Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Redemption of Captives—I

There was only one way in which captives could be freed from slavery among the Corsairs, and that was by ransom. The pirates were as eager to receive the ransom as the captive was to be free, for they loved money. As one said, who had lived among them for twelve years: "Give a Turk money with one hand, and he will permit you to pull out his eyes with the other."

Sometimes a captive found means to send a letter home to his friends by a ship which had put into Algiers, and the money was sent to free him; sometimes he was rescued by the Order of the Redemption. This was a religious order, a body of monks which looked upon the redemption of Christians from the hands of infidels as a Christian duty, and the lives of its members were devoted to this service. They collected money from the charitable and sailed for the Barbary coast. There the good fathers landed in their white robes with a blue and red cross on the breast, and faced the Corsairs and strove to free as many captives as their bags of money would ransom.

Father Dan, the French priest of whom we have spoken, made such a journey in 1634 with a number of his fellow-monks. He found twenty-five thousand Christian slaves in Algiers, and he has given us a vivid picture of their miserable condition in the hands of their Moorish captors. The mission was received with civility, but such was the greed of the Algerines that no prisoners could be ransomed. The fathers afterwards went to Tunis, where they ransomed forty-two French captives. The latter were taken to Marseilles and formed the centre of a splendid procession in honour of their release, each rescued slave bearing a chain on his shoulder in token of his former condition and his happy deliverance.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


The most famous captive ever ransomed from the Corsairs was one of the greatest men the world has ever known. This was the great Spaniard, Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. In 1575 Cervantes was returning home after service abroad. He had fought in the mighty battle of Lepanto, and there lost the use of his left arm. His ship was attacked and captured by Corsair galleys, and Cervantes became the captive of a renegade Greek. The Greek found upon him letters from some great persons, among them Don John of Austria, and concluded that he had seized a man of high rank who could pay a heavy ransom. So he put Cervantes in heavy chains and treated him very severely, in order to make him anxious to be ransomed.

But Cervantes, as brave in soul as he was great in mind, never ceased to form plans which would bring him freedom. He had a friend about six miles from Algiers at a place where there was a cavern in a lonely spot by the shore. To this cavern Cervantes conducted small parties of fugitives until he had hidden between forty and fifty slaves, mostly Spanish gentlemen. Such was his skill and resource that he supplied this party with food for months without arousing suspicion. The brother of Cervantes sent a Spanish ship to rescue those hidden in the cave, whom Cervantes had now joined.

The ship came, but unluckily she was seen by some fishermen, who raised and alarm. She was forced to put to sea again and, to the despair of the fugitives, a band of soldiers marched into the cavern and seized them. They had been betrayed by one of their own friends, who had revealed the plot and hiding place to the Pasha of Algiers. Cervantes, with splendid chivalry, at once took all blame on himself. He was taken before the ruler, a man infamous for his cruelty and brutality, and closely questioned. But neither threat of death or torture could shake him from his resolve to protect his companions. He would not say a word which could bring one of them into trouble. His iron resolution and undaunted bravery made a great impression on the Pasha, who now purchased Cervantes from his owner for five hundred gold crowns.

Again and again Cervantes tried to escape. Once he could have got free if he had deserted his companions in the plot, but that was not possible for Cervantes. Often was he threatened with by death, and he says himself that he looked for execution day by day, yet he was kept under strict ward in his master's prison. Then, in 1580, his owner was called to Constantinople. Cervantes, heavily chained, was about to be taken off, when a good monk redeemed him for a sum equal to 100 of English money at that day, and Cervantes was once more free.

There was no Order of Redemption in England to ransom captives, but from time to time money was collected in various ways for the same purpose. Merchant companies gave money for the ransom of English seamen, and in 1624. the House of Lords collected about 3000, while letters were sent through the bishops to the parishes of England calling upon the charitable to give alms for the redemption of unhappy captives. But Algiers never became empty of British slaves. Fresh hosts were swept in at every cruise to take the places of those redeemed, and every ship from Algiers brought many sad letters to England. "Touching petitions reached England from the poor captives themselves—English seamen and captains, or plain merchants bringing home their wealth, now suddenly arrested and stripped of all they possessed; piteous letters from out the very bagnios themselves, full of tears and entreaties for help. In the fourth decade of the seventeenth century there were three thousand husbands and fathers and brothers in Algerine prisons, and it was no wonder that the wives and daughters thronged the approaches to the House of Commons and besieged the members with their prayers and sobs."

Here is one of those touching petitions, wherein a poor captive begs his friends not to forget him in his forlorn and miserable condition:—

"DEARE FRIENDS,—It is now about 6 yeares since I was most unfortunately taken by a Turkes man-of-warre on the coasts of Barbary, captive into Argiere (Algiers), since which time I have written oft to London to Master Southwood of the upper ground, to Richard Barnard of Duke's Place, Richard Coote of the Bankside, to Master Linger a haberdasher in Crooked Lane, and in that to Master Southwood I sent an inclosed to my father, if living, and other letters to my brothers and friends if not dead. I could never hear whether any of you were alive or dead, which makes me think the letters are either miscarried, or all of you deceased, or gone to other places, or else I know you are so much Christians and friends that you would have looked upon me in such a condition. O! my friends, once more I tell you I am a miserable captive in Argiere, taken by a Flemish vessell two years after I left the warres in Gilderland. My Patroone (master) is one Baron, a French  Renegado, that lives in the country, but hires me and another Protestant captive (one Master Robinson, a Norfolk  man) out in Argiere, for this time, and if we goe up to the country, you may never hear of us againe; our misery is that the price of our redemption will be no less than 250l, because we are thought to have good friends in England, and we must both goe off together. Master Robinson hath written to his friends, and we have deeply bound ourselves to each other, that we will engage our friends to us both equally. Ah! Father, Brother, friends and acquaintance, use some speedy means for our Redemption. Many hundred slaves have been redeemed from their misery since we came hither, which makes us hope still we may be the next, and then the next, but still our hopes are deceived. We doe pray you therefore, for the Lord Christ's sake that redeemed you, that you would use all possible means for our redemption. There is now a party in England renowned over the Christian world for their piety in this way. O! make your addresse to those noble worthies in the name of Christ for whose sake we suffer. We did never so well understand the meaning of that Psalme, penned by those captive Jewes, held in Babilonish captivity, as now: By the waters of Babilon we sate down and wept when we remembered thee, O! Sion, when we remembered thee, O! England. O! good friends, we hope these our sighs will come to your eares, and move pity and compassion. We are told there is a merchant in London, one Mr. Stanner  of St. Mary's Axe, that hath a factor in Legorne (Leghorn), and one Mr. Hodges and Mr. Mico, Londoners, that are dealers there who are able to direct you in the readiest way for our redemption. Deny us not your prayers if you can doe nothing else. It will be some comfort to heare from friends. There is a Post in London that conveys letters into all parts, and you may have an opportunity of letting us heare from you, if you please, within a month or six weeks. The Lord direct your thoughts with waies of love, and strengthen us with faith and Patience.—Your sorrowful friend and brother in Christ,


"There subscribes to these besides:—


"From Barbary: September 29, 1646.