Thursday, March 31, 2011

Libya or the Barbary Coast? Were your ancestors affected?

Libya and the United States of America, The more things change, the more they stay the same…
The Dutch in Tripoli
by Lieve Pietersz Vershuier (1627-1686)
Who were the Barbary pirates made famous in the Navy hymn “from the shores of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli”?  Tripoli is the current capital of Libya, formerly known as the Barbary Coast. Tripoli capital where they operated during the First Barbary War in 1784 (which was triggered by tributes paid to the pirates – sound familiar?). They seized ships, raided towns in Italy, Spain and Portugal and basically acted like terrorists (again – does this sound familiar?). This went on until the French conquered parts of North Africa, and established forts along the coast. The French Legionnaires and their desert exploits in romantic films are based on these soldiers stationed in the region.
What were the pirates looking for? Mostly they wanted slaves. They sold Europeans in the slaves markets of North Africa, and most captives were never seen again by their loved ones. This was not just a European problem, thougth. There were two waves of piracy, one in the 17th century, and another in the early days of the United States. The first American ship was captured in 1784. Ransoms in 1800 cost the America government 20% of its annual expenditure! Not until Algiers was bombarded in 1816 by the Dutch and British did the piracy end.

Dr. Daniel Mason (1647-1698) is a distant cousin of mine, through the Fiske family. He graduated from Harvard College in 1666. He was a physician and in served as a ships surgeon and sailed from Charlestown, Massachusetts in n 1679. He was captured by a Barbary Corsair and carried to Algiers and is supposed to have died in slavery, 1698. In the Middlesex County, Massachusetts Probate Files there is a letter Addressed to the ship captain’s wife, requesting her to pay the ransom for Captain James Ellson, ship surgeon Daniel Mason, Asher Bearstow of Watertown and Richard Ellson, his brother.   Daniel Mason was born 19 Feburary 1648 in Watertown, Massachusetts, the son of Hugh Mason and Hester Wells.

Thousands of American, Europeans (and Africans) were captured and sold into slavery in North Africa during this episode of history. According to Wikipedia, “between 1530 and 1780 between one and one and a quarter million Europeans were captured and made slaves in North Africa, principally in Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, with further captives in Istanbul and Sallee.”

For more information:

A wikipedia article on the Barbary Corsairs

At there is the full text of “White Slavery in the Barbary States”  which lists many New Englanders captured as slaves by Barbary pirates, including Daniel Mason. It was a lecture by Charles Sumner given to the Boston Mercantile Library Association in 1847.


Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo

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