Barbary Piracy

King Charles the Martyr Church, Falmouth

A study into the effects of Barbary Piracy on England and Cornwall

In 1677 a Falmouth mother wrote a letter to the Bishop of Exeter requesting permission to petition the diocese for the ransom of her son, a slave in Algiers. [1] He was not alone in his plight, and nor was she in her quest to see him returned. Thousands of men, women and children were taken from their ships, and homes and churches on land. The perpetrators were from the Barbary Coast of Africa, and were known as Barbaries, Moors, Turks and Corsairs.

The role of the church

Until the 1720s, it was the churches [of every denomination] that assumed prime responsibility for raising the necessary ransom money’ [2].  The clergy did more than any government initiative to collect funds, work on the ‘front line’, and to negotiate with slave owners. [3] Their ‘mission’ was to relieve sufferings, and to strengthen the faith of captives. [4] Heads of religious orders, or ‘Lazarist Priests’, took up permanent posts in Algiers and Tunis ‘under an apostolic vicar vested with general responsibility for the spiritual – and as far as possible the material – welfare of the Christian slaves’. [5] Algiers housed three slave chapels, while Tripoli had two and Morocco had none. [6] Overall, Moslems were tolerant, as long as Christians were not ‘too provocative in the exercises of their religion’. [7]

The Church is recognized primarily for its role in collecting ransom for slaves. For Catholics, the plight of the slaves was the subject of charity work because ‘their [only] fault, their crime, is recognising Jesus Christ as the most divine Saviour … and of professing Him as the True Faith‘. [8]These ransoming orders were so successful, that they eventually inflated the slave prices. [9] Anglicans also collected towards the cause, reaching a peak in 1660 when public pressure increased. [10] This led to the formation of a high power committee (including the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of London) focused on raising ransoms. [11] Their campaigns changed attitudes and raised approximately £21,500 in the money of the day. [12] Money would be raised during sermons and Churchwardens would ‘visit every household within reach’ to collect donations. [13] At that time ‘the redemption of captives was a favourite object of philanthropy’, so it was not uncommon for people to leave bequests. [14] Whilst congregations at home collected money, some suggest that the ransoming fathers exaggerated their slave counts, ‘as a (for them) excusable means of instilling a sense of urgency in and this opening the purses of their pious contributors back home’. [15]

Examples found in Cornwall Record Office provide proof that church ransoming was a regular occurrence, whilst also offering interesting evidence of the contribution of each resident. In the back of Falmouth’s first parish register from King Charles the Martyr Church, there is a list of the collections made between 1676 -1677. [16] This also records donations to sick parishioners and those who suffered losses through fires – a sort of early welfare. There are also at least eight accounts of collections aimed at raising money to redeem Cornish men who had been taken captive by pirates and enslaved in foreign lands. [17] It shows the collections for at least three people held in Sallee (on the West coast of Morocco), two in Turkey and three in Algeria. [18] This source records the name and location of the captive and the amount of money raised. Other sources however, provide more detailed accounts, such as the Borough of Marazion. This record, organised by the Minister, shows collections made within the town for ‘the relief redemption of Sundry Captains from Turkish Slavery’ on 11 March 1670. [19] At the back is a list of donations per person, which includes the Mayor (1s 6d), Mary Borwom (1d), and everyone in between. [20] An impressive total of 116 people donated something, which equated to 3 pounds 2d, and the letter was signed by the most influential residents of the town. [21] These sources demonstrate directly how local churches and religious figureheads worked with communities to raise both awareness and funds.

Nevertheless, the Church was not all-inclusive of who it sought to rescue. ‘Renegades’ (slaves who converted either through force, choice or convenience) could, and would not be ransomed. [22] As Christian women who worked in the harem often ‘turned Turk’ to stay with their children, these were also exempt from Church charity. [23] Before 1720, most women seem never to have got home. [24] Ultimately religious authorities were afraid of those who ‘turned Turk’ as they were perceived to be a risk to Christianity. Out of this fear came two sermons; one preached that it was better to die a Christian Martyr than live as a Turk, while the second discussed those who switched between their religion as ‘a kind of unseen menace lurking in the ranks of the Christian commonwealth, concealing their double identities’. [25]

