern to drink; and there we spent till four o’clock, telling stories of Algiers, and the manner of the life of slaves there! And truly Captn. Mootham and Mr. Dawes (who have been both slaves there) did make me fully acquainted with their condition there: as, how they eat nothing but bread and water. … How they are beat upon the soles of their feet and bellies at the liberty of their padron.“

The slave’s lot
The ruling pasha had the right to claim one in eight of all Christians captured. The men were mostly used to row the slave galleys, but in winter they worked on state projects, such as quarrying stone or building new galleys. They were fed on bread and water, with only one change of clothing each year. The pasha also bought most of the female captives, who were either taken into the harem or ransomed. Slaves were of any skin colour or religion, but those who converted to Islam were normally saved from rowing the galleys.
The rich were usually ransomed, while the poor would end their days dying of starvation, disease or maltreatment. Some have argued that North Africa was more of an interfaith-tolerant society than Christian Europe.
Ending the trade
There was no formal system for ransoming slaves until after 1640, when the Catholic clergy played the biggest role in repatriating the captives (the Protestants were more disorganised). Many countries found the best response was to pay a subsidy to the Barbary States – Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
Eventually in 1675 Sir John Narborough, with a Royal Navy squadron, managed to negotiate a peace with Tunis. A naval bombardment by the British then brought about peace with Tripoli. Algiers was attacked not only by British warships but also by the French and Spanish.
The 18th century saw reduced corsair activity, partly as the Ottoman Empire was on the retreat. But then the upheaval in Europe caused by the French Revolution triggered renewed attacks as the respective European navies were busy fighting each other instead. After Napoleon’s defeat, the focus shifted back to suppressing the corsairs.
Even the United States fought two wars against the Barbary States. After a formidable final attack by the British and Dutch on Algiers in 1816, more than 4,000 Christian slaves were liberated and the power of the Barbary corsairs was mostly broken. It did not end until France’s colonial occupation of Algeria in 1830.


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