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The pale dawn sky gave no inkling of the terror that was about to be unleashed. A sea mist hung low in the air, veiling the horizon in a damp and diaphanous shroud. It enabled the mighty fleet to slip silently up the English Channel, unnoticed by the porters and fishermen on Cornwall's southwestern coast.
The lookout who first sighted the vessels was perplexed. It was not the season for the return of the Newfoundland fishing fleet, nor was a foreign flotilla expected in those waters. As the mists lifted and the summer skies cleared, it became apparent that the mysterious ships had not come in friendship. The flags on their mainmasts depicted a human skull on a dark green background-the menacing symbol of a new and terrible enemy. It was the third week of July 1625, and England was about to be attacked by the Islamic corsairs of Barbary.
News of the fleet's arrival flashed rapidly along the coast until it reached the naval base of Plymouth. A breathless messenger burst into the office of James Bagg, vice admiral of Cornwall, with the shocking intelligence of the arrival of enemy ships. There were at least "twentye sayle upon this coast"-perhaps many more-and they were armed and ready for action.
Bagg was appalled by what he was told. Over the previous weeks he had received scores of complaints about attacks on Cornish fishing skiffs. Local mayors had sent a stream of letters informing him of the "daily oppression" they were facing at the hands of a little-known foe. Now, that foe appeared to be preparing a far more devastating strike on the south coast of England.
Bagg penned an urgent letter to the lord high admiral in London, demanding warships to counter the threat. But it was far too late for anything to be done. Within days of their being sighted the corsairs began to wreak havoc, launching hit-and-run raids on the most vulnerable and unprotected seaports. They slipped ashore at Mount's Bay, on the south Cornish coast, while the villagers were at communal prayer. Dressed in Moorish djellabas and wielding damascene scimitars, they made a terrifying sight as they burst into the parish church. One English captive would later describe the corsairs as "ugly onhumayne cretures" who struck the fear of God into all who saw them. "With their heads shaved and their armes almost naked, [they] did teryfie me exceedingly." They were merciless in their treatment of the hapless congregation of Mount's Bay. According to one eyewitness, sixty men, women and children were dragged from the church and carried back to the corsairs' ships.
The fishing port of Looe was also assaulted. The warriors streamed into the cobbled streets and forced their way into cottages and taverns. Much to their fury; they discovered that the villagers had been forewarned of their arrival and many had fled into the surrounding orchards and meadows. Yet the corsairs still managed to seize eighty mariners and fishermen. These unfortunate individuals were led away in chains and Looe was then torched in revenge. The mayor of Plymouth informed the Privy Council of the sorry news, adding that the corsairs were steadily ransacking the surrounding coastline. The West Country, he said, had lost "27 ships and 200 persons taken."
Far more alarming was the news-relayed by the mayor of Bristol-that a second fleet of Barbary corsairs had been sighted in the choppy waters off the north Cornish coast. Their crews had achieved a most spectacular and disquieting coup: they had captured Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel and raised the standard of Islam. It had now become their fortified base, from which they attacked the unprotected villages of northern Cornwall. They had "seized diverse people about Padstow" and were threatening to sack and burn the town of Ilfracombe.
These two-pronged attacks caught the West Country completely unprepared. The duke of Buckingham dispatched the veteran sea-dog Francis Stuart to Devon, with orders to root out and destroy this menacing new enemy. But Stuart was dismayed to discover that "they are better sailers than the English ships." His letter to the duke, admitting defeat, expresses his fear that the worst was yet to come. "Theis picaroons, I say, will ever lie hankering upon our coastes, and the state will find it both chargeable and difficult to cleere it." The long coastline had few defenses to deter the North African corsairs, who found they could pillage with impunity. Day after day, they struck at unarmed fishing communities, seizing the inhabitants and burning their homes. By the end of the dreadful summer of 1625, the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1,000 skiffs had been destroyed, and a similar number of villagers carried off into slavery.
THESE MISERABLE CAPTIVES were taken to Salé, on Morocco's Atlantic coast. This wind-blown port occupied a commanding position on the north bank of the great Bou Regreg river estuary. Her massive city walls were visible from far out to sea, and her turreted battlements and green-glazed minarets sparkled in the North African sunshine.
Just a few decades earlier, these landmarks had been a welcome sight for England's seafaring merchants. Lace-ruffed Elizabethans had come to Salé to exchange silver and woolens for exotic produce, brought in by desert caravans from the steaming tropics of equatorial Africa. In the overcrowded souks and alleys, they had jostled and traded with Moorish merchants dressed in flowing djellabas. After much haggling and bartering, they loaded their vessels with ivory and skins, wax, sugar and amber, as well as the fragrant Meknes honey that was famed throughout Europe.
