The Sallee Rovers and the Pirate Republic of the Bou Regreg
Around the Globe, 2006
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 kaleiscope 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, Portugese 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 abandoned 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 M.P. The same story can be told of Morgan coming back from his blood soaked campaigns of terror in the Carribean 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 the yard-arm.
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 all-powerful 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 unforgiveable 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 nad 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 Portugese 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 of 1654.
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.
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson