The Barbary Pirates
In the 19th century slavery was almost ubiquitous in the world, but they Barbary Coast, stretching 1,500 miles from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Gulf of Sirte in Libya, was unique in being the only area where white men and women were subjected to it in large numbers. The Barbary pirates, using what would now be call a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as their pretext, regularly kidnapped Christian livestock from Italy, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica and from the ships of all nations sailing the Mediterranean. In the 17th century their corsairs had cruised in the waters of Northern Europe as well and at one time Algiers had held as many as 25,000 white Christians as slaves.
Wealthy captives could usually obtain ransom without difficulty. The rest were treated with varying degrees of barbarity. Few were actually behind bars, being allowed to roam the town, prevented from escaping by chains weighing 50 pounds. Torture was used to obtain conversions to Islam: “turning Turk,” as Western sailors called it. Crucifixion, the bastinado, impalement and castration were routine. Well-connected women prisoners were ransomed quickly and were not usually molested. But rape was also common and there were tales of Christian women being mutilated and murdered. Most women who could not raise a ransom were, if pretty, married off to locals, or put into harems as concubines. To make them fat and thus increase their salability, they were forced to eat large quantities of bread dipped in syrup.
The West’s supine attitude toward the horrors of Barbary piracy had long aroused fury in some quarters. Officers of the British navy were particularly incensed since seaman were frequently victims of the trade. More effective in this respect were the exploits of the Americans, who put the British government on its mettle. The activities of the corsairs, who did not scruple to kidnap Yankee sailors, led to the new republic’s first experiment in geopolitics. It was principally on their account that Congress decided to establish a navy in 1794, and America consistently refused to ransom captives in the European way by handing over money, powder, shot, and arms to the Muslims. As President Jefferson put it, “Millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.” From 1803 Washington, in effect, made war against the beys. In one episode in 1805 American marines marched across the desert from Egypt into Tripolitania, forcing Tripoli to make peace and surrender all American slaves, and giving rise to the famous line in the U.S. Marine Corps anthem, “From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli.” (Birth of the Modern, pp. 286, 287, 288).