The Raid on Baltimore by Barbary Corsairs in 1631

20 June 1631 in Ireland, the West Cork town of Baltimore was raided by Barbary Corsairs who kidnapped most of the villagers and sold them as slaves in Algiers.

“The summer sun is falling soft an Carbery's hundred isles—/ The summer's sun is gleaming still through Gabriel's rough defiles— / Old Innisherkin's crumbled fane looks like a moulting bird; / And in a calm and sleepy swell the ocean tide is heard: / The hookers lie upon the beach; the children cease their play; / The gossips leave the little inn; the households kneel to pray— / And full of love, and peace, and rest—its daily labour o'er— / Upon that cosy creek there lay the town of Baltimore. // A deeper rest, a starry trance, has come with midnight there; / No sound, except that throbbing wave, in earth, or sea, or air, / The massive capes, and ruined towers, seem conscious of the calm; / The fibrous sod and stunted trees are breathing heavy balm. / So still the night, these two long barques, round Dunashad that glide / Must trust their oars—methinks not few— against the ebbing tide— / Oh! some sweet mission of true love must urge them to the shore— / They bring some lover to his bride, who sighs in Baltimore! // All, all asleep within each roof along that rocky street, / And these must be the lover's friends, with gently gliding feet— / A stifled gasp! a dreamy noise! "The roof is in a flame!" / From out their beds, and to their doors, rush maid, and sire, and dame— / And meet, upon the threshold stone, the gleaming sabre's fall, / And o'er each black and bearded face the white or crimson shawl— / The yell of "Allah!" breaks above the prayer, and shriek, and roar— / Oh, blessed God! the Algerine is lord of Baltimore! // Then flung the youth his naked hand against the shearing sword; / Then sprung the mother on the brand with which her son was gor'd; / Then sunk the grandsire on the floor, his grand-babes clutching wild; / Then fled the maiden moaning faint, and nestled with the child: / But see, yon pirate strangled lies, and crushed with splashing heel, / While o'er him in an Irish hand there sweeps his Syrian steel— / Though virtue sink, and courage fail, and misers yield their store, / There's one hearth well avengèd in the sack of Baltimore! // Midsummer morn, in woodland nigh, the birds began to sing— / They see not now the milking maids—deserted is the spring! / Midsummer day—this gallant rides from distant Bandon's town— / These hookers crossed from stormy Skull, that skiff from Affadown; / They only found the smoking walls, with neighbours' blood besprent, / And on the strewed and trampled beach awhile they wildly went— / Then dash'd to sea, and passed Cape Clear, and saw five leagues before / The pirate-galleys vanishing that ravaged Baltimore! // Oh! some must tug the galley's oar, and some must tend the steed— / This boy will bear a Scheik's chibouk, and that a Bey's jerreed. / Oh! some are for the arsenals, by beauteous Dardanelles; / And some are in the caravan to Mecca's sandy dells. / The maid that Bandon gallant sought is chosen for the Dey— She's safe—she's dead—she stabb'd him in the midst of his Serai; / And when, to die a death of fire, that noble maid they bore, / She only smiled—O'Driscoll's child—she thought of Baltimore. // Tis two long years since sunk the town beneath that bloody band, / And all around its trampled hearths a larger concourse stand, / Where, high upon a gallows-tree, a yelling wretch is seen— / 'Tis Hackett of Dungarvan—he who steered the Algerine! / He fell amid a sullen shout, with scarce a passing prayer, / For he had slain the kith and kin of many a hundred there— / Some muttered of MacMurchadh, who brough the Norman o'er—/ Some cursed him with Iscariot, that day in Baltimore. (Thomas Davis, 1814 – 1845, “The Sack of Baltimore”)

A 19th century imagination of Jan Janszoon,
dressed up as Murat Reis in Barbary Corsair outfit

In the wee hours of a fine Friday morning, about the time when not even the fishermen of the market town of Baltimore would be up and about, a unique and memorable, if somewhat threatening spectacle happened on the beaches of West Cork. More than 200 heavily armed Barbary corsairs came sneaking from all sides, and all of a sudden, crying havoc, they fell upon the village, making short work of anyone trying to get in their way, setting the homesteads on fire and those who could not flee, mostly women and children, were rounded up and herded to the beach. About 100 people were brought on board the two xebecs lying in the straits between Coney Island and Gortadrohid. Around noontime, the raid was over, Baltimore was burning against the skyline, the two xebecs under the command of the notorious Corsair captain Murat Reis the younger of the Salé Rovers, formerly known as Jan Janszoon from Harleem, sailed towards Gibraltar and the Barbary Coast where their human cargo was to be sold on the slave markets of Algiers and only three women among them would ever see Ireland again.

Antoine Roux (1765 -1835): "The Graeco-Ottoman polacre San Nicolo" (around 1820), a ship with a sail plan similar to that of a xebec with Northern European modifications

A hundred years before Britannia began to rule the waves in earnest, Northern African piracy raised to an all time high. Western renegades such as Simon de Danser, John Ward and Jan Janszoon helped the Corsair lords of Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis and Salé (or Sallee, near modern Rabat) on the Barbary Coast to equip the already hugely successful pirate ships of the Barbary States with new square rigs, allowing them to sail the Atlantic. The corsairs range literally exploded from the Mediterranean to the coasts of western Spain, Portugal and France – their main booty being people to be sold on the slaves markets throughout Northern Africa and the Near and Middle East. In 1627, Murat Reis had occupied an old pirate stronghold on Lundy, 12 miles off the coast of Cornwall, and raided as far north as Iceland in the same year, capturing about 250 people and preying on local shipping and coastal villages afterwards. According to local tradition, a Catholic fisherman named John Hackett from Dungarvan was captured by the corsairs off the Old Head of Kinsale and ransomed himself by leading Murat Reis to the Protestant settlement of Baltimore, leased by one Englishman, Thomas Crooke, from the local chieftain, Fineen O’Driscoll, during the last days of the reign of Good Queen Bess and the settlers from Cornwall and Devon had grown rich on fishing the rich pilchard shoals that appeared on the coast of Cork every year and the rest of their Catholic neighbours did not like them one bit for it.

A contemporary illustration depicting a slave market in Algiers.

More than 15 years later attempts had been made to ransom the people taken in Baltimore and other victims of Corsair raids. Most of them chose to stay as slaves along the Barbary Coast rather than return home to Europe. Admittedly, the Corsair city states experienced something of a Golden Age during the mid-1600s and not all ended up as galley slaves or in a harem. Back home in Ireland, Baltimore remained deserted for decades, the survivors had settled in Skibbereen and John Hackett was caught and hanged for his role in the raid. By the end of the century the Europeans and later the young United States began to fight back in earnest, but it took them more than a hundred years to end the threat of the Barbary Corsairs and the white slave trade for good in 1816. Autobiographies and various reports of the “Christian-abducted-by-the-Corsairs”-genre existing during the 17th and 18th century with various literary quality and credibility until “Abducted-by-Indians”-tales took over the market and became fantasy erotic novels, serving a certain taste of 19th century Europe and America, especially after the Barbary States ceased to be a real threat and became French and Spanish colonies.

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