On the south bank of the estuary, directly opposite Salé, lay the ancient town of Rabat. This, too, had been a "great and famous towne," boasting beautiful palaces and an extraordinary twelfth-century mosque. But Rabat had fallen into slow decay. By the early 1600s it was scarcely inhabited, and most of the dwellings had been abandoned. "It was in a manner desolate," wrote an anonymous English visitor, "abandoned by the Arabs because of wild beasts."
Rabat would have fallen into complete ruin had it not been for a most unexpected circumstance. In 1610, King Philip III of Spain expelled all one million Spanish Moors from his land-the final chapter in the reconquest of southern Spain from the infidel. Although these Moriscos had lived in Spain for generations, and many were of mixed stock, they were allowed no right of appeal.
One of the most enterprising of these émigré groups was known as the Hornacheros, after the Andalusian village in which they had lived. Wild and fiercely independent, they pillaged without scruple. One Englishman would later describe them as "a bad-minded people to all nations," and even their fellow Moriscos viewed them as thieves and brigands.
Expelled from their mountain stronghold in Spain, this haughty clan of 4,000 men and women set their sights on the ruined settlement of Rabat. They restored the kasbah, or fortress, and adapted with remarkable ease to their new homeland, which they renamed New Salé. However, they continued to harbor a deep resentment against Spain and vowed to do everything in their power to strike back. To this end, they began to forge alliances with pirates from Algiers and Tunis who had been preying on Christian shipping in the Mediterranean for more than a century. Within a few years, hundreds of-cut-throats and desperadoes-some of them European-began to converge on New Salé in order to train the Hornacheros in the black arts of piracy.
The Hornacheros and their cohort of renegades made a formidable fighting force. This highly disciplined band became known in England as the Sallee Rovers. But to their Islamic brethren they were called al-ghuzat, a title once used for the soldiers who fought with the Prophet Mohammed, and were hailed as religious warriors who were engaged in a holy war against the infidel Christians. "They lived in Salé and their sea-borne jihad is now famous," wrote the Arabic chronicler, al-Magiri. "They fortified Salé and built in it palaces, houses and bathhouses."
The Salé corsairs rapidly learned mastery of square-riggers, enabling them to extend their attacks far into the North Atlantic, and soon assembled a fleet of forty ships. They plundered with abandon, attacking villages and seaports right along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, France and England. One Salé corsair, Amurates Rayobi, led more than 10,000 warriors to Spain and ransacked the coastline without pity. Their success emboldened their co-religionists elsewhere in Barbary. The al-ghuzat from Algiers targeted vulnerable merchant vessels passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. They were fortunate that their attacks coincided with the beginnings of the mercantile age, when there were rich pickings to be had on the open seas. Between 1609 and 1616, they captured a staggering 466 English trading ships.
Kings and ministers across Europe were paralyzed by a sense of helplessness. Sir Francis Cottingham, one of King James I's clerks of the council, bemoaned the fact that "the strength and boldness of the Barbary pirates is now grown to that height ... as I have never known anything to have wrought a greater sadness and distraction in this court than the daily advice thereof."
The lack of any coordinated defense encouraged the Sallee Rovers to widen their attacks. One of Salé's most infamous renegade captains, the Dutchman Jan Janszoon, laughed in scorn at the ease with which he could seize European shipping. Known to his comrades as Murad Rais, he had first cocked a snook at the Channel defences in 1622, when he sailed to Zeeland in order to visit his estranged wife. A few years later, he embarked on a remarkable voyage of pillage to Iceland. His three-strong fleet dropped anchor at Reykjavik, where Murad led his men ashore and proceeded to ransack the town. He returned to Said in triumph, with 400 enslaved Icelanders-men, women and children.
Wales, too, was hit on several occasions, while the fishing fleets of the Newfoundland Banks suffered several devastating raids. In 1631, Murad Rais set his eye on the richly populated coasts of southern Ireland. He raised a force of 200 Islamic soldiers and they sailed to the village of Baltimore, storming ashore with swords drawn and catching the villagers totally by surprise. He carried off 237 men, women and children and took them to Algiers, where he knew they would fetch a good price. The French padre Pierre Dan was in the city at the time, having been granted permission by the authorities to tend to the spiritual needs of his enslaved co-religionists. He witnessed the sale of new captives in the slave auction. "It was a pitiful sight to see them exposed in the market," he wrote. "Women were separated from their husbands and the children from their fathers." Dan looked on helplessly as "on one side, a husband was sold; on the other, his wife; and her daughter was torn from her arms without the hope that they'd ever see each other again."
