Ireland in 1631, like the rest of the British Isles, was a place edging slowly towards conflict. Tensions between native Catholic Irish and Protestant “Planters” were on the rise in most parts of the country. But the most intriguing flashpoint of the period between 1608 and 1641 does not concern a clash between those two religions, but one involving a faith that has, throughout its life, never been able to make much of an impact on Ireland: Islam.
The place was the small coastal fishing town of Baltimore, County Cork, not too far from Kinsale. Once owned by the local Irish clan of the O’Driscoll’s and a favoured haunt for pirates, the town itself was, in 1631, under the ownership and occupation of a substantial group of English colonists. It was a prosperous little village, which made most of its income through fishing. Pre-dominantly Protestant, its main problems were ongoing legal disputes over who actually owned the land, as the settlers had actually only leased the area for a set period of time.
Barring that, which was not an inconsequential problem but did not seem to be life-threatening to any degree, life in Baltimore seems to have been pretty good, relatively speaking.
That was about to change, through a very unlikely source.
The north coast of Africa, the areas we would call Morocco, Algeria and Libya today, were in those days known by another name: The Barbary Coast, infamous for its pirates and raiders. The area in question had been under Islamic rule for centuries. With a legal slave trade making up much of the workforce, these Islamic states and cities were able to thrive, with a divided and fractious Europe unable to properly face the challenge. The need for slaves was always high and the Barbary States could always find those willing to get them.
The raids of the Barbary pirates in this era have become almost legendary in their audacity and scope. Nations all over Europe, from the Mediterranean to the British Isles were hit by pirate raiders, who would attack coastal areas, usually in the dead of night or early morning, carry away as many civilians as they could and sail back to the North African coast to sell their captives for a substantial profit. Raiders hit as far away as Iceland and even the eastern coast of the new American colonies. The other source of what they were after often came in the form of unlucky vessels that they happened upon and were able to seize.
The enslavement of Christians from throughout Europe was a major issue in the 17th century, in England not least of all. There were limited resources to deal with the problem, whether it was to have a greater navy to protect their shores or to pay for those had been taken. This fascinating period of history gets little mention nowadays, but its effect and repercussions were actually a factor leading to the English Civil War. It is somewhat astonishing to think that Islamic pirates ever preyed upon Irish shores, given this island’s distance from the traditional powerbase of the religions political bodies.
But prey they did, with the most memorable example in the history of the British Isles occurring on June 20th 1631.
The orchestrator of what happened that day was a Dutchman, once enslaved himself, who had risen in prominence in Barbary society to the point where he was one of the most wealthy, successful pirate slavers of the area. His name had been Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, but after converting to Islam and adopting the lifestyle of his new home, he became Murat Reis. A very skilled sailor and captain, Reis was responsible for the previously mentioned Icelandic raid and was well known to European authorities as a canny operator.
In mid 1631, Reis set sail from the major slave trade centre of Algiers on a big raiding excursion, taking with him a crew that included a contingent of janissaries. Janissaries were the elite infantry troops of the age, Christian boys who were taken as hostages and raised in a military lifestyle. Reis had decided to head into the North Atlantic and target the British Isles, though his exact purpose remains unclear.
Aside from targeting merchant shipping that crossed his path, Reis appears to have had a fancy to attack Kinsale, probably the most prosperous port on the southern coast of Ireland. Kinsale had some defences, but the point would have been to make a surprise assault, a smash-and-grab corsair raid, which would have seen the pirates take civilians and leave the area before the English Navy could have a chance to stop them.
While in the Irish Sea preparing to enact this plan, apparently, Reis captured a several fishing vessels and two key men, Edward Fawlett and John Hackett. An English sailor and an Irish Catholic, they each, separately, bartered a deal with Reis, where they would guide the corsair ship to the Irish shore and then the town of Baltimore. Hackett sold the idea as Baltimore was a prosperous town but with no defences, far from any potential Navy entanglements. He may perhaps also have mentioned that Baltimore was populated pre-dominantly by English, as opposed to Hackett’s home town of Kinsale.
Des Ekin’s book Stolen Village posits some interesting theories about this entire episode, one of which is that Reis’ expedition to the area was brought on by a desire to avenge himself on the English. It is alleged that Reis attempted to defect from the Barbary States and re-convert back to the Christian faith with the help of an English agent. The English were looking to gain a greater foothold and influence on the Barbary Coast due to a war with Spain, but when this war ceased the deal was called off and Reis lost his chance to head back to his more native shores. This may explain his later raid to the British Isles and why he was eager to focus his efforts on an English fishing village.
