Piracy, Slavery, Ransom and Tribute
For centuries, the Barbary Coast has boasted an organized system of commercial piracy that makes the buccaneers of the Caribbean Sea seem crude by comparison. In the cities of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, wealthy merchants invest in outfitting expeditions, working with the approval of the local ruler and carrying crews of janissary soldiers into battle. Any loot they acquire is divided according to a predetermined contract. For example, with Algerian booty, 10% of the value would go to the Dey, and 1% would be taxed for repairs to the mole; the remains would be split evenly between the backers of the voyage and the crew.
Even more important than material goods, however, is the traffic in slaves. Those who are taken as prisoners aboard a prize vessel are loaded aboard the corsair ship, with men chained below decks in the cargo hold. Women taken as slaves are generally kept separate from the rest, in a protected area where they remain unmolested. (After all, it is important that they arrive in the slave market in an unspoiled condition.) This human cargo is fed a crude diet of coarse black bread and oil or thin soup in order to keep them fairly healthy.
Once they reach port, the slaves are taken to the bagnio where they live until (and often after) being purchased. New slaves were inspected like animals, especially for signs of being unaccustomed to labor; after all, those who could have wealthy relatives back in Europe become especially valuable. All slaves are made to wear iron rings on their ankles as a sign of their status. Some might even be given an emetic to find any valuables they might have swallowed.
After inspection, the slaves are sent on to different fates. Women are often purchased for the harems of the wealthy, and blonde and red-headed women are considered especially exotic. Those who possess useful skills, such as carpentry or other crafts, might be given a limited amount of freedom in which to practice their trades—with their owners claiming shares of the profits, of course. Slaves who can be identified are held for ransom, with notification being sent to their families in order to arrange a price. The most dreaded fate awaits those who are chosen for hard labor, such as hauling stones for the mole in Algiers harbor or serving as a rower aboard a galley. Those who are sent to the galleys have their heads shaved.
Some slaves opt to “turn Turk” instead of suffering captivity. To do so they convert to Islam, at which point they are freed. Many of those who do so become renegadoes, serving aboard a corsair vessel and putting their skills to use by the Barbary powers. They become particularly reviled back home, regarded as turncoats by other Europeans.
This system has given rise to an unusual kind of diplomacy between the Barbary powers and their European fellows. Sometimes, instead of risking having its ships taken by corsairs, a country decides to pay tribute to the local ruler in exchange for a guarantee of safe passage. This usually lasts until the corsairs renege on the agreement, or until the country's government works up the gumption to stage an attack and demand a better arrangement.
Map and Locations
Refer to the appropriate map to find the following locations. This is a modified version based on one created by Daniel Dalet, from the following website: http://dmaps.com/carte.phplib=wide_mediterranean_sea_map&num_car=3135&lang=en.
This major port sits at the point where the Nile River flows into the Mediterranean. As such, it serves as a hub of trade for Cairo and the rest of Egypt. At one time it boasted two impressive buildings, the famed lighthouse and library. Sadly, the prior fell into the sea following an earthquake, while the latter was burned to the ground during political turmoil involving Julius Caesar.
Refer to the section about this city, below, for greater details.
This is the largest city in Egypt, up the Nile River from Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to being a center for commerce and education, it lies close to the famous pyramids of Giza.
This island is the legendary home of the Lotus-Eaters, encountered by Odysseus and his crew during their wanderings. It lies some fifty miles off the coast of Tunisia, and was used as a place of exile for deposed Tunisian rulers. Even so, it is describes as being almost barren, with little more than a few huts for habitation.
The strait between two elevated coastlines—once known as the Pillars of Herakles and considered the edge of civilization by the Greeks—marks the entry point to the Mediterranean.
This is home to the Ottoman Sultan, who lives in the beautiful Topkapi Palace. As such, it is the center of the Empire. Before being conquered it was known as Constantinople, the center of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The capital and chief port of Portugal, it is especially known as a launching point for voyages of exploration around the coast of Africa and thus to India, the East Indies, and even so far as China and Japan.
