The Pirate Coast
A brief history

Until the early 19th century, piracy raged in Moroccan waters.

Having existed before and after the Roman presence, piracy flourished during the crusades, as a result of the large flow of goods and people in the Mediterranean, headed to or from the Holy lands. On the Atlantic coast, the Caravan trade and expeditions to Asia (via South Africa) also fed an fostered pirate activity.

Until the 14th century, piracy was one of the greatest dangers awaiting any boat at sea. All merchant boats were carefully armed, ready to fight all greedy suitors, who could be Christian or Muslim pirates (some robbing their own kind!).

In the early 14th century, a semblance of order and regulation emerged, with the advent of "Lettres de Represailles" and "Lettres de Marque". The former was an authorization from the King (or the Sultan) to seize goods from any ship of the same origin as the thief, and up to the value of the goods stolen, as retribution for theft. The latter was an official authorization to rob all ships belonging to an enemy nation. Thus arose the distinction between 'pirates' and 'corsairs'- while pirates were simple thief and outlaws, 'corsairs' sailed with royal approval, sharing their gain with the crown.

The 16th century saw a new change in the configuration of piracy on the North African Coast. With the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian peninsula (as a result of the reconquistada by the Catholic kings) and the influx of Spanish Muslims into North Africa, entire populations of disgruntled sailors settled in Moroccan ports. Tying their frustration to the official discourse of Jihad (religious war), they soon developed a strong structure for organized piracy, with the Sultan's blessing (duly obtained through regular payments to the local authorities). Thanks to improvements in naval technology (constantly brought over from Spain by new immigrants), they developed one of the mightiest fleets, casting terror over the North African waters for several decades, reaching their pinnacle in the late 17th century. In Morocco, Sale was the most renown pirate den.

While Muslim pirates were revived by this influx of new energies, this did not signify the end of Christian piracy. The papal fleets, the Order of Malta and other independent boats roamed the Mediterranean and Atlantic waters in search of enemy pray. In addition, renegades, or Christians having defected from their 'side' and their religion, played an active role in the growth and sustenance of the Moroccan pirate trade. Able sailors, they often were captains (rais) of ships, or advisors to rulers.

When writing of Piracy in 16th century North Africa one must mention Algiers, and the reign of the "Barberousse Brothers". Official vassals of the Ottoman Empire, these two brothers built a mighty 'Corsair' city capable of challenging the armies of any Western ruler, even those of the legendary Charles Quint. Building the entire city around sea theft, these men brought organized piracy to its highest level, a status it never regained. In Leo's days, the Barberousse Brothers were just beginning to amass the hundreds of naval successes which were to make them famed and feared across all oceans.

Follow the Pirate Coast Expedition to learn more about life in ships, in ports, and the battles waged for control of Moroccan waters.