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Barbary Pirates – The Scourge of the Mediterranean Sea

The Barbary Pirates were a band of privateers who served as part of the naval forces of the Ottoman Empire, a huge, multi-ethnic empire that spanned throughout southern Europe, northern Africa, the Mediterranean region, and the Middle East. The Barbary Pirates operated in teams from ports in North Africa such as Algeirs, Tunis and Tripoli. Their reign of terror in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean lasted about 250 years from the late 1500′s to the early 1800′s. By the 1700′s, the Barbary Pirates had become so fearsome that many nations, including the United States for some time, agreed to pay them an annual ransom to ensure their trading vessels sailed safely in the Mediterranean.

The Barbary Pirates frequently raided seafaring vessels and coastal towns. They often captured Christians in Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal and sold them as slaves in Morrocco or Algeria. Others were forced to man the oars of the pirate galleys and suffered horrible abuses such as lashings and deprivation of food. Such raids terrorized coastal populations and caused many villages to be abandoned completely out of fear. Treasures and slaves captured from raids were divided amongst the pasha (the Muslim ruler of Algeirs), privateers, and the soldiers who boarded seized ships.

The end for the Barbary Pirates came in the early 1800′s when they began seizing American ships in the Atlantic Ocean and enslaving their crews. This resulted in the birth of the U.S. Navy and the refusal of the American government to continue to pay the one million dollar annual tribute for free passage in the Mediterranean Sea (which they had done for nearly 10 years). The refusal resulted in the First Barbary War (1801-1805) and then the Second Barbary War (1815), both decisive American victories.


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