Hackett guided Reis’s ship to Baltimore, helping to navigate around the occasionally treacherous Irish coast. In the early morning of June 20th, while the residents of Baltimore were fast asleep, the corsairs anchored of shore and headed to the town in smaller boats.
The surprise was total. Baltimore had no defences worth taking about, outside of the personal arms of its townsfolk. Reis focused first on the lower, portside area of Baltimore, called “the Cove”. Most of the people here were captured, men, women and children, dragged from their beds and forced onto the boats at gun and sword point. Only two men resisted in any serious way, and they were violently cut down, no match for the well-armed, well-trained Janissary Corps.
The “Sack”, as it has become known (though somewhat inaccurately, “raid” would be a better term) would probably have continued up into the higher richer part of the town, but for a few warning shots fired by an alert resident named William Harris that sent other townspeople fleeing into nearby woods. Baltimore had a history with pirates, and fear of Barbary corsairs was acute at the time, so locals would have had no compunction of running for their lives (and freedom). Reis, unwilling to risk what he had already captured, choose to retreat back to his ship. The chances of local forces being marshalled or an entanglement with an English Navy vessel were too high.
Not that they had much to fear. The only English military ship in the immediate area was the moderately sized Fifth Whelp at Kinsale, under the command of Captain Francis Hooke. Unfortunately, due to disputes with local lords and a critical lack of oversight from London, Hooke hadn’t been paid, he had an incompetent crew, his ship had only enough supplies for very short trip and would probably have been no match for Reis’ battle-hardened corsairs and janissary’s anyway. Hooke came in for much criticism in the aftermath of the raid, but there was only so much he could have done, even in the very best of circumstances.
All in all, 108 people were taken from Baltimore that morning. They were to suffer through a hellish voyage to Algiers, where they would be sold into lives of slavery. Husbands and wives would be separated, parents from children. The fates of the Baltimore residents are not recorded. We know only the names of the family heads and the number of their dependents who were taken, not what happened to them once they reached Algiers. Their subsequent lives would have varied wildly. Some would live out their days as galley slaves chained to an oar, others as construction workers, some as trades people, and some as harem members. Some would convert to Islam and make new opportunities for themselves. The English government, though outraged about what had happened, would not cough up the needed funds to buy the slaves freedom, at least not for many decades. Of the 108, we only know of two of them – two women, named Joane Broadbrook and Ellen Hawkins – who ever made it back to Ireland, after the English government was finally able to organise a relief mission. The Barbary pirates would continue to be a menace for over a century.
Fawlett and Hackett were let go by Reis as promised but were quickly arrested by English authorities. Hackett was executed for his crime by the English. Fawlett’s fate, for whatever reason, is unrecorded. Reis died in the mid 1600s, rich and celebrated by his contemporaries.
The Baltimore Raid was one of the reasons that Charles I sought to increase the water-borne protection of his lands, with the introduction of the Ship Money Tax, whereby coastal areas would be obliged to help pay for the upkeep of such a new force. This was opposed by Parliament, adding to the list of fractious issues between legislature and monarch, which would turn into a full blown war in just over a decade.
Ekin posits an interesting theory at the conclusion of Stolen Village, stating that the raid may have been provoked and planned by a local Irish noble, Sir Henry Coppinger. Coppinger was a notorious money-lender and legal trouble maker, who made a habit of grabbing land from both Irish and English, who was fixated on gaining control of Baltimore. The lease the colonists had signed up to had an expiry date after which the land was supposed to revert to Coppinger’s control, but they had been able to wrangle extra time out of the English court system, which routinely did not favour a Catholic Irishman like Coppinger was. Perhaps in line with some of the O’Driscolls, who would have felt they had been cheated out of the Baltimore land themselves after its surrender a generation previously, it is possible that Coppinger, who may have known ways of contacting pirates as they had previously frequented the area, could have encouraged Reis to target the town as an easy way of getting slaves and getting revenge on the English.
Ekin’s evidence is, by his own admission, circumstantial and coincidental in most respects. But his final point is eye-raising: the raid took place literally a few hours after the previously signed 21-year lease expired. Pirates were known to sometimes choose attack dates for symbolic reasons and Reis did seem to be waiting around the Irish Sea before the attack for a few days when he really didn’t have to. It is certainly conceivable that Coppinger had a hand in the entire affair.
It didn’t do him much good though. Baltimore did revert to him, but it became a lowly-populated ghost town for centuries afterward, stripped of its previous prosperity. The Barbary pirates would never again attack the British Isles in such force, but the fear of them would long haunt many coastal villages.
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