English Pirates in the Mediterranean, 1600s

There were also Christian havens in the Mediterranean for English pirates with no desire to apostasise or live among the Turks. Foremost of these was Leghorn (Livorno), whose ruler, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was intent on building up a fleet of Christian corsairs to sail under his flag and was more than willing to employ English sailors and vessels of dubious background to harass Muslims. ‘He receives, shelters and caresses the worst of the English, men who are publicly proclaimed pirates by the King.’ Nor was he alone in employing Englishmen to build up a private navy. The Duke of Savoy was also keen to join in the corsair game in this chaotic early seventeenth century and he too was to welcome pirates, making his ports of Nice and Villafranca ‘an asylum and refuge for all scoundrels, offering safety to everyone of whatsoever sect, religion, creed, outlawed for whatsoever crime’, as the Venetian ambassador in Savoy reported to his masters in 1613….

These English pirates of the Mediterranean were fairly short-lived in their impact on the shipping of the region, but they had a certain style. A captain might be described as ‘a person of some consideration in his way’ and many were indeed gentlemen dressed in the height of fashion ‘in purple satin’ or in ‘black velvet trousers and jacket, crimson silk socks’, a perfect model for the noble or gentleman corsair of later fiction. With the passage of the years their crews became fairly polyglot as men of the Mediterranean were added to their original English crews, especially Greeks who were the best pilots for the Adriatic and Levant where most of their prizes were taken. Most observers were impressed by the strength and armament of the English ships and by the fighting valour of their crews. They were also amazed by the pirates’ destructiveness as they ransacked prizes and by ‘the indifference with which they lose their ships’, both in wrecks and battles, characteristics which we will find again in the pirates of a century later. The English also had a reputation, shared with the Dutch, for blowing up their ships to avoid capture. In 1611, for instance, the Spanish Admiral Don Pedro de Toledo captured a Turkish pirate ship, but its English consort, ‘being wont to seek a voluntary death rather than yield, blew up their ship when they saw resistance useless’. Blowing up their ships or at least threatening to do so would become standard pirate practice.

SOURCE: The Pirate Wars, by Peter Earle (Thomas Dunne Books, 2003), pp. 29-30

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