It’s thought the 250 years between 1530 and 1780, the figure could easily have been as high as 1,250,000 – this is only just over a tenth of the Africans taken as slaves to the Americas from 1500 to 1800, but a considerable figure nevertheless.

‘A mariner from London, Henry Hammon, was on the ship the Long Robert of London. On a voyage when the ship was taken by pirates. He and others were carried to Tunis in Barbary, where he was held in great misery. His ransom was set at £80, which the poor young man and his friends could not raise. His wife and children are likely to have starved in his absence.’

The Barbary pirates attacked and plundered as far north as the English Channel. Rule Britannia proclaims ‘Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves. But, there was a time when some Britons had been made slaves. For over 300 years, the coast of the southwest of England was at the mercy of Barbary pirates from the coast of North Africa.

Based in the ports of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. Their number included not only North Africans but also English and Dutch privateers. Their aim was to capture slaves for the Arab slave markets in North Africa. Raiding on land and sea, in August 1625 the pirates raided Mount’s Bay, Cornwall, capturing 60 men, women and children and taking them into slavery. In 1626 boats out of Looe, Penzance, Mousehole and other Cornish ports were boarded, their crews taken captive and the empty ships left to drift. It was feared that there were around 60 Barbary men-of-war prowling the Devon and Cornish coasts, and attacks were now occurring almost daily. After seizing the inhabitants, they sold them off as slaves or for ransom. Some captives were even forced to convert to Islam.

By the early 1600s merchants were regularly complaining of the activities of the pirates, and in 1624 it was reported that over 1500 were held captive by pirates. Many families had difficulty in raising the ransoms and made pleas for help in paying them.

The pirates ventured near to the English coast and attacked the merchant ships, which had begun to sail to Virginia and Newfoundland. In 1625 the Mayor of Poole wrote to the Privy Council demanding that protection be supplied for the ships returning from Newfoundland or they would be lost to the pirates. He reported that ‘Twenty-seven ships and 200 persons had been taken by pirates in ten days.’

The pirates mounted raids on the coastal towns and villages in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, and along the west coast of Ireland. Fishing vessels were vulnerable. The King and Parliament tried to organise defence for these areas and to raise money for the ransoms, but the intervening Civil War hindered any meaningful response to the problem. The periods of the Commonwealth and Restoration of Charles II saw an improved British navy and the problem of coastal raiding was stopped.

In the first half of the 1600s, Barbary pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa, authorised by their governments to attack the shipping of Christian countries – ranged all around Britain’s shores. In their lantern-rigged ships, they grabbed ships and sailors, and sold the sailors into slavery. Admiralty records show that during this time the pirates plundered British shipping pretty much at will, taking 466 vessels between 1609 and 1616, and 27 more vessels from near Plymouth in 1625.

Not content with attacking ships and sailors, the corsairs also sometimes raided coastal settlements running their craft onto unguarded beaches, and creeping up on villages in the dark to snatch their victims and retreat before the alarm could be sounded. Almost all the inhabitants of the village of Baltimore, in Ireland, were taken in this way in 1631, and other attacks were launched against coastal villages in Devon and Cornwall. Samuel Pepys gives a vivid account of an encounter with two men who’d been taken into slavery, in his diary of 8 February 1661.

White slaves in Barbary were from impoverished families, and had almost as little hope of buying back their freedom as the Africans taken to the Americas: most would end their days as slaves in North Africa, dying of starvation, disease, or maltreatment.

If you would like more stories like this.  


Stories of poverty, violence, love and hope. Shocking Tales of London takes you on a walk-through London’s horrifying side with an absorbing collection of curious tales from one of the world’s greatest cities. This captivating book is packed with remarkable things you probably didn’t know about England’s capital city.

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