Barbary Corsairs- Conversos and Moriscos

The Cornish coast, England: 

The third week of July 1625, the first sightings of a strange fleet are recorded. As the morning mist lifted, a lookout sighted this strange but menacing fleet gliding up the English Channel. The colours they flew was perplexing, as it was a human skull on a dark green background. It was too early for the Newfoundland fishermen to be returning and no foreign flotillas were expected. No, this sight was menacing and Cornwall was about to be hit by a menace that would last for 200 years.

barbary pirate

An example of a Barbary Pirate flag. Many other flags were used which will appear below.<

Barbary xebec ship

A Corsair Xebec, a very nimble ocean going vessel.<

The news of the arrival went quickly up the coast until it reached the ears of Vice Admiral James Bragg at the naval base in Plymouth. He was told of at least 20 enemy ships, well armed and manned. He would have been very alarmed seeing that over the past months he had been receiving many reports and accounts of attacks at sea where Cornish fishing skiffs were boarded, the men captured or killed and the skiffs scuppered or left to drift. Many mayors along the coast had also reported sporadic attacks on their villages. These attacks were a daily occurrence and the authorities were well aware of them. At this point, I would ask you to ponder why the greatest naval power in the world did not have patrols in our territorial waters.

The Vice Admiral was very alarmed because this new menace had now dared to venture right up the English channel, cruising past the coast with its skull flag, indicative of a more daring strike against England. He penned an urgent appeal to the Lord High Admiral in London, asking for warships to be sent to repel this menace. The inaction up to this point allowed these Barbary Corsairs to attack seaports and coastal villages with impunity. If anything was to be done, it should have already happened. It was far too late to stop these barbarians as they pillaged and murdered their way up the coast. It was not just the material wealth they were after though, they were after the strongest men, women and children, to be snatched away and sold into slavery in North Africa and beyond.

It is now that you should consider the character and type of people that were being attacked. These were the gentle Christian English folk who were obedient to the Gospel of Jesus and who worked hard all week to support themselves and their families, until Sunday, where they attended their local Parish Church and gave thanks and worshipped the Almighty God. They would also offer up a tithe of their income or produce to the Church who would then feed the poor and tend their flock. The men were raised to respect and honour their parents and womenfolk, would dress modestly and try and live the Gospel code of morality. A far cry from the scantily dressed fame whores of today! Some of our English people were more successful than others and yet others barely made ends meet but collectively, they survived and for the most part, thrived.

The severity and barbarity of these attacks must not be underestimated. These Corsairs were cruel and fierce. In stark contrast to the gentle civilised folk of Britain, the appearance of these savages in a Cornish Parish village would have shocked and terrified the people exceedingly, having never set their eyes upon the likes of these brutes with their shaven heads, djellaba dress, bared arms and torsos, brandishing scimitars and screaming in a strange language.

Mortelmans Barbary

Corsairs carrying away their plunder and human cargo.

Barbary Pirate

A typical Barbarian Corsair. The higher ranking usually wore more flamboyant outfits

At Mount Bay, Cornwall, they attacked the congregation and carried off sixty men, women and children. They also attacked the fishing village of Looe, Cornwall and forced themselves into taverns and homes only to find them empty because the village folk were forewarned and ran to hide in the surrounding countryside. Despite this, they managed to capture around 80 fishermen and torched the village as they left with the fishermen in chains. Plymouth Mayor informed the Privy Council of the devastation and capture of hundreds of Christian slaves up and down the coastline. He informed the Privy Council that some twenty seven ships were destroyed and two hundred souls were taken. A report then came from the Bristol Mayor that another fleet of barbarians had attacked and captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel. The Banner of Barbary was raised and from this stronghold they continued to sack and plunder the unprotected villages of the northern Cornish coast. The West Country was completely caught by surprise and the barbarians attacked Padstow and Ilfracombe. Many hundreds of white Christian slaves were captured and many were murdered. They would often butcher the old and infirm who had no value to them and usually murdered the protesting Parish Priests. The outraged Duke of Buckingham ordered the veteran of the seas, Francis Stuart, to root out and destroy this new menace. He was shocked by the expertise of the Corsairs seamanship and they quickly outsmarted and dodged him. His letter of defeat to the Duke admitted the Corsairs superiority on the sea and expressed that he feared that the worst was yet to come. The Cornish and Devon coastline had meagre defences and the corsairs found rich pickings there. Throughout the summer of 1625, the Barbarians attacked and plundered daily with impunity. They sacked, destroyed, pillaged and captured the defenceless Christian souls always burning cottages, churches and skiffs as they left. The Mayor of Plymouth recorded that some one thousand skiffs had been destroyed and about a thousand or more souls were captured. Indeed, Francis Stuart was quite right. The worst was yet to come and it would not be only the British who would be attacked but Spain, Ireland and Iceland too. Any vessel found in the Atlantic was always attacked which affected trade between the colonial Americas and general trade between European countries especially those in the Mediterranean. The Straits of Gibraltar were exceptionally dangerous to navigate. Strangely, the mighty British Navy was nowhere to be seen. Apart from Francis Stuarts feeble attempt to send the enemy packing, the Royal Navy was absent. This is a very important point which I will make clear later.

