Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Home Ports: In The Land Of Sallee

The notorious Barbary Corsairs ranged the coast of North Africa from Roman times to the early 19th century. They were notorious for their tenacity and feared as ruthless slave catchers. Being chained to a Barbary galley was basically a death sentence and no European or American sailor wanted any part of it.

The corsairs used many ports along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Africa: Tunis, Algiers, Tripoli and today's city, Sale in northern Morocco. This port town was probably originally colonized by Phoenician sea raiders - the Sea Peoples who harried Egyptian shipping. It is situated across the Sale harbor from the Ancient Roman port of Cella, now known as Chellah (near modern Rabat). Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a thriving seafaring culture there, both local and Roman, that dates back to about 200 BCE. As the old city fell into disrepair, Sale (pronounce "Sah-lay") came into her own once again. By Medieval times, the descendants of local Berbers were sailing out to raid European shipping from her snug harbor.

During the heyday of Barbary piracy, from the Crusades until the final denouement in the 1810s, many famous corsairs used Sale as a base. The Barbarossa brothers, Aruj and Hizir, the great Murat Rais and of course the enemy of Islamic piracy, the Knights of Malta, all claimed Sale as a home port at one time. The fiercely independent local population rallied around the pirates and some writers - Peter Lamborn Wilson in particular - make Sale out to be a kind of pirate utopia where all were equals and no one went hungry.

Like Captain Johnson's kingdom of Libertaria on Madagascar, this is probably nothing more than wishful thinking. It does point up the fact, however, that the people of the port's livelihood was very much intertwined with freebooting. To a large degree the booty brought in by the pirates was humans. Sale was a slave port, and the people sold there could come from as far afield as Ireland and Newfoundland.

Caribbean pirates took to calling any Muslim corsair a Sallee or Salley Rover or simply Salley men. Their galleys were known by the same monikers. They were generally avoided not for any unusual bloodthirstiness but because of their propensity to kidnap sturdy men for sale back home.

Sale has become an essentially unappealing industrial town over the course of the last 100 years. Her history can still be seen, however, in the Phoenician and Roman touches, the Medieval stone moles near the water and the ancient port that will probably always be very close to what she was in the Golden Age of Barbary Corsairs.


Daggar said...

Good stuff. I'm unfamiliar with the Barbarossa brothers and Murat Rais. Here's hoping they're the topic of a future post.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Daggar and thankee! Yes indeedy, both the brothers Barbarosa and Ali Rais will be making an appearance sooner than later. Stay tuned.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! So, "all were equals and no one went hungry"... except the slaves, of course. Kind of like ancient Sparta (if you were a Spartan). Right, Pirate Queen?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and yes, exactly. There's no shortage of Utopiana in history. Just a shortage of history in stories of Utopias.