There never was, nor ever can be again, such a perfect
example of a confederation of the brethren of the sea as that of the Pirate Republic of Bou Regreg. Rabat and Sale were the
twin cities at the heart of this Republic. They were both guarded by medieval walls that had been greatly reinforced by artillery
fortresses dug into the outlying cliffs that overlook the dark, muddy waters of the Bou Regreg estuary from the north and
the south banks. Submerged rocks, a line of forbidding cliffs, Atlantic reefs and a sand bar at the mouth of the tidal Bou
Regreg made the estuary waters a very safe harbour.
It was from this secure base that the free-ranging pirate
squadrons known as the Sallee Rovers set out to harass the sea-lanes, merchant ships and harbours of Europe. They were brilliantly
successful for their ships crews were a kaleidoscope of international talent that allied the military élan of Moroccans and
exiled Spanish Moors with Dutch, German and English professional skills. The crews spoke a lingua franca that was based on
Spanish with a mixture of French, Italian, Portuguese and Arabic loan words.
The Sallee Rovers did not just restrict their operations
to the capture of shipping but took the war into the lands of the enemy; landing raiding parties that returned with captives.
Their notoriety as white slavers reached a crescendo in the mid 17th century England when a series of daring slave raids seized
captives from St Micheals Mount in Cornwall and Baltimore in south-west Ireland as well as intercepting the cod fishing fleet
off Iceland. The boasting verses in Rule Britannia about Britons never shall be slaves could certainly not have been written
in those years. It has been calculated that in this period that there were more Britons labouring away as slaves and concubines
in North Africa than as settlers in all of the colonies of North America put together.
It is also astonishing to learn how well organised this
trade was, and how captives taken off the south coast of England could be legally and publicly transported across the breadth
of France before being shipped off from Marseilles to be sold in public auction in North Africa. The Salle Rovers, with their
multinational crews also seem to have in possession of good local intelligence, for it seems that their raid on the Irish
harbour town of Baltimore scooped up a whole town full of recently arrived and unpopular English settlers but did not take
so much as a single native born Irishman away with them. (These facts you can check for yourself from a typed up sheet framed
to the right of the bar in Baltimore’s Algiers Inn.) While the raids on the English coast made skilful use of widespread
disorder at the time of the Civil War. But the flow of intelligence was not just one way. In 1610 a Spanish fleet had descended
on Mehdiya, a pirate anchorage just two days ride to the north of the Bou Regreg estuary, surprising the corsairs at anchor
and slaughtering the lot. Four years later another Spanish expedition returned and under the cover of their cannons built
a castle that would keep a permanent watch on these waters for the next fifty years.
Planning your exit strategy from piracy always required
the most careful thought and preparation. Mainwaring, a notorious and merciless British privateer, who had in his time flown
the flag of the Bey of Tunis, the Duke of Tuscany, of Venice and the Sultan Morocco before running out of employers, had wisely
decided to abandon the Mehdiya estuary just a few years before the Spanish counter attack. He had amassed sufficient resources
to smooth his transformation into an English country gentleman, a naval officer and an MP. The same story can be told of Morgan
coming back from his blood soaked campaigns of terror in the Caribbean or of Siamese White retiring to the gentility of Bath.
While in many of the stately homes of England – where many a pirates nest of foreign loot (Chinese porcelains, Spanish
silver, Japanese lacquer, Turkey carpets) can still be admired – the genteel guides try to airbrush out the violence
of our past with their talk of ‘unofficial admirals’ and ‘free captains.’ These were the favoured
few that got away with it, most followed the fate of the Dutch renegade, Simon Danser, making his last dance on a rope on
After Mainwaring had left the waters of Morocco, it
was Murad Reis (born Jan Jansz) who became one of the most feared renegade captains operating out off the Bou Regreg and who
would serve his turn as admiral of the Sallee Rovers. Every year the divan, the ruling council of the Pirate Republic of Bou
Regreg met to elect two officers for the year, a Caid who organised the land defences of the twin cities and an Admiral who
directed the corsair fleet. Ten per cent of all prize money seized by the Salle Rovers was paid into the treasury of the divan
which provided ample funds for the defence and smooth running of the cities. Although the divan council took decisions by
a vote, the membership of this allpowerful inner committee was not in the slightest bit democratic but a co-opted gathering
together of all the men of local influence; be they Berber lords from the Middle Atlas nomadic tribes, urbane Muslim scholars,
renegade sea-captains, Sufi mystics or Moorish merchants. It was a bizarre senate, riddled with factions and language groups,
but it worked.
It had however only been possible for this Republic
to first emerge in 1610 due to two accidents; the sudden collapse of Moroccan state authority and the arrival of the Moors.
The Saadian ruler Ahmad (known to his Moroccan subjects
as al-mansour - victorious and al-dahhabi - the golden) had ruled over a vast and efficiently governed Empire but within a
few years of his death in 1603, his sons had blown it apart in a messy struggle for the succession. In 1610 one of the sons
who was loosing out in this civil war did the unforgivable act, which was not only to ally himself to Catholic Spain, the
great historic enemy of Morocco, but to plot high treason. He would sell two Moroccan towns, Badis in the Rif mountains and
the port of Larache on the Atlantic coast, to the Spaniards in exchange for their military assistance against his brothers.
Although he was able to rule over Fez as Sultan this was only achieved at the end of the barrel of a Spanish gun and lasted
but three years. In the process he discredited the authority of the Saadian dynasty in the eyes of all Moroccans.
In this same fateful year of 1610 the first wave of
Spanish citizens of Jewish or Muslim descent who had been expelled by order of King Philip III of Spain began to arrive in
Morocco. There would eventually be some 300,000 of these Moorish refugees thrown out of Spain. A good proportion of the Moors
settled in the medieval ruins of Rabat. They thirsted for revenge against Spain and any other European power that they could
strike out against. It was fortunate for their purposes that in this period the great wealth of the early European trading
Empires; such as the Portuguese and the Dutch in the Far East and Spain in South America, sailed directly pass the Moroccan
Atlantic coast on their last leg of their journey.
It was a truly golden period for piracy. These days
of profit, self governance and adventure ended when a new Moroccan strong man, Sultan Moulay Rachid of the Alaouite dynasty,
took back command of the twin cities of Rabat and Sale in 1666. His governors made certain that their master now received
sixty per cent of all proceeds of corsair activity. This dramatic slump in profits came with increased business risks, for
the greater reach and accuracy of naval cannon-fire had already been tested during Admiral Blake’s anti-corsair cruise
The Sallee Rovers were a unique fusion of two extremely
powerful forces; the amoral, irreligious science of war as perfected by European renegades allied with a burning desire for
revenge by Moorish refugees waging the Jihad-al-Bahr – the holy struggle at sea.