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 , 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 Lon-don, 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. 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.
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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 persons taken.
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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. Day after day, they struck at unarmed fishing com-munities, seizing the inhabitants and burning their homes. By the end of the dreadful summer of , the mayor of Plymouth reckoned that 1, skiffs had been destroyed, and a similar num-ber of villagers carried off into slavery. 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.
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Just a few decades earlier, these landmarks had been a welcome sight for England's seafaring merchants. 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 Sale, 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 s it was scarcely inhabited, and most of the dwellings had been abandoned. 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 emigre 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, men and women set their sights on the ruined settlement of Rabat.
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 onChristian shipping in the Mediterranean for more than a century. 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.
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They plundered with abandon, attacking villages and seaports right along the coasts of Spain, Portugal, France and England. One Sale corsair, Amurates Rayobi, led more than 10, 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 and , they captured a staggering 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 Known to his comrades as Murad Rais, he had first cocked a snook at the Channel defences in , 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.
Wales, too, was hit on several occasions, while the fishing fleets of the Newfoundland Banks suffered several devastating raids. In , Murad Rais set his eye on the richly populated coasts of southern Ireland. He raised a force of 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 men, women and children and took them to Al-giers, 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. 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.
Forbidden to attack the Spanish treasure fleet, Ward vowed to "become a foe to all Christians, bee a persecuter to their trafficke, and an impoverisher of their wealth. This so delighted the ruler of Tunis that he gave Ward an abandoned castle and a large plot of land.
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Ward converted it into his principal residence, "a very stately house, farre more fit for a prince than a pirate. 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.
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 Sale 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 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 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 s, managed to relay news to his parents in the West Country.
I am hear in Salley, in most miserable captivitye, under the hands of most cruell tyrants. 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 cap-tured seamen.
Eventually, the "slave widows" themselves were galvanized into action. They drafted a petition, signed by the "distressed wifes of neere 2, 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 un-speakable tormentes and want of foode through the merciles crueltieof theire manifolde masters.
Many women had "poore smale children and infantes" who were "almost reddie to perrish and starve for wante of meanes and food.
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Harrison's voyage was one of extreme danger. He was required to land in Morocco without being captured by the corsairs, and then travel to Sale undetected where he had to contact the ruling divan. He was given full powers to negotiate the release of all the English slaves being held by the town's corsairs. This latter point had provoked much heated debate among the inner circle of King Charles's advisers. Sir Henry Marten, an eminent lawyer and Cornish Member of Parliament, was appalled by the idea of entering into dialogue with the Sallee Rovers, stating bluntly that they were "a company of pirates, with whom there is no treating or confederacy.
King Charles himself was rather more pragmatic. Although he penned a long letter to the "high and mightie" sultan, Moulay Zidan, he suggested that Harrison might have more success if he negotiated directly with the corsairs who were terrorizing English shores. Harrison landed secretly in Tetouan in the summer of and set out for Sale disguised as a Moorish penitent. Lesser men mightwell have balked at such a hazardous assignment, but Harrison was in his element.
He relished the opportunity to smuggle himself inside one of the most dangerous cities in the world.