The Sack of Baltimore

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Sometime in mid-1631, a pirate flotilla left Algiers, one of the main ports on the Barbary Coast. The main ship was a Dutch-built 300-ton man-of-war, armed with about 24 pieces of ordinance. It was crewed by 200 men. The smaller ship was half that size in both weight and crew. The flotilla was commanded by Captain Murat Reis the Younger.

Murat’s actual name was Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. He had first worked under the Dutch flag before he overstepped his mandate and started raiding in the Barbary Coast. Captured in 1618, Janszoon soon converted to Islam and returned to what he enjoyed most, the sea. A brilliant seaman and an excellent captain, Murat used his knowledge of the seas to build his name among the infamous party of pirates known as the Sale Rovers. It is the Sale Rovers who declared the ancient port of Sale the Corsair Republic of Sale and elected Murat the first President and Grand Admiral of the new nation. With 18 ships at his command, Murat became immensely wealthy and powerful.

In 1627, however, he left Sale and returned to Algiers, the modern capital of Algeria. His strategies at sea remained pretty much the same; his ships often disguised themselves by running flags of friendly nations. The pirates, who included Algerians, Dutch, and Turks would sometimes wear the uniforms of friendly European countries. Murat led crews of pirates as far as Iceland (1627) where his forces captured hundreds of men and women. When he led his ships towards Europe in that June morning of 1631, he aimed for the Irish coastline.

Along the 1, 000 mile journey, Murat’s pirates attacked several ships and fishing boats. Among the victims of this sea rampage were an Englishman called Edward Fawlett and an Irish fisherman called John Hackett.  Fawlett turned and acted as the pilot through the treacherous Irish waters. He guided the flotilla off the Waterford coast where they took a small boat piloted by John Hackett. It was Hackett who would change Murat’s mind about Kinsale. The town, Hackett offered, was too well protected by the Fifth Lion’s Whelp under the command of Captain Hooke of the Royal Navy. But there was another town, not too far away, that was pretty much defenceless. Hackett was from Kinsale, so his motives for leading Murat away must have been ulterior.

The quiet village of Baltimore stands near the rugged shoreline of West Cork, Ireland. In the first half of the 17th Century, the village was predominantly occupied by English immigrants. It had been ruled by the O’Driscolls for four centuries. In 1605, however, the ruling clansman sold a 21-year-old lease to Englishman Thomas Crooke. Thomas enticed his English followers to move to the town and engage in the lucrative pilchard fishing business. They settled and thrived, until a band of pirates from Africa landed on their shores.

At dusk on June 19th, the two ships were sighted off Castlehaven. Since they were Dutch-built and were probably flying decoy flags at the time, no one raised an alarm and Baltimore’s residents went on with their evening as if all hell was not about to break loose.

At 10.00pm, a small reconnaissance party led by Murat left the main ship anchored east of the mouth of Baltimore Harbor. Thirteen men landed on the shoreline about thirty minutes later. By midnight, they were back on the ship with a full report, Baltimore was indeed unprotected. At 2am on June 20th, while the residents of Baltimore slept soundly, a party of 230 pirates landed at the Cove. They spread out, lining about nine men outside each of the 26 cottages that dotted the shoreline. Once the signal was given, they broke down the doors and yanked the startled residents from their beds.

Piracy was not new to Ireland’s coastline. Southern and Western Ireland were infested with pirates, although not as much as the Barbary Coast. The West Cork shoreline had been the location of many a pirate attack before June 1631. The Barbary pirates had previously gone as far as Iceland for hostages but had never attacked a predominantly English town before. Baltimore residents must have felt safe up until their doors came down and dark figures pulled them out of bed.

Murat’s ruthlessly efficient pirates focused on the settlement on the port side. To maintain the element of the surprise, they divided themselves into two before heading towards the main settlement. An ambush party of 60 men was left along the track. The other, larger group made towards the rest of the town.

The residents, caught completely unawares, could do little to fight the marauding attackers. When Murat heard the first warning shot, fired from a musket by an inhabitant called William Harris, and then the sound of drums, he called off the mission. He knew the town was unprotected but he could not take the risk that a military platoon was in the area.

Murat and his forces quickly made it down to their boats and away to the ships. The flotilla made away towards Algiers by dawn of that June morning. Official records show that Murat and his men took 107 people that night. Before sailing, Murat returned five people to shore: Hackett, Fawlett, a man called Carew and two elderly people. Hackett was later tried and hanged for his role in the raid. There is no record of what happened to Fawlett.

When Murat got back to the Barbary Coast, he offered to ransom his captives to England. The English government had, however, recently adopted a new policy not to pay ransoms. Reis then offered them to the thriving slave markets of Algiers. They were separated, vetted, and offered to different classes of buyers The men were most likely sold off as galley slaves while some of the younger women were sold as concubines, most likely to the Pasha of Algiers. White women were considered exotic scores in the harems of the Barbary Coast and would have been kept in relative luxury for such captivity, in gilded cages of rich men.  Some of the captives might have converted to Islam, but there is little record of what happened to them after they left Baltimore.

Of the 107 people Murat Reis and his pirates stole from the Irish coast, only three ever made it to Europe again. The Sack of Baltimore was not the only instance where pirates from the Barbary Coast captured Europeans, but it is perhaps the most significant.

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Last modified: April 16, 2015

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