Who Were The Barbary Corsairs?



There is no doubt that the largest and most notorious slave trade was the one from Africa to the Americas and Europe. Here some 10 million people were displaced from their homes and forced into servitude to their white masters. What was less known however is the other slave trade that took place at the exact same time but in reverse.


Who were the Barbary Corsairs? The Barbary coast is what we know today as the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and was called as such by the Europeans of the 17th century. The Barbary Corsairs were slave traders from these lands who between the early 1600’s up until the 18th century wreaked havoc on the southern European coast. During this time some 1.25 million people were captured and sold as slaves on the Barbary coast.

The situation was so dire that most towns and villages on the European coast of the Mediterranean were completely abandoned until the early 1800’s. The Muslim corsairs frequently raided coastal settlements in Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and even as far away as Iceland.


Their rise to power came with the Ottoman Empire which took over Constantinople and seriously weakened Christian control in the Mediterranean. Life in Barbary servitude was extremely grim. Most would die on the voyage to the North African coast. Those who didn’t had an even worse fate. Men were put to hard labor in quarries or construction and some ended up as rowers on galleys where they would be chained up indefinitely. Women were used to do house work or become sex slaves to their masters.


The attacks began to stop as French, Spanish and American forces began to fight back. With the invasion of Algiers and Tunis by the French in 1830 and 1881, and with Tripoli falling into Italian hands in 1911, the European enslavement finally stopped.