This island has come to be the home of the Knights of Malta, an order descended from the famous Knights Hospitaller. That group, after being expelled from the Holy Land following the Muslim conquest, eventually made its way via Rhodes and Cyprus to this island, where it now carries on its war against Islam.
Ruled by its own Emperor, Morocco is therefore independent from Ottoman rule. It maintains its own fleet of corsairs, who tend more frequently than others to venture into northern waters. Even so, its rulers have also attempted at times to make peace with various European powers. One Emperor, Ismail, was rumored to keep a collection of wild beasts and occasionally fed slaves to it. He is also said to have boasted a large harem that produced some five hundred sons.
Steeped in antiquity, Rome is home to the Vatican and the Pope, and therefore the center of the Catholic faith. While it is not as much of a maritime power as cities like Venice, it still claims considerable influence given the power of the church.
Sallee is something of an anomaly, this port is ruled by the Taifat al-Ra'is, a council of corsairs (with fourteen members, including the admiral). In this way, it resembles the pirate communities of New Providence and certain communiites on the islands off of Madagascar, known as Libertalia. In addition to a seaport, it boasts an ancient necropolis, the Chellah, that dates back to 600 BCE.
Tripoli is built on Greek and Roman ruins. Indeed, its name comes from the Greek word tripolis, meaning “three cities,” since it stood in the middle of a trio of settlements. It is ruled by a Pasha (Bashaw) and is the weakest of the corsair cities. The land surrounding Tripolis is very rich, used to grow dates, oranges, figs, olives and lemons.
Tunis lies near ruins of Carthage, on the inside edge of lake that is five miles wide. The seaside entrance to the lake is guarded by a stout fort; this, combined with the fact that water is very shallow and must be dredged to allow ships, makes for a solid defensive position. Tunis boasts a population of 150,000 people. It is ruled by a Bey.
This Italian city is perhaps the strongest maritime power in the Mediterranean. Its military has long fought against the Turkish forces, including the famous Battle of Lepanto as well as a long-running struggle for the island of Crete. Venice is also quite powerful when it comes to mercantile interests, boasting at one time three thousand ships in the water.
The City of Algiers
When it comes to piracy on the Caribbean Sea, no city is more notorious than Port Royal. As far as such activity on the Mediterranean Sea is concerned, the city of Algiers has just as much intrigue and infamy.
Algiers is located on the coast of North Africa, roughly halfway between the Strait of Gibraltar and the point where the coastline turns south in the vicinity of Tunis. The city itself is nestled amidst hills rising up from the shoreline; its white-washed buildings create a dazzling sight for newcomers. It is surrounded by a wall twenty-five feet in height and roughly three miles in length. A number of gates provide access through this; they include the Customs Gate, or Bab al-Gazira (Area 4), which opens onto the waterfront; the Bab Azoun (Area 5) and New Gate (Area 7), which lead out to the east; the Bab el-Oued (Area 9), to the northwest; and other minor ones (Areas 6 and 8). Beyond the city itself there are training grounds for the local janissaries, along with private country estates for the very wealthy, including numerous beautiful orchards and gardens. There is also a series of lookout posts with bonfires that can be used to warn of an impending attack.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the city is the islet in the harbor, el Peńon (Area 1). It is connected to the harbor by a man-made mole (Area 2), a long and narrow pile of rocks across which the city wall runs. It is perhaps six or seven yards wide, and more than three hundred paces in length. This creates an excellent harbor, and provides numerous locations for cannon with which to defend the ships anchored in it. This mole has come to symbolize the burden of the slaves who live in Algiers, since it was built through their labor. One of the major barracks for the janissaries is located on el Peńon, as those soldiers are entrusted with protecting the harbor during times of attack.
