Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Rulers of Algiers

The death of Dragut before Malta in 1565 marks the close of the age of the Great Corsairs. There were famous commanders of galleys after that day, there were hosts of rovers left to prey upon the commerce and upon the lands of Christendom, but no Barbarossa, no Dragut, and after the battle of Lepanto in 1571 we see that the Corsairs act on a smaller scale and fly at smaller game.

The battle of Lepanto is a great landmark in the history of Europe. Up to that day the Turks had been all-powerful at sea. Their fleets had ravaged every Christian shore along the Mediterranean, and such was the terror they inspired that powerful navies weighed their anchors and sailed away when masts crowned with a Crescent rose above the horizon. This fear of the Turk was shattered by Don John of Austria in the great sea-fight in the Gulf of Lepanto on the 7th of October 1571. Don John was the son of Charles the Fifth of Spain, and he commanded a powerful fleet drawn from most of the navies of Christendom. The Turks met him in equal strength, but the young captain won a most glorious victory, and almost destroyed the Turkish navy. This great triumph proved a severe check to the Moslem power, above all, to its sea-power, and from this time Christian vessels stood up boldly to their enemy's ships, and proved that the seamen who had been beaten once could be beaten again.

The effects of this victory were felt along the Barbary coast. The Corsairs no longer enjoyed the protection and support of Turkish warships. Turkey had enough to do to look after herself at her own end of the Mediterranean, and the Barbary rovers were left to themselves. The consequence was that the Corsairs of Algiers and Tunis sank from great commanders to petty pirates. They roved the seas as busily as of old. But now they did not sail in fleets to ravage provinces; they did not offer battle to the navies of Christendom. From warfare on the grand scale they came down to plunder pure and simple. They waylaid single ships or small convoys; they raided villages and small coast towns; they carried hosts of captives and rich cargoes of loot into Algiers, but they no longer bore their share in a Siege of Malta, in a Battle of Lepanto.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


The rule of Algiers now fell to a series of governors appointed by Turkey. At first the governor was known as the Pasha of Algiers, and later on as the Bey or Dey of Algiers: there was also a Dey of Tunis. The history of the long line of Pashas and Deys is very uninteresting. It is one long story of quarrels, of disorder, of bloodshed. It was rarely that one of these rulers died in his bed. Either he was murdered by a rival who wished to obtain his place, or he was slain by his own turbulent soldiery, or the fatal bow-string was wound about his throat by order of his Turkish superiors. But whatever figure-head filled the governor's seat, the rovers were as busy as ever off the Barbary coast, and Algiers was always full of Christian captives.

Among these captives were many English, and some of these turned renegades. A renegade is a man who goes over to the enemy, who leaves his own nation and follows the ruler of another. There were renegades of all nations among the Barbary rovers, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, every country in Europe. Many of them had been captured and carried into captivity as children, had grown up among the Corsairs, had won the favour of the captain of a pirate-galley, and had been taken to sea. Thus they had become rovers as naturally as the children of the land. Others were seamen who had no hopes of being ransomed, and to escape the life of a slave had joined the Corsairs and thrown in their lot with them. Many of these renegades rose to high command and great positions in the state, and at the time when England first had official dealings with Algiers, the Treasurer of the Pasha was one Assan Agha. This name sounded Turkish enough, but it proved to cover an Englishman, "sonne of Fran Rowlie of Bristow, merchant, taken in the Swallow."  Young Rowlie had entered, or been forced into, the service of the Pasha, taken a Turkish name, and risen to a great post.

This was in 1580, when Master John Tipton became the English Consul in Algiers. It is believed that Tipton was the first English consul ever appointed to any place. He went to Algiers at first on behalf of the interests of a company of merchants, the Turkey Company, and later, from 1585, on behalf of the nation. There was plenty for him to do. For the last sixty or seventy years many English subjects had lain in captivity at Algiers, and from time to time collections were made among the charitable to redeem them.

Tipton found many poor English captives eager to send word of their sad plight to their friends at home, and he undertook to receive the money for their ransom and to arrange with the authorities at Algiers for their passage to England. Then he had often to interfere on behalf of Christian vessels which had come into the port to do lawful trade. The thievish Algerines would lay their hands on part of the cargo, and anything which once slipped into their fingers, did not easily slip out again. It was not safe for an English ship to venture into Algiers without a safe conduct from the English Government, and in 1583 Queen Elizabeth granted a safe conduct to Edmund Auncell and Richard Thomson to take a vessel named the Unity  to Algiers. The Unity  was to bring home redeemed captives, and without doubt she received welcome and aid from Master Tipton.

Don John of Austria


The first letter from a governor of Algiers to the English authorities was written in 1600, when the Bey wrote to Queen Elizabeth. He said that he had received orders from the Sultan that British subjects wishing to trade with the country should be made welcome and assisted, and that he wished to carry out those orders. But he does not seem to have done much in that direction, for in 1602 the Lord High Admiral of England wrote to the consul at Algiers, and said that many great complaints were made by Her Majesty's subjects of the hard usage and ill-treatment they received when they put in at Algiers, and the consul was directed to use his influence to see that justice was done. This was in April, and in October of the same year the Queen wrote to the Bey making still stronger complaint, and threatening to appeal to his master the Sultan if he did not mend his behavior, and force his people to mend theirs also.