Barbary pirate raids on the Mediterranean coast led to widespread depopulation of the coasts from Venice to Malaga with the obvious exception of the larger cities. The pirate raids also seem to be the most frequent during the 17th-18th centuries, when many European countries were on the rise. France, who reached her apogee in the late 17th century, did almost nothing to safeguard her citizens on the south coast. Britain, instead of using her Naval supremacy to crush the pirates, struck a deal with them whereby no ship under the British flag would be a target in return for a tribute (although this was probably a case of Realpolitik; the British realized that the Barbary pirates did far more damage to their adversaries than to them).

So why was there no concerted effort by the Europeans to stamp out the Barbary pirates in the 17th-18th centuries?

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    Looks like you've answered your own question... :) – Felix Goldberg Feb 10 '14 at 11:47
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    That was the case of Britain though, not France, Spain, Portugal, Genoa, the Savoyards, Napoli, etc. – Evil Washing Machine Feb 10 '14 at 11:48
  • @Schwit Janwityanujit You forgot to mention the netherlands – botenvouwer Feb 11 '14 at 15:11

Privateering is a tool of international conflict

Read wikipedia; until forbidden by international law, privateering was a tool of international cold war.

France encouraged the corsairs against Spain, and later Britain and Holland supported them against France. By the second half of the 17th century the greater European naval powers were able to strike back effectively enough to intimidate the Barbary States into making peace with them. However, those countries' commercial interests then benefited from the impact of continuing attacks on their competitors, and as a result there was little interest in imposing a more general cessation of corsair activity.

The snarky answer

Because I assumed that the OP had done the basic reasearch, I didn't consult wikipedia until I had to answer @Schwit Janwityanujit's comment. Consequently I drafted this answer, which I'll leave intact.

Why should they? The Barbary Pirates were a protection racket; if you paid tribute, you were not attacked.

After the United States won its independence in the treaty of 1783, it had to protect its own commerce against dangers such as the Barbary pirates. As early as 1784 Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states, directing its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them. Trouble began the next year, in July 1785, when Algerians captured two American ships and the dey of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one people for a ransom of nearly $60,000. Thomas Jefferson Papers

Wars cost money. If the fee charged by the Barbary Pirates for their protection racket is less than the cost of the war, and if you're suffering from the Seven Years War (which arguably was the first world war), and seeking to build an empire in the face of active competition, why not pay the price? Tribute is cheaper.

Also note that large, powerful nations were immune. The Barbary Pirates were smart enough not to molest British ships, nor those of nations allied with France. The United States however was an ideal target - small, heavily in debt, on the verge of war with Britain and lacking a blue water navy able to project power.

Sadly, in this case, the calculations of the Barbary Pirates were flawed. They were the first in a long line of people who made the fatal flaw of underestimating the U.S. Marines.

update: I've had to retract an earlier statement I made here; Jefferson supported a stronger navy

After all, as Thomas Jefferson had once observed, "a naval force can never endanger our liberties, nor occasion bloodshed; a land force would do both";2 or, as James Madison would argue in favor of ratification of the Constitution, a navy could "never be turned by a perfidious government against our liberties." "The Federalist Number 41," in The Papers of James Madison, edited by William T. Hutchinson et al., 17 vols. to date (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962-), 10: 395.


The pro-navy side was strengthened when the President sent documentation supporting his view that a navy was essential, * history.navy.mil

Aside: I believe the situation was more complex than these quotes indicate but Jefferson's ideological committment to utopian Republicanism is outside the scope of this question.

England was emphatically not the only power safe from the Barbary Pirates - Portugal's navy suppressed the pirates.

In 1793 Portugal, whose navy had been keeping the Algerine corsairs within the confines of the Mediterranean, signed a truce with Algiers.

And from wikipedia

In addition to seizing ships, they engaged in Razzias, raids on European coastal towns and villages, mainly in Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal, but also in Great Britain and Ireland, the Netherlands and as far away as Iceland. The main purpose of their attacks was to capture Christian slaves for the Ottoman slave trade as well as the general Muslim market in North Africa and the Middle East. *http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/white_slaves_01.shtml#two*

  • But Spain, who reached its apex in the 16th and 17th centuries, did absolutely nothing to safeguard her citizens...why? France also was not safe from the barbary pirates, only England was and only from the reign of Charles II onwards. – Evil Washing Machine Feb 11 '14 at 11:03
  • thanks for updating your answer, but you forgot to read the last bit of my comment ;) – Evil Washing Machine Feb 11 '14 at 16:33
  • Read the comment. The last section of my answer contradicts your assertion. According to BBC, the Barbary Pirates raided English shores for captives; England was not safe. – Mark C. Wallace Feb 11 '14 at 16:36
  • Again, you failed to read my comment. I said "England was safe but only from the reign of Charles II onwards" – Evil Washing Machine Feb 11 '14 at 23:18

There were made efforts to end the Barbary pirate raids. The only problem in this picture is that you are seeing England, France, Spain and the Netherlands (my country) as fully developed countries which in that time they were not. Civilians were not important and losses were just part of the risk a sailer had to take. The big sailing companies had no worries about pirates unless they formed a economical threat to their profits. And when that happened believe me they would dealt with the problem. There have been many punitive expeditions (In my country for example a famous admiral "Michiel de Ruyter" had lead many such expeditions). And you should see the Barbary states as one big anarchy of private parties trying to earn with piracy. Something not only they but england, the netherlands, france, spain etc. did. This is a very difficult situation with complex relations between pirates, companies and governments. Why forbid or fight piracy in common when they hunt your competition.

First of all there is a difference in private ships and government ships. And the border is often very shady. Who is or was responsible for the security of the trade ships? The government's or the companies. For example in my country the government gave the companies the power and the rights to use military force and maintain their own militias and naval's. They only protected their own interests.

In fact it were mostly small sailing companies, fisherman or cost villages which were taken prisoner. Because the big boys had fleets with protection and even the ships that sailed alone had soldiers and cannons (If you were a pirate you would try to take the most easy target).

Secondly if you know that there is no good upper layer organization which cares about a small percentage of all its citizens being taken captive it will take a long time considering the speed of communication in that time to change the minds of Kings or other powerful influences to take action. In the end why would you care. Only when there was an economical reason there would be a effort to end or fight the barbary piracy. But what if you do. Than the spanish and french ships would be saved from such terrors as well. Not considering the competition which is sailing under the same flag.

To me the only reason to end barbary piracy or even better to conquer their lands and turn them into slaves is because of principle. They were muslims and the europeans were christians. Its like water and fire but you forget that inside christianity there is been a struggle between Protestant and Catholic. Europe was not united and there was no clear common enemy named barbary states. That is the main reason there were no main efforts to end the Barbary pirate raids.


European countries were content to "live and let live" (and take the occasional loss). That was particularly true because the larger countries, e.g. England and France, managed to cut "sweetheart" deals with the pirates.

The reason that there was a concerted effort to put an end to the Pirates in the early 1800s (and not before), was the establishment of the United States during the 1780s. It was a country founded on "no taxation without representation," that was peculiarly averse to paying tribute. And it was also too weak to get "special treatment" in the manner of England or France. American sentiment was reinforced during the so-called XYZ affair of the late 1790s, which almost led to war with a France whose leaders sought bribes, and triggered the battle cry "Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute."

Put another way, the end of the Barbary Pirates was brought about by the emergence of a nation that would rather "fight than switch." Beginning with the term of President Thomas Jefferson, the Americans sent several frigates to combat the Pirates in the western Mediterranean in the Barbary Wars.

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