What was a  Corsair?

Corsairs were Muslim privateers. A privateer, an occupation made infamous by Queen Elizabeth I of England's ‘Sea Dogs', is a pirate licensed by a state to attack ships of enemy states. All the countries of the North Coast of Africa - the Maghreb - harboured Corsairs, and the Christian states of Europe also licensed privateers in the Mediterranean (and elsewhere). What distinguishes Mediterranean privateers from most elsewhere is the expectation of making slaves of their prisoners.

Islam v Christianity

The earlier rise of Islam had left the whole of the Maghreb as predominately Muslim populations. The defeat of the Byzantines and the capture of Constantinople in 1453 decreased the Christian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and once more expanded Muslim influence.

The European countries on the North Coast of the Mediterranean still held Christian populations and the frequent conflicts between Christians and Muslims gave plenty of scope for pirates to receive legitimacy and sustenance by being licensed as privateers.

Increasing Profitability of Piracy

During the C17th the increased reliability of ocean travel facilitated development of direct trade between northern Europe and the Middle East, via the Levant, the coast of Africa and India and the Far East via the Cape of Good Hope, cutting out the middle men of the Italian Maritime States.

As the volume of trade across the Mediterranean increased so the number of pirates increased, and the Ottoman Empire, Tripoliana, Tunisia and Algiers all harboured Corsairs.

With the Re-conquest of Granada a group of several thousand Muslims expelled from that area resettled in Salle on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. They were accepted by the Moroccan Sa'adian government which, in return for a cut of the takings, sanctioned their piratical activities. These ‘Salle Rovers' extended the reach of the Corsairs well beyond the Mediterranean, making raids as far north as Iceland in search of hostages.

Corsair Heirarchy

Corsairs were in a close symbiotic relationship with the Barbary Coast states. The emirates provided legitimacy, safe fortified harbours, investment, weapons and ammunition; the Corsairs brought captured commodities and captives for ransom or slavery.

Each State had a diwan to advise the governor on civil matters and a taiffa to advise on naval and privateering issues. The taiffa was a council formed from the senior privateer captains headed by the Reis of the Marine – the local admiral.

Captains – reis – were chosen by the ship owners, but had to be approved by the Reis of the Marine and the taiffa. The essential requirement for any Corsair captain was to be successful; many were renegades – Europeans who had converted to Islam – often British or Dutch.

Ships & Crew

Sailing ships, most likely xebecs and feluccas, and the smaller galleys (galliots) typically about 30 metres long with 18 oars on each side and two men to an oar, were manned entirely by freemen who joined the venture for a share of the profits. Everyone on board could join in the fighting.

The larger galleys with three men to an oar and maybe 24 oars each side were rowed by slaves. There are several accounts from men who escaped from these dreadful ships. Their ordeal was truly a living hell. Naked, they were chained to their oars day and night with no protection from the weather or enemy attack. They were given a meagre diet and limited water. There was no sanitation and the oarsmen defecated where they sat, and it was said you could smell a galley from half a mile. If their ship was successful in an attack they received no reward, if it were defeated they might be released or they might drown, still chained to their oar, as the ship sank.

Ships would have a captain, and any or all of the following officers: a navigator, a boatswain, chief gunner, a purser, a commander of janissaries and a slave master.

Modus Operandi

The most common tactics were for several corsair ships to surround the enemy and call on them to surrender. If they could take the ship without a fight with no risk to themselves and no damage to the captured ship, its crew and passengers or its cargo they could maximise their profits. If the merchantman offered resistance they would rake the deck with anti-personnel fire to keep the defenders off the deck, then board the ship.

If the ship turned out to be well-armed and put up strong resistance the Corsairs would be likely to abandon their attack and look for easier prey.

To be successful a captain needed to be a strong leader with excellent seamanship and good fighting skills. In addition he needed good intelligence concerning the movements of lucrative targets or a lot of luck in finding vulnerable merchantmen.

Alongside tales of very successful Corsair Reis, there are reports of ships staying at sea for several months without even sighting a suitable prize, let alone attacking one.

An Argument for Occupying Tangier

One of the major justifications for occupying Tangier was to gain a base for operations against Corsairs. By the 1660s English naval ships were well run battle machines and there are few accounts of Barbary corsairs trying their luck against warships, even lightly armed frigates; battles only followed when the Corsair could not avoid a fight.

‘Operations' usually involved taking a heavily armed fleet to threaten the ruler of the Barbary state with the destruction of his city. This was intended to extract a treaty whereby English ships would avoid being targeted by the Corsairs of that state. In addition the visitors would demand the freedom of any captives held by that ruler and the release of recently captured prizes, and / or compensation for previous prizes. Tangier could offer a provisioning post for these fleets, providing a convenient harbour to collect fresh water, stores and ammunition.

The convoy system which the Dutch used so effectively in the North Sea and the English Channel had been adopted by Cromwell's Protectorate. If the English occupied Tangier convoys could be extended to the journey around the Iberian Peninsula and even into the Mediterranean. Tangier could provide a collection point for the gathering of ships awaiting an escort.


All in all Tangier could provide a very useful base for eliminating the threat from the Barbary Corsairs.

Fact Check

Main Source:

Konstam A., The Barbary Pirates (Oxford, Osprey Publishing, 2016)