Murad Rais's bravado was feted in Morocco, and he was accorded the singular honor of being made governor of the port of Safi, some 200 miles to the south of Salé. His daughter visited him soon afterward and found that power had quite gone to his head. He was "seated in great pomp on a carpet, with silk cushions, the servants all around him." When he took his leave, it was "in the manner of royalty."
Murad Rais was just one of many European renegades to strike an alliance with the fanatical corsairs of Barbary. The English apostate John Ward headed to Tunis shortly after King James I signed a peace treaty with Spain. Forbidden to attack the Spanish treasure fleet, Ward vowed to "become a toe to all Christians, bee a persecuter to their trafficke, and an impoverisher of their wealth." He and his locally recruited crew wreaked such havoc in the Mediterranean that his name was celebrated all along the coast.
This so delighted the ruler of Tunis that he gave Ward an abandoned castle and a large plot of land. Ward converted it into his principal residence, "a very stately house, farre more fit for a prince than a pirate." He lived "in a most princely and magnificent state," according to Andrew Barker, one of his English captives. Barker was stunned by the wealth that Ward had accrued and said he had never seen "any peere in England that beares up his post in more dignitie, nor hath attendants more obsequious."
Like so many Christian renegades, Ward had originally turned to piracy in order to seize treasure. But he quickly realized that the merchants of Barbary were more interested in human booty and would pay huge sums to acquire Christian slaves as laborers, domestic servants and concubines. Ward began to focus on capturing ships' crews, who were taken to Tunis, Algiers or Salé to be sold in the slave markets.
The Sallee Rovers were particularly successful in seizing men, women and children, growing fabulously wealthy and powerful from their traffic in captured Christians. In about 1626-the year after their raids on Cornwall and Devon-they cast aside all pretense of owing any allegiance to the Moroccan sultan and declared their intention of ruling themselves. "[They] resolved to live free," wrote the French slave, Germain Mouette. "Finding themselves more numerous than the natives of Salé oblig'd them no longer to own any sovereign." Salé became a pirate republic and was henceforth governed by a twelve-strong divan-slave-trading corsairs-who were overseen by a grand admiral.
FEW IN ENGLAND had any inkling of the fate of captives seized by the corsairs. They disappeared without trace and the majority were never heard from again. But one of them did manage to get a letter smuggled back to England. Robert Adams, who was seized in the first wave of raids in the 1620s, managed to relay news to his parents in the West Country. "Lovinge and kind father and mother," he wrote, "... I am hear in Salley, in most miserable captivitye, under the hands of most cruell tyrants." He explained that he had been sold in the slave market soon after being landed in the town and was subjected to the harshest treatment by his owner. "[He] made mee worke at a mill like a horse," he said, "from morninge untill night, with chaines uppon my legges, of 36 pounds waights a peece."
Adams ended his letter with a desperate plea for help. "I humbly desire you, on my bended knees, and with sighs from the bottom of my hart, to commiserat my poor distressed estate, and seek some meanes for my delivery out of this miserable slavery."
Adams's parents must have been appalled by what they read, but any appeals for help from the authorities fell on deaf ears. The lords of the Privy Council displayed a callous lack of concern for the enslaved mariners, while church leaders were powerless to do anything more than organize collections for the families of captured seamen. Eventually, the "slave widows" themselves were galvanized into action. They drafted a petition, signed by the "distressed wifes of neere 2,000 poore marriners," and sent it to the Privy Council. The petition reminded the lords that the women's captured husbands had "for a longe tyme contynued in most wofull, miserable and lamentable captivitie and slavery in Sally." It also informed them that they were enduring "most unspeakable tormentes and want of foode through the merciles crueltie of theire manifolde masters." Their continual absence was not only a source of grief, but also threatened the very survival of their families. Many women had "poore smale children and infantes" who were "almost reddie to perrish and starve for wante of meanes and food."
Their request was straightforward and emotionally charged. "[We] most humblie beseech Your Honours, even for Christ Jesus sake ... to send some convenient messenger unto the Kinge of Morocco ... for the redemption of the saide poore distressed captives."
What these women did not realize was that King Charles I had already started to tackle the problem of the captives being held in North Africa. Within months of acceding to the throne in 1625, he dispatched the young adventurer John Harrison on a secret mission to the infamous city of Salé.
Excerpted from WHITE GOLD by GILES MILTON Copyright © 2004 by Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission.
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