When the Netherlands sought independence from Spain in the late 1500s, they enlisted sea captains to act as corsairs or privateers to harass Spanish shipping. Almost immediately some of these corsairs became pirates, attacking any target that seemed of value, Spanish or not. These pirates needed a place to shelter and refit and soon discovered a welcome in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia — the Barbary Coast. The rulers of north Africa appreciated the new “round-bottom” ships that were far better than their old galleys and they needed experienced seamen to sail them. Many European prates converted to Islam becoming “renegadoes”.
From their bases in north Africa, the pirates attacked Spain and Spanish possessions and also raided island communities in the Mediterranean. The main loot from these expeditions was slaves. From the mid-16th to the late 18th Century more than a million Europeans were seized as slaves. Desirable women were sold into seraglios in Africa or Constantinople. Men were often used as galley slaves, chained to the oars of the older vessels, where they ate, slept, and existed until they died. Fortunate slaves were held in prisons in Algeria where, sometimes, they might be ransomed by groups set up to help them.
Jan Janszoon of Haarlem received a letter of marque from the Dutch Republic establishing him as a corsair around 1600 (or possibly 1605). He was twenty-five years old and had a wife and daughter. At some point he fell in with the Dutch pirate Simon Dancer (Zymen Danseker) who had established a relationship with the kings of Morocco and Algeria. Janszoon began attacking all kinds of shipping. When he attacked a Spanish vessel, he flew the Dutch flag, when he attacked anyone else, he flew the crescent moon of Morocco. It was the general policy of the Barbary states that any nation who did not have a treaty with them, was at war with them. So any country that lacked a treaty — which involved payment of protection money — was a target.
Janszoon married a woman from Spain who appears to have been a Morisco, a Muslim forceably christened and labelled a Christian. The Moriscos revolted against Spain more or less at the same time as the Dutch. They were expelled from Europe and many went to Salé in Morocco.
Janszoon was himself captured by Algerian pirates in 1618. He converted to Islam and was eventually freed by the good graces of the Ottoman Turks, who appreciated the naval technology coming into their territory from Europe. Algeria concluded treaties with most European nations and Janszoon left for Salé, which had become a base for pirates. In 1619, Salé declared itself independent from Morocco and the pirate government elected Janszoon their leader.
In 1622 Janszoon sailed up the English Channel but found no targets. When the English fleet took after him, Janszoon took refuge in Holland, which had signed a treaty with Morocco. Janszoon’s ship flew the Moroccan flag and was given safe harbor. Dutch authorities sent Janszoon’s wife and daughter to plead with him to give up his pirate ways, but to no avail. When the coast was clear, Janszoon sailed away taking with him many young Dutchmen who wanted to try pirate life.
Salé was a problem for Morocco and Europe both. Morocco had been in diplomatic contact with England since the mid-16th Century — in fact the English had engaged Morocco as allies in their long war against Spain. Now they both wanted Salé shut down but the Sultan of Morocco found the task impossible and Salé existed as an independent entity until 1668, sometimes in combination with Rabat, another breakaway pirate republic.
Janszoon’s reign as governor ended in 1627 as local politics forced him out. He fled to Algeria with his family. Later that year he seized the island of Lundy, off England, and for five years used it as a base. Janszoon needed lucrative targets and, when a captured Dane told him of the isolated island of Iceland, Janszoon took an expedition there.
Janszoon’s pirates first attacked Reykjavik and seized some dried fish but quickly left when men came in to defend the city. They then attacked some of the islands in the south of Iceland, in particular Heimaey in the Vestmann Islands. Most of the men were off fishing when Janszoon’s pirates struck. Some of the people fled up into caves but many were captured. Janszoon sorted out the ones young enough to be salable as slaves and the rest were herded into the local church which was boarded up and set afire. About 400 Icelanders were taken into slavery. On the way to north Africa Janszoon encountered a Dutch vessel and seized it, taking all aboard to sell as slaves. Some accounts claim that rape was uncommon amongst the captives headed toward the seraglios of Turkey and that pirates allowed women to give birth in peace and even shared food with the prisoners, both the new mothers and the young men doomed to be broken in the galleys.
In 1631, Janszoon was told by an Irishman named John Hackett of the isolated town of Baltimore on the southern tip of Ireland. English settlers — Ireland being colonized by England at the time — had bought a fishing monopoly from the local Irish lord. Hackett was apparently an agent for another Irish clan leader who disapproved. At any rate, Janszoon invaded and took more than a hundred people to sell as slaves. Some accounts say that he only took English settlers but the sack of Baltimore as remembered in Irish song and poetry seems a more general affair. Hackett, incidentally, was hanged by the locals.
Afterwards Janszoon became an ally of the Dey of Tunis and his depradations tended more toward Mediterranean targets. In 1635 his luck ran out and he was defeated and captured by the Knights of Malta. There he was tortured and confined in harsh conditions. A number of corsairs had been captured by the Knights and were held in Malta and, in 1640, the Dey of Tunis attacked the island fortress. Janszoon and many others were able to escape.
Janszoon returned to Morocco and was made governor of the fortress at Oualidia. Later that year his daughter sailed from the Netherlands to visit her famous father. She found him old and feeble, broken by captivity and shrunken with age. She left him in the summer of 1641 and nothing more is known of Janz Janszoon, the greatest of the Dutch renegadoes.
There is a great deal of romanticizing of pirates these days and concepts of pirate democracy and so on. But piracy is a product of chaos and the inability to establish control over the seas; given the opportunity sociopaths will take what they can get. Whenever I hear about “talk like a pirate day” or such, I recall Heimaey and think of the screams of those burning alive in that sealed-up church and I think of those going into slavery listening to those screams of family and friends in a homeland they would never see again.