Understanding the Barbary Pirates

A French Ship and Barbary Pirates
A French Ship and Barbary Pirates.

Aert Anthoniszoon/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Barbary pirates (or, more accurately, Barbary privateers) operated out of four North African bases—Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and various ports in Morocco—between the 16th and 19th centuries. They terrorized seafaring traders in the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, "sometimes," in the words of John Biddulph's 1907 history of piracy, "venturing into the mouth of the [English} channel to make a capture."

The privateers worked for North African Muslim deys, or rulers, themselves subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which encouraged privateering as long as the empire received its share of tributes. Privateering had two aims: to enslave captives, who were usually Christian, and to ransom hostages for tribute.

The Barbary pirates played a significant role in defining the foreign policy of the United States in its earliest days. The pirates provoked the United States' first wars in the Middle East, compelled the United States to build a Navy, and set several precedents, including hostage crises involving the ransoming of American captives and military American military interventions in the Middle East that have been relatively frequent and bloody since.

The Barbary wars with the United States ended in 1815 after a naval expedition ordered to North Africa's shores by President Madison defeated the Barbary powers and put an end to three decades of American tribute payments. Some 700 Americans had been held hostage over the course of those three decades.

Meaning of Barbary

The term "Barbary" was a derogatory European and American characterization of North African powers. The term is derived from the word "barbarians," a reflection of how Western powers, themselves often slave-trading or enslaving societies at the time, viewed Muslim and Mediterranean regions.

Also Known As: Barbary corsairs, Ottoman corsairs, Barbary privateers, Mohammetan pirates

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Tristam, Pierre. "Understanding the Barbary Pirates." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-were-the-barbary-pirates-2352842. Tristam, Pierre. (2020, August 29). Understanding the Barbary Pirates. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-barbary-pirates-2352842 Tristam, Pierre. "Understanding the Barbary Pirates." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-barbary-pirates-2352842 (accessed May 28, 2023).