In the center of the city is the Dey's palace (Area 3), a lavish structure of marble and alabaster that houses the local ruler, his bodyguard and advisors and, of course, his harem. Tales from those who have visited the palace describe it as labyrinthine, a place in which those who are not supposed to be there could easily become lost.
Atop the slope of the hill sits the Casbah (Area 10), a major fortress that is often used as a market for slaves, or bedistan. It stands at a height of five hundred feet above the harbor. Beneath that and the waterfront is a complicated sprawl of buildings. Although there are a number of broader streets that serve as main thoroughfares, many are twelve feet wide or less, and are overhung with buildings, thus creating a maze that can be disorienting for those who are not familiar with the city.
The population of the city is roughly 120,000 people, living in some 15,000 houses. It consists of a tremendous variety of people, including Arabs who have migrated to the region, local Berbers from the highlands to the south, Moors who have fled from Spain, and some four thousand janissaries who represent the authority of the Ottoman Empire. There are also numerous free Christian and Jewish residents, along with thousands of slaves.
The Jews live in ghettos and wear black clothing with tricorn hats; they act as brokers between Christians and Muslims. This is due in part to an Islamic ban on moneylending, creating a niche market that provides a rare opportunity for Jewish citizens. Indeed, such banking business often involves them in efforts to ransom captives; they provide loans and letters of credit for petitioners, then follow up on collecting those debts back in Europe.
Most of the city's Christian residents are slaves. There are also representatives of various European governments, ambassadors or consuls for various countries. They act as intermediaries for visitors, helping to arrange meetings with government officials and thus broker deals. Another distinct group is formed by members of the Mercedarian and Trinitarian orders, clerical and lay brethren dedicated to redeeming the slaves who are held in Algiers.
These slaves fill a number of roles in the city's economy. Some are simple laborers, cutting stone from the surrounding hills and hauling it to the mole to help maintain it. Others run their own businesses, giving some of their profits to their masters in exchange for a little bit of freedom. This is why individuals with marketable skills, such as carpenters and the like, demand higher prices in the slave market than others. Of course, the most valuable of the captives claimed are women of exotic appearance who might go to serve in the Dey's harem or those of other influential people. The final groups of (former) slaves are those who have converted to Islam—or “turned Turk,” as it is known in Europe—and thus gained their freedom.
The janissaries are perhaps the most important power group in the city. They are direct representatives of the Ottoman throne, acting as advisors as part of the Dey's divan and even voting when it comes to choosing new leadership. Indeed, there have been times when the janissaries decided that a change was necessary and took it into their own hands to eliminate an old ruler.
The city of Algiers is a hub of trade throughout the surrounding region. While much of this business is supplied through legitimate means, there's no doubt that organized piracy is an important industry here. Wealthy citizens invest in outfitting ships and crews, who are accompanied by janissaries. These voyages can include cruises to prey upon European shipping, along with razzias against specific towns to take slaves and spoils.
Much of the trade in the city, therefore, supports this piracy. That includes crafts such as carpentry, cooperage and related businesses, as well as the merchants who help to dispose of booty. During the daytime, the city's marketplaces are filled with merchants and others who are selling all manner of foodstuffs and goods. Most notable are the bedistans, the markets used when shiploads of slaves are brought to the city. This hustle and bustle is broken only when the muezzins issue their calls to prayer.
After dark is a special time in the city. That is when the rooftops of many buildings are opened to the women who spend most of the other time sequestered in their homes. This allows them to move about without being exposed to the lusty gazes of men—although certain brave fellows are willing to risk official wrath in order to make a romantic visit.
Those slaves who spend the day toiling for the profit of their masters, come the evening, are taken back either to individual homes or to the bagnios, large buildings that houses scores and sometimes even hundreds of slaves. Indeed, these structures often include shops run by bondsmen, giving them an opportunity to earn money for themselves while also turning a profit for their masters.
The janissaries provide law enforcement in the city and serve aboard vessels leaving for specific missions. When they are not engaged in such activities, they entertain themselves via contests of martial skill such as archery, wrestling and horseback riding.