Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Arab Muslim raiding in the Atlantic and North Atlantic

While on convoy duty in the Mediterranean, Captain John Kempthorne in the ‘Mary Rose’ was attacked by seven Algerine corsairs. With the help of only a ketch, the ‘Roe’, they were none the less repulsed and the whole convoy saved.

This well-finished drawing is based on Hollar’s etching of the incident in Ogilby’s ‘Africa’ (1670), though the drawing has more smoke and the ships are more accurate. It has a high horizon and in the centre middle distance shows a port-broadside view of the ‘Mary Rose’. On her port bow is a pink (copied from the incorrect etching) and the ‘Hamborough’ frigate. On her beam is a Scotch merchantman and, on her quarter, the ‘Roe’. In line to starboard are six of the Algerines, the ‘Half Moon’, ‘Orange Tree’, ‘Seven Stars’, ‘White Horse’, ‘Hart’ and ‘Golden Lion. In the left foreground is a French merhantman and in the right distance the Algerine ‘Rose Leaf’ pursuing a prize that was cast adrift.
After expulsion of the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th Century, Moslems frequently raided the coasts of Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, France, England, Ireland, and Iceland and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Cyprus, sacked their towns and carried their inhabitants back to North Africa, where they were enslaved because they were 'infidels.

The Barbary pirates of North Africa were sometimes called "Turkish corsairs". Operating out of North Africa they were the terror of the Mediterranean (and elsewhere...a Lutheran preacher and his family were once abducted from Iceland) for several centuries. They raided European shipping and even coastal Europe, and at one point, collectively had one million European slaves (many lighter-skinned North Africans are supposedly their descendants). The Catholic Church had a specific order dedicated to ransoming prisoners; one famous prisoner of the pirates was Cervantes.

Due to their usefulness as potential military allies, most European states preferred to pay them not to bother their shipping. It took two wars in the early 1800s for them to stop molesting US shipping; the Europeans paid tribute until the 1830s. However, increasing international intolerance of piracy and European conquest of Northern Africa put an end to their shenanigans.

Their apogee was in the early 17th Century. Between 1616 and 1642, fourteen Cornish ships were brought into Algiers alone -- out of a total of eighty-four owned in the county in 1626.

1627 raids against Iceland which took 300+people.

1629 Barbary Coast pirates (navy) attacked the Faeroe Islands and took some 30 women as slaves.

1630 raid against Weston-super-Mare

1631 sack of Baltimore (i.e. Baltimore, Ireland) and took 109 captives.

The Isles of Scilly which lie about thirty miles off the south west tip of England were raided. They are strategically important as they hold the weather gage for the English Channel.  Traditionally they had been rented from the monarch by the Godolphin family for ten pounds per year although the rent had been paid in puffins, a bird very prolific on the islands and said to be such a delicacy that it had been classified as fish so that it could be eaten on Fridays.

It was as late as 1636 that Sir Francis Godolphin, his brother and their wives were captured and killed by what contemporary reports called 'Turkish pirates'. This was a generic term to cover Turk, Moors and Algerians who were frequently seen off the Isles, though their traditional prey had become the fishing fleets returning from Newfoundland. Their activities only ceased in 1816 when a combined fleet of English and Dutch ships destroyed Algiers.


In that age the technological dependence upon the wind made it quite possible for single ships or even a handful of ships sailing together to evade interception or even detection. A prevailing wind moving inshore that would pin the defenders' ships in port could still be used by hostile ships at sea to descend upon undefended parts of the coast. In just one instance, John Paul Jones was able during the American Revolution to sail around the British Isles in a single ship, even carrying one attack in Ireland to within sight of Carrickfergus Castle and the town of Belfast itself. The pirates of Algiers used vessels equipped with lateen sails rather than square sails, enabling them to sail closer to the direction of the wind than the European vessels with their square rigs.

The problem lies in the understanding of "maritime power" in relation to the technology of the time. In the 16th and early 17th Century, "command of the seas" was not even worth considering in the context most people refer to it from the Napoleonic period to modern times. In his seminal work, "The Influence of Sea Power on History", Alfred Thayer Mahan dismisses the period entirely. Difficulties in accurate longitudinal measurement (centered around accurate timekeeping), limitations in ship and sail design in relation to the wind, poor food preservation and cost of maintaining a navy prevented a continuous 'at sea' capability by the world's navies until very late in the 17th Century, if not the 18th Century.

Witness the actions of the English fleet in the months prior to the sailing of the Armada in 1588. Despite the fervent pleas from captains Howard, Hawkins and Drake, for Elizabeth to keep the fleet in port and with skeleton crews until the very last possible moment, primarily due to the cost and difficulty of keeping it at 'battle readiness' for an attack they knew was eventually coming. Even when it became apparent the battle was won in the weeks after the last combat at the Gravelines, she put the ships to port and released as many crews as possible. The crown simply lacked the wherewithal to maintain such a force beyond the time of crisis.

The Spanish themselves could not hope to assemble the Armada without purchasing and contracting merchant ships for the temporary purpose of the invasion. They even "conscripted" an entire squadron from the Genoese and used the captured galleons of the Portuguese fleet in the enterprise. For Phillip II the worst tragedy of the Armada was not the missed opportunity, nor the combat losses, nor the loss of men. What really galled him were the costs incurred in the extended time it took to assemble, outfit and prepare the fleet and the disastrous replacement and repair costs of the ships once they returned.

This was just for major fleet action. Coastal raiders, navigating by hugging the coast and landing in essentially a 'snatch' operation, would be almost unmolested. This is why the coast of the Mediterranean is dotted with watch towers and small forts. Sea power through the Renaissance was never enough to stop raiders. When they moved into the Atlantic, it was more in response to the relative "cost" of raiding the minimally fortified coastline of the Med than the nearly defenceless coastlines mentioned above. Additionally, since the increase of trade with the new world and Far East increasingly became an Atlantic endeavour, it only stands to reason that the pirates, corsairs and raiders would 'follow the money' out of the Med and into the Atlantic.

It may have also been a "peace dividend" of sorts. The principle source of slaves for the Turks, Christian and Pirate navies of the Med were the captured sailors and soldiers in naval battles, either fleet or small squadrons. As the Turkish Empire receded and the maritime operations of the Med decreased, the supply of fresh slaves decreased dramatically.


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