One of the best examples of early organized crime, the pirates of the Barbary Coast worked in much larger groups than other pirates, making them a virtual pirate navy. Their capture of over one million European Christians as slaves has secured their legacy as a dynamic force in history and politics.
The Barbary Coast Pirates preyed upon ships and coastal settlements for several hundred years, from the time of the Crusades until the early nineteenth century. Their name derives from the location of their stronghold along the coast of Northern Africa. The Barbary Coast Pirates comprised a diverse group who operated out of Tunis, Algiers, Sale, Tripoli, and ports of Morocco. Their reputation, however was said to extend as far North as Iceland and to the Atlantic seaboard, giving them an impressive place in history and historical literature.
Barbary Coast Pirates did not only prey on the shipping trade. The pirates often raided European coastal cities and captured large numbers of Christian slaves to be sold in slave markets. From 1530-1780 as many as 1,250,000 European Christians were enslaved in Africa. Slaves were not chosen simply on the basis of religion, no single factor determined who the Barbary Coast pirates were willing to enslave. They enslaved black, brown, and white people as well as Christians, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. The Sultan Moulay Ismail is said to have had an impressive palace built entirely by Christian slave labor, the slaves of whom were obtained by the Barbary Coast Pirates.
Possibly the best known of these pirates was Barbarossa (Khair ad Din). After being invited to defend the city of Algiers from Spaniards, Barbarossa killed its ruler and seized Algiers, making it not only a major base for privateers, but a regent for the Ottoman Empire as well.
The Barbary Coast Pirates even figure in United States history! In 1784, as a new country with little in the way of a navy for protection, the U.S. Congress appropriated a bribe to the Barbary states, called a "tribute". However, attacks continued, prompting the building of the United States Navy, including the USS Constitution, one of America's most famous ships. This led to a series of wars along the North African coast, which ended in 1815 when naval victories ended tribute payments by the U.S. Some European nations that made tribute to the Barbary Coast Pirates, however, continued payments until much later.
Several militaries including the Dutch admiral Michiel de Ruyter, unsuccessfully tried to end their piracy, but raids by Barbary pirates on Western Europe did not cease until a Royal Navy raid, assisted by six Dutch vessels, destroyed the port of Algiers in 1816, taking its fleet of Barbary ships. This was an end to a pirate empire which took no less than 466 vessels between 1609-1616, then 27 more in 1625 and a printed report in London in 1682 said that 160 ships were captured between 1677-1680 during their height. However two hundred years of reign by the Barbary Coast pirates had a lasting impact on the lives of people and the economies of Western countries.
The Barbary Coast Pirates figure not just in history, they also were immortalized in historical literature. Famous works such as Robinson Crusoe, The Sea Hawk by Rafael Sabatini, Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian, The Algerine Captive by Royall Tyler, and The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas include mentions of the Barbary Coast Pirates. Miguel de Cervantes, a captive in Algiers, reflected his experience as a captive of the Barbary Coast Pirates in his works, including the famous classic Don Quixote.