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The Barbarians of the Barbary Coast

Although the word has a vast majority of meanings and etymologies, in the 16th century, the term barbarian defined the people living in the Barbary coast. However, its negative connotations were still used by Europeans as an insult to societies different from them. The Barbary coast was at the northern tip of Africa, referring primarily to the ports of Rabat, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

The Barbary Coast became well known as a corsair region. Corsairs were people who engaged in piracy in the early modern period. While mostly privateers, corsairs could also be pirates, the difference being that privateers were commissioned by governments and only had the authority to attack certain ships while pirates had their own agencys.

Privateers were even used as political tools; Elizabeth I hired Sir Francis Drake as a privateer and naval commander to fight against the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Sir Francis Drake was employed by the Queen to loot from the Spanish, and he proved to be a profitable ally to England. Drake and his ship of privateers were essential to England in their fight and win against the Spanish.

By the early 17th century, Mediterranean trade was extremely profitable. Corsairing was quite common and was a successful and relatively easy way for monarchs and rulers to profit off of trade. However, not everyone was pleased with the business of corsairing. The merchant and government ships attacked by pirates and privateers suffered and wanted action to be taken. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire signed Capitulation treaties with other European powers. The Articles of Capitulation were trade agreements between the Ottoman Empire and Venice, France, England, Spain and Holland that made a deal which ensured that Ottoman authorities would punish corsairs who attacked Europeans and refund the value of property taken from them by corsairs. This agreement would greatly benefit European traders and travelers and provide safety for them during their travels in the Mediterranean sea.

Yet, for the people of North Africa, who had very little to offer in terms of trade but had good natural harbors and experienced sailors - and relied on corsairing for the survival of their economic society - the Capitulation treaties were a harsh blow. Fortunately, corsaring continued in the Barbary Coast and the Sultan did not offer any punishment to the ‘barbarians’. It was in the best interest of the Sultan to allow corsairing to continue as it weakened the European powers and brought economic benefits to the Sultan.

Europeans began to fear the Barbary coast and its people, however, the natives of this region had a very different perspective. Their society depended on corsairing for survival, and it became a normalized aspect of culture. Residents of the Barbary coast viewed corsairs as valuable parts of society; some corsairs even became political leaders. Corsaring continued in the Barbary coast for several centuries and grew to include more than just those who lived in this region. There were a large number of Europeans who lived in North Africa, as well as renegades, refugees, slaves, and those seeking political asylum. Corsaring eventually met its end in the 1830s: the French army invaded Algiers and stopped corsairing, which in turn ended corsairing in other places. The death of corsairing in the Barbary Coast also marked the birth of French colonization in North Africa.

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