Corsairing [English] Operations in the Mediterranean

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In addition to traditional corsairing operations in the Mediterranean, several new ones were sponsored in the late sixteenth and the early seventeenth century by Christian states such as Spain, Tuscany, Sicily and Monaco. These states also licensed additional vessels to sail as temporary corsairs under their protection, usually as wartime auxiliaries, but sometimes independently. Among the permanent new enclaves, two were developed as the great period of the sixteenth-century war wound down. In northwest Italy the Grand Dukes of Tuscany operated a fleet against the Muslims in the sixteenth century, but they gave it up in 1574 and sold some of their galleys to the Knights of St Stephen, a crusading order founded by Cosimo II di Medici (1537–74). Though these knights never had the discipline or the prestige of the Knights of Malta, with whom they sometimes collaborated, they styled themselves Christian crusaders and were authorized ‘to seize the ships and goods of any states which were not Roman Catholic’. With their base in Livorno (known as Leghorn to the English), they launched their first assault on Muslim trade and ports in 1564. The sales of booty in Livorno enriched the city and its ducal patrons, just as similar sales enriched the Knights of Malta and the beys of Barbary. Merchants and corsairs from northern Europe, especially England and Holland, streamed into Livorno in the late sixteenth century, swelling the population to about 5,000 by 1601.

Nearby Savoy had an official galley fleet that sailed against Muslim shipping. In addition, for a share of the loot, the Dukes of Savoy licensed pirates who settled in Villefranche. The port was very active in the early seventeenth century, because Spain had resumed attacks on the corsairing ports of Barbary and Morocco. With the activities of the Barbary corsairs restricted, the Christian pirates of Livorno and Villefranche sailed in to fill a niche in the market for stolen goods. Like Livorno, Villefranche attracted an international mix of adventurers, including many English pirates and merchants, who made enormous profits from the seizure and sale of booty. Marseilles was another favored port for northerners, where the notorious pirate Danziker held a commission from King Henry IV of France.

Sizeable numbers of English pirates settled in North Africa as well as Italy after 1604, when an Anglo-Spanish peace treaty put privateers out of work. In response, they simply changed venue and continued preying on Spanish shipping. English pirates had few ships in the Mediterranean at that point, but they were able to seize prizes with swift and heavily armed sailing ships. Once established in Barbary, English pirates could easily find ships and crews for corsairing expeditions. Northern European pirates tended to sail from fall to spring, Barbary pirates favored the summer; combined, they presented a year-round scourge to the shipping of Venice and Spain, in particular. In the summer of 1608 alone Algerian pirates captured 50 vessels off the Valencian coast. The reintroduction of the armed sailing ship to the Mediterranean was one of the most lasting developments of the seventeenth century. After a century of development in the Atlantic and beyond, the most agile of these vessels were well suited to Mediterranean piracy and cheaper to operate. The Grand Dukes of Tuscany bought sailing ships in 1602, and there are reports of numerous raids by sailing ships in the eastern Mediterranean in the early seventeenth century. Galleys were still in use, of course, but they faced increasing problems of maneuverability as artillery became heavier.

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