How West communities faced 300 years of terror from Barbary pirates
Ian Hernon, author of Fortress Britain, reveals how Cornwall and Devon were targets for fearsome Barbary pirates for three centuries.
The appearance of sinister black ships over the horizon caused panic along the Cornish and Devon coastline. Villagers fled inland, fishermen cut their nets and tried to flee.
Many did not escape and ended as slaves in the galleys, quarries, fields and palaces of North Africa.
And these were not isolated incidents. For 300 years the Westcountry was terrorised by the Barbary pirates, fearsome raiders who burnt settlements, sank ships and carried off thousands of men, women and children into slavery.
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There are no records of exactly how many were enslaved, but it is thought that around 8,500 new slaves were needed annually to replenish numbers.
Most came from Christian countries nearer to the African shore, but an estimated 1,500 a year were taken from the South West and Ireland during during the 17th century peak. The entire population of some hamlets simply disappeared.
In Cornwall the Corsairs generally found it easier simply to snatch fishing vessels to take away their crews.
In June 1636, St Keverne was attacked several times. Seven boats fishing off the Manacles were taken and 50 crewmen enslaved.
The same squadron of pirates also took five boats from Looe which were engaged in deep sea fishing off the Irish coast.
Empty vessels were left drifting without crews or sails. Women wept in the knowledge that they would not see their men again.
The captain of a Plymouth barque reported that he sailed to St Keverne where he heard "with sorrowful complaint and lamentable tears of women and children, that on the 15th instant three fisherboats belonging to St Keverne, three others of Helford, and one more of Mollan [Mullion] and about 50 men in them, being on the coast fishing near Black Head, between Falmouth and the Lizard, not three leagues off the shore, were taken by the Turks who carried both men and boats away".
The frequency of the attacks threatened the region's fishing industry. The JPs sitting in Bodmin noted that "through terror of that misery whereunto these persons are carried by these cruel infidels" people would rather "give over their trade than put their estates and persons into so great peril, there being now 60 vessels and about 200 seamen without employment".
The Justices reported: "These Turks daily show themselves at St Keverne, Mount's Bay, and other places that the poor fishermen are fearful not only to go to the seas, but likewise lest these Turks should come on shore and take them out of their houses."
Other corsairs in 1640 took three barks "in the open view of Penzance" and stole three other ships the same night at Mousehole and Land's End, while three other vessels were pursued and escaped, one after eight hours' fighting. There were 60 "Turkish men-of-war" on the coast. In another raid, 60 men, women and children were taken from about Penzance.
The Barbary pirates were based primarily in the ports of Tunis, Tripoli and Algiers, but the worst culprits were not Muslim, or Arab, or North African, but English privateers and Dutch captains who exploited the changing loyalties of an era in which friends could become enemies and enemies friends with the stroke of a pen.
Oliver Cromwell, aware that the corsairs were crippling his South West ports and drastically raising insurance costs for the entire merchant fleet, decreed that any Arab taken in those waters should be taken to Bristol and slowly drowned. He commissioned Robert Blake and William Penn, both of solid Westcountry stock, to clear the corsairs off Lundy Island, which they had made their operations base. They bombarded the makeshift enemy stronghold and those not killed or captured fled back to Barbary.
Penn was paid privately by Bristol merchants to clear the Severn. Ironically, he had previously turned to piracy himself when he and his brother were refused trade permits by the Bristol cartel, and had done much business with the corsairs.
Despite the Lundy setback, the corsairs continued to mount raids on the coastal towns and villages in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset. Unless they were lucky enough or rich enough to be ransomed – and few Westcountry captives were well-connected – the slaves faced a grim future which made death welcome.
When they were not doing hard manual labour on land, the male captives manned the oars of galleys, in some cases for up to 19 years. Rowers were shackled where they sat, and never allowed to leave. Sleeping, eating, defecation and urination took place at the seat. Overseers would crack the whip over the bare backs of any slaves considered not to be working hard enough.
The Englishman Francis Knight recalled his enforced service, shackled to the oars for up to 20 hours a day: "Not having so much room as to stretch legs. The stroke regular and punctual, their heads shaved unto the skull, their bodies all naked, only a short linen pair of breeches to cover their privities … all their bodies pearled with a bloody sweat."
The European nations fought back and in 1675 a Royal Navy squadron led by Sir John Narborough negotiated a lasting peace with Tunis and, after bombarding the city to induce compliance, with Tripoli. Algiers was frequently bombarded by the French, Spanish and, in the early 19th century, the Americans. After another British-led attack in 1816 more than 4,000 Christian slaves were released and the power of the Barbary pirates was shattered by Western seapower.
Fortress Britain – All the Invasions and Incursions since 1066, by Ian Hernon, is published by The History Press, priced £14.99.