Local appeals

With government having little success at retrieving captives, and the church’s harsh criteria of who could and wouldn’t be ransomed home, the task of rescuing captives often fell to those at home. During the 1670s, ‘the parents and wives of almost a 1000 English captives in the regency of Algiers, most of them poor people, dispatched an emotional appeal to the House of Commons’. [26]

Their petition, however, was based on little real evidence, and was ‘merely rehearsing anti-Barbary and anti-Islamic atrocity stories in the frail hope that Parliament might be jolted into ransoming their menfolk’. [27]

A local example is Anne James and her son George, a boatswain taken captive by Algerian pirates in the late 17th Century, from aboard his ship, the Hopewell[28] Contained within the Illogan Baptists, Marriages, Burials Register of 1539 – 1731, are two documents. These letters show correspondence between Anne and Lord Thomas, Bishop of Exeter, as she asks for charity to cover the £60 cost of George’s redemption. [29] Her need of the money was due to having ‘only one son and daughter’ and that she as a widow, would be unable to raise the money herself, and her ‘comfort and livelihood depends on her said sons welfare’. [30] The letter describes the pirates as ‘Algear men of war’, and reports the conditions where George is enslaved, as ‘the most miserable Bondage in the hands of those barbarous Enemies of Jesus Christ’. [31] The letter is written in the third person and is likely to have been written by another, as many women of this time were unable to write. The letter ends with the promise that until George is rescued ‘from the Cruel Bondage & slavery he now undergoes’ Anne prays for the Lordship’s health and happiness. [32] The second letter is the reply, which shows that Anne was granted permission to petition for the money. [33] It states that the Bishop has ‘considered the contents of this petition & do permit the petitions to ask the charity of all well disposed persons within the County of Cornwall towards the ordination of her said sonne’. [34] The 18th century was a time of growth in women’s literacy rates, while before this time few would be able to write, while most who were able in the seventeenth century would be among the ‘middling sort’. [35] This suggests that a scribe probably wrote Anne’s 1677 letter.

In small Cornish towns and villages more direct pressure could be placed on officials than in a larger area such as a Borough of London. In 1675, the Mayor of Penryn, the Town Clerk and other important local figures, petitioned the Bishop of Exeter, for collections to ransom home John Bolitho, who was held captive in Sally. [36] The letter reports he was ‘aged about sixteen years’ when in September 1675 he was taken at sea on his way to Madonaos. [37] It states that he is ‘unable by any thing of his owne or by help of any kindred to raise the ransome being very high’, and describes his condition as ‘sad and deplorable’. [38] The writers are aware of religious tensions and say that they are keen to see him home so he ‘may not only be Redeemed from ye hard ships of bodily sufferings, but may be delivered from ye temptations of such infedels and enemies of ye Christian faith’. [39] There is a reply, written on the back of the original letter that ‘out of compassion to this poore captive [I] doe heartily recomend his condition to all well disposed persons in my diocese in your county of Cornwall requesting my Brethren or the Clergy to recomend him to their several congregations’. [40] A further note on the back also reads ‘St Dominick Cornwall collected the form of two shillings four pence half penny farthing by us’. [41]

Returned home

Once home, the former captives would be met with curiosity and sometimes hostility. Many captives had to re-establish themselves as true Christians, using devoted praise to God in their diaries and speeches. This can be seen as genuine thanks rather than an agenda to be accepted back into society, ‘the writer has returned to a place where she is free to record and represent her experience is evidence of her success and the greatness of her society – as well as her God – in the face of barbarous circumstances’. [42] Pellow’s narratives are a prime example of how religion was woven into captives’ tales. The first page of his diary discusses God; ‘He is to all who love, fear, and steadfastly believe in him, and his son Jesus Christ, our Lord’. [43] This reaffirms his own true Christianity when, as a renegade, he could be subject to hostility. He writes:

To look back upon, and seriously to consider the Years of my Captivity, is so frightful and amazing, that all must allow that nothing but the Almighty Protection of a great, good all-seeing, most-sufficient, and gracious GOD, could have carried me through it, or delivered me out of it; therefore, to HIM be the Glory, Honour, and Praise”. [44]

