In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Barbary States

  • Introduction

Atlantic History Barbary States
David Dzurec
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0348


The North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco, which, until the 19th century, Europeans collectively referred to as the “Barbary States,” first came into existence with the spread of Islam across the northern African coast and into the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century. Over the following eight centuries, these small states on the edges of the Mediterranean world employed a mix of trade and privateering (often labeled piracy) to sustain their economies. Based on religious dictate, Barbary privateers sailed against Christian nations who failed to negotiate a treaty with the Barbary States. Once captured, Christians were sold into slavery in the North African nations. Although commonly referred to as “pirates,” the Barbary ships might more properly be referred to as “privateers” or “corsairs.” While many of these ships were privately held, they operated with the sanction of the Barbary governments, lending a legitimacy to their activity that the term pirate denies them. The practice of privateering was recognized by states throughout the world as legal until 1856, when privateering was abolished under the Declaration of Paris. It was on this premise that the Barbary States, primarily Algeria and Morocco, sailed the Mediterranean in search of wealth. These raids supplied these North African states with both treasure and captives. The crews and state governments split the spoils of the raids, while captive crewmen found themselves on the auction block and sold into slavery throughout North Africa. Captives with few skills often ended up working in the quarries or shipyards. Seamen trained in a trade often found themselves in cities working at their craft. Those sailors who converted to Islam were able to return to sea as crewmen aboard the Barbary corsairs. Officers on the captured vessels were often placed on parole, reflecting similar European practices, provided they paid a monthly fee for their limited freedom. For the European powers, the threat of the Barbary States was best managed through a series of yearly tributes to maintain safe passage for their ships. While the many European navies were more than a match for the North African forces, most European powers deemed annual payment the most effective means for dealing with these North African states. Following the Napoleonic Wars and a series of conflicts with the newly independent United States, the Barbary raids were finally terminated in the early 19th century, culminating with the French conquest of Algeria in 1830.

Primary Sources

Much of the primary source material dealing with the “Barbary States” centers on the captivity of European and American sailors. These sources include not only the captivity narratives themselves (both authentic and fabricated), but they also include works of fiction, political satire, and public speeches. Many of the narratives and works of fiction remained in print over two centuries.

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