They carried off these wretched Christians and took them to diverse ports along the Northern African coast depending who the Corsairs were allied with. The most popular port was found on the Moroccan Atlantic coast and was called Sale and it was here that the White Slave started. The only commodity for sale in Sale were White Christian slaves and it is found on the north bank of the Bou Regreg river while Rabat is on the South side. Sale had massive city walls with turrets and green glazed minarets which could be seen some distance from the Atlantic. It was not always a slave port and what is very interesting is that England and Sale had a rich merchant history together. For many years Sale was a source of incredibly exotic merchandise that was brought in from far flung regions of Africa. These would include food produce such as the famed Meknes honey, dates, oils as well as sugar and other exotic treats. Ivory and the skins and pelts of diverse beasts were to be found. Many English merchants grew rich from this trade where they would bring English produce such as wool, silver, tin and crafted goods to exchange, haggle and barter.

Up to the late 1500’s, Rabat, Morocco, was  a flourishing port but fell into abandonment and decay whilst Sale continued to flourish. It was virtually completely abandoned but was given a new lease of life when King Phillip III of Spain expelled the last of the Moriscos from the South of Spain in 1609. These were the most independent and ferocious of these expelled groups and were called Hornacheros from Andalusia. They were totally ruthless in all their dealings and even the other Moriscos considered them to be devils. They had no qualms about stealing, cheating and pillaging. Finding the abandoned city of Rabat they quickly resettled it and restored the fortress (Kasbah). These Hornacheros numbered about 4,500 and it is specifically these that harboured great hatred for Christianity and especially Spain. A most unsavoury bunch of people who abused the Spanish Christians hospitality and behaved like parasitic leeches whilst pretending to be converts. The expulsion of the Moorish  infidels had started much earlier with Isabella of Castile ,the queen who helped shape Spain’s identity and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon. They expelled the Jews (Conversos) and Moors (Moriscos) in 1492 because they had been found to be practising their own religions and only pretended to be Christian converts. In total,about 1 million had been expelled over the years and even though many were of mixed race, they were forbidden to appeal. Indeed, it was these devils that had vowed to strike back at Christendom and so they began to forge alliances with pirates from every port on the North African coastline who had already been preying on Christian vessels for over a century. Algiers and Tunis were the main pirate ports but within a few years, Rabat became the training ground for the dark arts of piracy and soon drew every sort of low life vagabond and criminal from across the region. The training was intense and a strict admiralty code was enforced. It wasn’t long before the Hornacheros and their new allies became a sizeable fighting force and were now ready to start seeking revenge. To the Moors they became know as the al-ghuzat, named after the soldiers who had fought the prophet Mohammad (PBUH). In England they became known as the Salle Rovers.

Further reading on the expulsions may be found here, Guardian newspaper’s take on the expulsions and here: Muslim take on the expulsions. General information about Sale and Rabat to be found here:

Modern day Rabat and Sale and its geographic location in Morocco. Meknes was the Imperial City which is where unbelievable horrors awaited the wretched slaves.

Christian white-european-slaves barbary

Taking their captives to shore

.Together with the Ottoman flag, some Algerine ships used the so-called Barbary ensign reproduced in numerous XVIIIth and XIXth century plates

This Ensign was used by the Algerine ships and is closely associated with the Ottoman Empire.


Barbary flag Algeria 14th century to 1671

This is another Algerine Ensign used from the 14th Century through to 1671. The slaves would become very familiar with these signs and symbols.


Barbary corsair flagsTunch Khans Barbary Flags star of David

Various Barbary Flags and Ensigns.

This new phenomenon known as the Salle Rovers did not curtail themselves to Rabat and expanded into Sale where they built bathhouses, palaces, houses and fortified the city. As their wealth grew they duly expanded into every major port city across northern Africa and later, down the west African coast where they turned their hand to the black slave trade. They mastered square rigging and this enabled them to extend their reach deep into the Atlantic and to Iceland. They soon had a fleet of 50 ships and 10,000 men and attacked Spain without mercy. They plundered and sacked coastal villages and towns with impunity and it wasn’t until the Spanish built coastal forts that they were stopped. They also attacked Portugal, France, England, Wales, Ireland and Iceland. Iceland was attacked in the summer of 1627. The Icelandic people produced an excellent documentary which I see has been pulled from the internet. It was called “Atlantic Jihad” but the following video is still available although it is full of untruths and inaccuracies. Janzoon was a Jew Converso,not a Christian: Atlantic Jihad The Arab historian, al-Magiri, wrote extensively of the Salle Rovers and their Atlantic Jihad. A remarkable story is that of Thomas Pellow who was eleven years old when he was captured in 1716 and he spent 23 years as a slave in Morocco. He wrote a book about his experience and it is a harrowing tale but it offers remarkable insights to court life, strife and daily routines of the slaves and their masters. Giles Milton is a writer and journalist who wrote a magnificent masterpiece of historical significance which he based around Thomas Pellow. His book is well researched and the last chapter contains many references to every page of his masterpiece. I urge you to buy and read this work.

The mercantile age had begun and heavily laden merchant ships were trading  extensively between Britain and Europe. Between 1609 and 1616 the Salle Rovers had attacked at least 466 English trading ships. They grew emboldened by their success and the lack of reprisals from European Monarchies and quickly expanded their area of operation and attacked further and further away from Sale.

To be continued…

Excellent resource for information on pirates with references to many historical and academic works by various authors through the years. Pirate Resource material with the best being by Roger Coindreau who wrote Les corsaires de Salé in 1948.


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