He also ends the narrative with the final line, “after all these my sufferings ended here, I may be crowned with a glorious immortality in the kingdom of HEAVEN”. This attempt to prove himself truly Christian after 23 years in Moslem captivity can appear strained and exaggerated. Diaries have been interpreted as part of a cathartic process for the former captives, so this could be a way of convincing himself after finding himself an outsider of an unusual community again. [45] Some former captives would be paid for telling their tales. [46]

In telling the tale of captivity, there can be an agenda to be positive towards home and Christianity, and condemn Islam as the brutal enemy, so that the communities you were snatched from would accept you back. Equally, slave narratives that include the story of returning home generally describe the experience as positive, perhaps to avoid offending townsfolk. Thomas Pellow arrived home to Penryn on 15 October, 1738, from aboard the Truro docked at Falmouth Pier. [47]

Pellow describes his return home as a crowd-pulling occasion. He writes:

I was so crowded by the inhabitants, that I could not pass through them, without a great deal of Difficulty; through this, I must own, was of a different and far more pleasing nature to me … every one (instead of boxing me and pulling my hair) saluting me, and, after a most courteous manner, bidding me welcome home”. [48]

Although these townsfolk seem joyous of Pellow’s return, such welcomes would also be filled with the surge of excitement and triumph of a community who felt they had finally had some success against a seemingly unstoppable force – the Barbary pirates. These reactions to renegades were probably not to last. Pellow instantly became an object of curiosity on his return, which raises an important hidden debate. [49] While curiosity is understandable, the line between this and hostility can become blurred. Often residents were fearful of this ‘other’. Communities worried about the effect the experiences had had on captives’ bodies – sometimes even checking for circumcision. [50] Renegades were forced to repent, but in extreme circumstances, murdered. [51] Death by impalement happened three times in 1620 alone. [52] The returned were ‘a source and site of cultural apprehension: the returning insider as a disruptive outsider, a foreign stranger … with the potential to initiate disorder’. [53]Indeed, the huge celebrations and services held in honour of the freed were often unwanted by the subjects themselves, as after daring escapes and long travels they just wanted to go home. [54] This implies that such celebrations were not held for the captives as much as they were for the communities as a whole, to show off the achievement of the West in escaping Islam. The stories gained great publicity, attracting gifts from royalty and donations from the East India Company; however, ‘Within a few weeks of their return to England, all of the former slaves had disappeared from the public gaze’. [55]

This was the case for Penryn’s Pellow, as he was never recognized by his own parents, and the place and date of his death is unknown. [56]During the 1730s having a converted son was a cause of great shame whereas decades earlier would have been perfectly acceptable. [57] It is said that even the British authorities viewed Pellow as an embarrassment. [58]

The experiences of these captives in their quests to return home are varied, but ultimately it seems that the preoccupation with the fear of Islam was greater than concern over individuals. The Church sought to indoctrinate subjects with a fear of the unknown in the hope of curtailing the amount of renegades, while this anti-Islamism was then projected on to the lucky few who managed to return home; the joyous crowds celebrating a minor defeat over the pirates rather than the regaining of a member of the community. Of course, the exception to this is the families of captives, as Anne James’s letter suggests. These remarkable attempts at playing the political-religious system in order to rescue loved ones summarizes the reactions of the British, and Cornish, to the effects of Barbary piracy.


Primary Sources

Borough of Grampound Accounts, (J/1/1956), Cornwall Record Office
Borough of Marazion Collection, (BMZ 10/14), Cornwall Record Office
Letter, (ART/4/10), Cornwall Record Office
Mariners Will,  (AP/B/698), Cornwall Record Office
Petition Letter (P50/7/2), Cornwall Record Office
Petition Letter, 1677 (P88/1/2), Cornwall Record Office
Register, 1663-1735 (P63/1/1), Cornwall Record Office

Thomas Pellow, ‘The history of the long captivity and adventures of Thomas Pellow, in South-Barbary … Together with a description if the cities, … miseries of the Christian Slaves; and many other curious particulars. Written by himself. The second edition’.

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Bethany Partridge (c) 2013