Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

Tribute Money

There is nothing more disgraceful in the history of Europe than the manner in which the most powerful Christian nations fawned upon the Barbary rovers, gave them money and arms, permitted them to harass trade, to make innocent people wretched in captivity, to wage war upon every nation which did not buy off their enmity. And all the time the Corsairs could not have stood for one hour against the might of England, France, or Spain if the full power of any one of those nations had been turned upon them. The eighteenth century came in and ran its course, and things remained just the same. Towards the close of the century, in 1798, the American Consul, speaking of the Dey of Algiers, remarks in astonishment: "Can any man believe that this elevated brute has seven kings of Europe, two Republics, and a continent tributary to him, when his whole naval force is not equal to two line-of-battle ships?"

Well might he call the Dey an "elevated brute." In 1671 the soldiery began to choose a fresh Dey out of their own ranks, though the Pasha was still appointed by the Sultan. After 1710 both offices were held by the soldier chosen by his comrades. In this way it was easy for a daring, resolute ruffian to grasp the sceptre of Algiers. Dr. Thomas Shaw, who was Consular Chaplain at Algiers from 1720 to 1732, says: "The Dey is chosen out of the army, each order of it, even the most inferior, having an equal right and title to this dignity with the highest. Every bold and aspiring soldier, though but yesterday from the plough, may be considered here as heir-apparent to the royal honours, and with this advantage, that he is under no necessity of waiting till sickness or old age cuts off the present ruler: it is enough that he is able to protect himself with the same scimitar that he sheathes in the body of his predecessor."

Dr. Shaw gives some instances of the lowest of men rising to the rule of the city, and some of them were not in the least ashamed of their origin. Once the French Consul went to the Dey with a complaint, and the Dey did not like the way in which he spoke. Quoth the ruler: "My mother sold sheep's feet, and my father neats' tongues, but they would have been ashamed to expose for sale so worthless a tongue as thine." Another Dey remarked with delightful frankness to the English Consul: "The Algerines are a company of rogues, and I am their captain!"

Thus it was very often to the court of an ignorant savage that consuls were sent by European nations, and the post of a consul was no easy affair. In the first place he had to see to it that the tribute offered by his nation was paid promptly, or he would suffer for it. The least that would happen was that he would be thrown into prison and put in heavy chains until the tribute should arrive. This happened actually in the nineteenth century. In 1808 the Danish tribute was late. The Danish Consul was seized, heavily ironed, put in the common prison and made to labour with the slaves. The other consuls obtained his release, but his wife died from the shock. A Dutch Consul died under similar treatment.

Three nations did not pay tribute, England, France, and Spain; that is to say, they did not offer open tribute in name. But they made consular presents to the Dey, and that came to pretty much the same. The consuls gave money, arms, warlike stores, and jewels, and these, though called "customary presents," were just bribes and blackmail, pure and simple. The Dey showed by his conduct that he looked upon them as payments rather than presents. He did not hesitate to say that they were too small for his acceptance. He demanded more and more. Before the consul's face he would toss over a gold watch, glittering with jewels, to his cook to show his contempt for the best that was offered him. And the unlucky consul often had to make up what was short out of his own pocket, or the Dey would throw him into prison and sack his house.

When the warships of a hostile navy appeared before the Corsair town, the consul of that nation must either get aboard to his friends or lie in a position of the utmost danger. The fury of the Dey was turned upon him at once. He would be fortunate if he escaped with being sent to prison and having his goods plundered. Very often he lost his life. In 1683 the French shelled Algiers. The French Consul was a good priest who had laboured among the captives for thirty-six years. The Dey ordered that he should be blown from the cannon's mouth, and it was done. In 1688 the new consul died by the same death: he and forty-eight other Frenchmen suffered in the same barbarous manner.

If the consul escaped the Dey, he had always to reckon with the mob. A vessel came flying into the harbour, the only one to return of a Corsair squadron. It brought bad news. Its consorts had all been destroyed or captured by a Christian fleet. At once the mob, furious at the loss of their friends, rose against the consul of the offending nation, and attacked his house. In 1675 Mr. Samuel Martin, the English Consul, was in sore straits. The consul before him had been torn in pieces by the mob in front of the Dey's palace, and Mr. Martin stood in fear of the same fate. In 1676 the mob assailed him, but he was smuggled out of their way and placed aboard ship for safety. But his house was seized and his family turned into the street without a lodging. In 1677 matters began to go worse. An Algerine vessel came into the harbour in a badly damaged state, with heavy loss of men, killed in an encounter with an English warship, and bringing news that the English had seized several Corsair ships.

The mob rose on the consul once more; some were for killing him at once, others for putting him in chains. In the end he was lodged in prison and was kept in strict confinement. To add to other troubles, the plague began to rage in the town. As poor Samuel Martin says, when writing home to his chief: "Your Honour may easily judge my condition miserable enough, threatened by Pestilence, prisons, chains, furys of Desperadoes, and famine is not far from my door, for Heaven knows it is not seldom that I want money to buy bread."

And what did the powerful monarchs do, these kings and emperors whose consuls had been treated in so unjust and barbarous a fashion? Nothing at all, or nothing to any purpose. Very, very rarely was a consul supported by his superiors at home against the Dey. A Dey bade a consul remove shoes and sword, and reverently kiss his hand when admitted to an audience—the hand of a common cut-throat. The consul—an English gentleman—refused. The Dey complained of him and had him recalled. George III. meekly sent another consul with special orders "to conduct himself in a manner agreeable to you (the Dey)." A consul ruined himself by making large presents to the Dey and his court, or by ransoming captives, and his Government very often left him in the lurch and he was beggared completely.

Again the question arises, Why this cowardly submission of great powers to a band of savage ruffians? Why were they permitted to beard Europe in this disgraceful fashion? Why were they allowed to search vessels on the high seas, taking for their own all those who were not protected by treaty, and often setting at nought a treaty in their greed for plunder? And in making treaties they would only admit to peace one or two nations at once, in order that plenty might be left for them to rob. Why was all this allowed?

The answer is still the same. The nations of Europe were watching each other with jealous fear, and now one, now another, made use of the Corsairs to attack and harass a rival. Well on in the eighteenth century Louis XIV. of France, Louis the Great, said, "If there were no Algiers, I would make one." England used the Corsairs, so did the Dutch, so did other nations. Each nation flattered and wheedled and bribed the pirates to leave its shipping alone and destroy the vessels of its enemies. Now and again a nation which was out of favour with the Corsairs made a display of assault upon Algiers, "at which the Dey laughs in his sleeve, or even openly, for he knows he has only to persevere in his demands and every government in Europe will give in. Consuls may pull down their flags and threaten war; admirals may come and look stern, and even make a show of a broadside or two; but the Dey's Christian Brother of St. James's or the Tuileries —or their ministers for them—have settled that Algiers cannot be attacked: so loud may he laugh at consul and man-of-war."