Contrary to popular belief, many of the most notorious and successful Barbary pirates began their lives as European sailors who found their fortunes among the pirates of the Barbary Coast. Nearly all of these expatriated pirates converted to Islam, preferring to prey on the ships of their former countries under the auspices of Muslim sultans and potentates. These converted Christians were often the most despised, the most feared, and the most ruthless of the Barbary pirates, and were known as the
Who were the renegados?
It's probable that the majority of renegados sailing with the Barbary pirates were men of Dutch descent who began their seagoing careers as privateers. A Dutchman who went by the Anglo-Islamic name Suleyman Reis De Veenboer is well noted in history as having been made an admiral of the Turkish navy in 1617. Although he was an expatriated Dutch citizen, De Veenboer was careful to avoid attacking Dutch merchant ships. Most of his crewmembers were also Dutch, and it's estimated that several thousand of the Barbary corsairs were from Holland and other European countries. In 1620, De Veenboer engaged in a sea battle with eight of his pirate ships against ships from Holland, France, and England. De Veenboer was struck by a cannonball that shattered both of his legs, a fatal wound that ended the life of one of the most infamous renegados.
The Barbary Galley
The Barbary pirates learned much about open water seamanship from renegados such as De Veenboer and the experienced Europeans who sailed with them. The design of the traditional Barbary Coast war galley used in the Mediterranean had its roots in the monoreme vessels of the ancient Greeks, with a long sleek hull design and rows of oarsmen on both sides of the hull. Artillery was usually built into the bow of the vessel and aimed forward so that cannon firing was possible only when the entire craft was pointed directly at the opposition. The practical benefits to this design were that the ships were normally in firing position while presenting the smallest possible target to the enemy, and the oarsmen were unimpeded by armament along the sides of the ships.
In the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean, foreign merchant vessels that were powered primarily by wind and sail were at a distinct disadvantage to the oar-powered Barbary sea galley — especially during a flat-out sprint. With oarsmen for propulsion, the galley could go from a standstill in the water to top speed in a matter of moments, and easily overtake most sailing vessels. The galleys favored by the Barbary pirates would carry over fifty pirates, with about half that number manning the oars. Although Turkish naval ships invariably used slave labor to man the oars of warships, the corsairs' ships were usually democratically operated and, as a matter of practicality, were simply too small to carry a single sailor who was not fully prepared to engage in combat. The pirates generally manned the oars in shifts.
The term corsair can refer to two different things. Pirates along the Barbary Coast are often referred to as corsairs. The small, fast vessels that these pirates usually employed to chase down and plunder their prey were also known as corsairs.
The favored battle tactic of the Barbary pirates was to swiftly sweep up behind fleeing ships, heave grappling hooks and ropes aboard to hold the ships together, and then clamber aboard the vessels from the back end. Few merchant ships had crews who were trained in hand-to-hand combat, and virtually none could afford the luxury of a contingent of trained fighters whose job was solely to provide protection. The outcome of most encounters between merchant ships and Barbary pirate galleys was invariably a swift victory for the pirates.