Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Captives of the Corsairs—I

And what was the life of these poor captives carried into slavery among the Barbary rovers? Let us suppose ourselves on board an Algerine galley returning home after a successful cruise. She is going merrily over the sea under oar and sail. The oars are pulled by Christian slaves, meagre, half-starved, sun-tanned wretches, with at best no more than a few rags to cover them, and urged to their work by the boatswains. The latter walk along a narrow gangway running up the waist of the galley, and from it they can reach easily to the oar benches on either side. Each boatswain is armed with a heavy whip, and uses it without mercy. Look at the great weals and the fresh, blood-stained marks on the naked backs of the oarsmen! Let one but falter an instant at his heavy task, and the boatswain lashes him furiously or gives him a savage prod with the sharp spike which is set in the end of the whip handle. No slave may resist this cruelty, even if he dared, for he is fast chained to the rowing bench and is utterly helpless.

On the poop is the Reis, the captain, perhaps a great black Moor, or a brown-faced Turk, or a swarthy renegade, but dressed and armed in Turkish fashion, with a scimitar at his girdle and a turban on his head. His crew and his soldiery are packed mostly at the prow, and all stare eagerly towards the land to catch the first glimpse of Algiers. They have had a long cruise, they have taken much spoil, and they long for the welcome they will receive, and the pleasures waiting for them in the city.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


But the pale-faced captives look forward with no such joyous hope. Every beat of the oars carries them so much the nearer to the land where they must live in slavery. The shore now rises fast, and they see a rocky promontory which shines white in the sun. They draw nearer, and see that the patch of colour is a town built on a steep hillside. Row upon row, tier upon tier, the white shining houses of Algiers climb the encircling sweep of hills and look down upon the harbour for which the galley is steering. Now the guns of the pirate vessel begin to roar. Salute after salute is fired, in joy of return and to announce that the cruise has been a success, and soon a delighted crowd throngs the shore to welcome their friends, and to see what is being brought in.

The galley runs into the harbour and an anchor is dropped, to which she may ride. The Reis calls an order, and the rowers fling their oars into the water. A boat goes round the ship, gathers the oars, and tows them away. This is done lest the slaves should snatch at a chance of escape when the galley is nearly empty of their masters, and row off. Now the fresh captives are taken ashore. Men, women, and children, they huddle together for a while on the quay, then they are led at once to the palace of the Dey. The ruler of Algiers has the right to choose one out of every eight for himself, and he takes care to pick the most valuable. If they are seamen who have been seized, he takes the ship's captain, the surgeon, if there is one, the carpenter, and other skilled workmen. If they are landsmen, he takes those who seem most likely to be able to afford a good ransom. If any persons of consequence have been seized, he takes these at once, as a matter of course, and without including them among his eighth part. All these are Government slaves, and are carried off at once to one of the three great government prisons or bagnios.

The other prisoners, as soon as the Dey has made his choice, are led to the slave-market to be sold to private persons. Here they are led up and down, and the buyers bid for them until the auctioneer can gain no further advance. This is the first stage of the selling. Now they return to the Dey's courtyard and the bidding is resumed. The highest bidder here now takes the man, woman, or child he has purchased and carries him or her home, and does with that person, now his slave, just as he pleases.

The price offered in the slave-market goes to the captors of the slave. The difference between that price and the final sum offered in the courtyard goes to the Dey; so that in one way or another the ruler of Algiers filled his treasury finely out of the winnings of his Corsair subjects.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


The Government slaves could at once be known, for they wore a ring of iron on one ankle. They lived in great prisons, the bagnios, where they were locked up every night from dark to dawn. The bagnios were huge buildings, filled with a multitude of low, dark cells, into each of which were crowded fifteen or sixteen slaves. For food they were given three loaves of black bread apiece daily; all else they must beg or gain for themselves. They had to work from daybreak until an hour or two before sunset. They were employed upon all the heavy work of the city. They went to the quarries to cut great blocks of stone for building and repairing. They dragged the stone in clumsy carts to the spot where it was required. The skilled workmen among them built walls, houses, fortifications. Clever workmen were highly thought of, and it was very difficult for such men to obtain their freedom on any terms; only an immense ransom could buy them off.

Some were sent to work at the ovens, baking bread and carrying it into the city for sale. These led a most miserable life, for the heat of the ovens in that burning climate was dreadful, and the places were so filthy that they swarmed with vermin. Others were allowed to keep taverns, and they were obliged to pay over a certain sum to their owner according to the amount of wine they sold. The Dey sent many of the slaves to sea, and it was from these slaves that the renegades were largely recruited.

If a slave gave any trouble to his keepers or to his master, he was promptly clapped into chains. Father Dan, a French priest who visited Algiers to redeem captives, says that he has seen Christian slaves with chains upon both legs, and these chains so heavy that the slave was forced to carry one in a basket on his shoulder, while he dragged the other along as well as he could. A slave who dared to resist the will of his master in the smallest point was liable to the severest punishment, and if his master put him to death by the most terrible torture, nothing could be done. The slave belonged to the master, and the latter was at liberty to do as he pleased with his own. Slaves were crucified, burned to death, beaten to death, and the commonest of punishments, that of the bastinado, was declared by those who had suffered it to be the most exquisite torture that a man can endure. Here is a description of the method of inflicting this punishment by an English captive who experienced it.

"They have a strong staff about six feet long, in the middle whereof are two holes bored, into which a cord is put, and the ends of the cord fastened on one side the staff with knots, so that it makes a loop on the other side; into this both the feet of the person condemned to this punishment are put; then two lusty fellows, one at each end of the staff, lift it up in their arms, and twisting the staff about till the feet are fast pinched by the ankles, they raise his feet, with the soles upwards, as high as their shoulders, and in this posture they hold them, the poor man in the meantime resting only with his neck and shoulders on the ground. Then comes another lusty, sturdy knave behind him, and, with a tough, short truncheon, gives him as many violent blows on the soles of his feet as the council shall order."