Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Moorish Corsairs: The History of Salé

Inspired by Professor Leila Maziane's new book, The Corsairs of Salé, Helen Ranger looks at the history of piracy in the small port of Salé that lies across the Bouregreg River from Rabat.

Unlike most Moroccan ports, Salé is turned towards the Atlantic, while others have a more Mediterranean focus. In the 17th century, this geographical factor greatly helped the city of Salé and other, smaller Moroccan ports to participate in the construction of an 'Atlantic World' through fishing, trade and piracy.

Both Morocco and Europe faced political and social crises at the time. In Morocco, the death of the Sultan Ahmad al Mansur in 1603 caused civil strife and the disintegration of the country. Several small republics came into being, including one in Salé. In Europe, the Moors were finally expelled from Spain (1609-1614) and 13 000 of them settled in Salé, joining the existing 3000 Estremadurans. In addition, Salé also became home to some English pirates from neighbouring La Mamora, whose stronghold had just been taken by the Spaniards.

Morocco received also hundreds of renegades who were running away from the numerous conflicts Europe experienced in the 17th century. Salé was the natural gathering point for these men in search of fortune. They just had to convert to Islam. For example, Dutch sailor Morat Rais was captured by the Algerians in 1618. He converted to Islam and then became a 'Turk by trade' (ie a pirate), operating out of Salé. He undertook daring raids all over the Northern Atlantic - he is most famous for raiding Reykjavik in 1627. When he returned, he became the first governor of Salé and the admiral of the fleet.

corsairs prepare to raid a galleon

Salé played an important part in the economic development of Morocco. It provided the primary materials necessary for shipbuilding as well as food. The forest in particular proved crucial for the city’s development. Indeed, although the Salétins (residents of Salé) were famous for reusing captured European ships, they usually built their own vessels.

Besides, the region provided the crews for some sixty corsair ships. In the lists of captured corsairs we spot names typical of the mountains indicating that people came from as far as the Rif to become corsairs. In effect, the hinterland of Salé kept growing until it reached Algeria and even Tunisia. Salé was supported by other ports such as La Mamora (taked from the Spaniards in 1681) and Larache (captured in 1689) that provided men and shipyards. The network expanded along the European coasts, even as far as the Netherlands where pirates would buy materials and hire sailors. The Salétins and the Algerian community of Tetouan and other North African piracy hubs all supported each other; this lasted until the end of the age of piracy around 1800.

Salé was completely reliant on piracy. Little was produced in the city; normal trade existed but the bulk of commerce was in stolen goods that were distributed by a network of Jewish traders. It was a cosmpolitan place of about 20 000 people; the Moors still spoke Castellan, there were diplomats, merchants, black slaves belonging to the sultan and as many as 6000 captives. People came from all over Morocco to try and get a job as a corsair, as there were political and social problems as well as famines and epidemics. There was no ideological issue - they were fighting the Christians.

There was good money to be made. Spoils were democratically distributed, everyone invested in piracy, owning perhaps a small share in a ship.

But it couldn't last. Things ground to a halt in 1666 when the sultan Moulay al-Rashid conquered Salé and tried to control the piracy directly, instead of it being private enterprise. His plan simply didn't work - people lost interest, officials embezzled money and the ships gradually lost the quality that had made them the most feared vessels on the Atlantic.

a Barbary galley

Leila Maziane has a PhD from Caen University in France, and now teaches at the Hassan II University in Mohammedia.


Marc said...

Fascinating post, especially to me, a nautical history buff. Also an especially timely one, considering the modern counterpart in Somalia. Despite all the negativity felt here (U.S.) over the piracy (undoubtedly due to live coverage & moral outrage these days), it would behoove us to look at in the greater historical context being driven more by economic factors than by simplistic criminality. I'm not endorsing piracy but just seeing it in the bigger picture.

Marc (Chicago)

RedShoes said...

AAAAWWWWWWWW! Bring out the kleenex for the bleeding hearts! What next will people come up with under the cloak of political correctness or the 'bigger picture'!? The only place where piracy can be regarded as romantic is in Hollywood. There are no 'buts' here, no Robin Hoods and no excuses. A criminal act seen in any context, historical or otherwise, remains a criminal act: an act that transgresses the Rule of Law -- an act that infringes on the rights of another.

Icarus said...

Well put Marc. The one-eyed view of history put forward by the following comment is sadly only too common. It leads to the same problems as anthropology suffers from. Too frequently we apply our absolutist moral view on a past history where the moral imperatives were vastly different. Many of the so-called great sailors spent time as privateers and it was seen as an acceptable career path at the time.

Almost all countries ran private enterprises at sea that would Red Shoes running for her little box of tissues. Sadly, her simplistic world view is as clouded as her vaguely fascistic and out-dated notions.

RedShoes said...

"we apply our absolutist moral view on a past history where the moral imperatives were vastly different."
Icarus -- what was my comment about? I thought it was about the right or wrong of piracy, not about the veracity of history books. That, I believe, is a completely different debate.

"An acceptable career path at the time"? and "Almost all countries ran private enterprises at sea" and "many of the socalled great sailors" were pirates --- what kind of argument is that? Are you trying to say that makes piracy right? Does that justify a bunch of thugs stealing and looting and taking innocent lives, and completely disregarding your and my right to travel by sea?

I am afraid my "rather simplistic views and vaguely fascistic and out-dated notions." must make it impossible for me to argue against such nonsense.

Marc (Chicago) said...

red shoes
Easy there cowboy -- as my last line stated, 'I'm not endorsing piracy'. Sounds like a non-endorsement to me. And further, who said anything about romanticized notions of piracy? Surely not me. Projection on your part maybe? Perhaps you have your own unresolved thoughts on or fantasies of piracy?

I think you can hardly call my observational post 'bleeding heart' when I was simply examining a trend that has a historical basis. Certainly preferable to a knee jerk, jingoistic flag-waving response.

Marc (Chicago)

Michelle & the angels said...

In all fairness, Marc, I don't think that person understood your original comment. But you are correct and he/she is not. Also I found her/his "tone" rather belligerent.