A brief mention of an old story about an Irish town taken off to slavery by pirates led a writer to the outrage called 'the Sack of Baltimore', writes Arminta Wallace
A band of corsairs from Algiers descends on a sleepy Irish fishing village at dead of night and carries its inhabitants off to a life of slavery in north Africa. It may sound like the plot for some bizarre future edition of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, but that's exactly what happened to the Cork village of Baltimore in the summer of 1631.
This exotic chapter of Irish history is sometimes referred to as "The Sack of Baltimore". And if you've never heard of it, you're not alone. Neither had the novelist and journalist Des Ekin - which is why he ended up writing a book about it. "I heard a little snippet on the radio one Sunday afternoon about 10 years ago," he explains. "Somebody - just in passing - mentioned 'the famous pirate raid on Baltimore where the whole village was carried off into slavery'. And I stopped whatever I was doing and thought 'What?'" Ekin began asking questions about the raid, but couldn't get much by way of a satisfactory answer.
Eventually he did a bit of digging in the National Library, and found a few books on the subject. "They were very dense and totally impenetrable," he says. "And then I stumbled on a list of the people who were taken into slavery. One man lost his wife and seven sons. Another man lost his two children and his pregnant wife. And this just bowled me over, because these were real people - not just statistics from a history book. I just felt I had to tell their story." The result is The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates. It's an enthralling read - not simply for the story of the raid itself, which Ekin recreates with bloodcurdling vividness - but for the parallels the author draws with the contemporary geo-political situation. Islamic terrorists storm an unsuspecting community, spreading panic and changing the way of life forever. Sound familiar?
"Most people think that this kind of terrorism is a new phenomenon which has grown up with the rise of modern air travel and high technology explosives and that sort of thing," says Ekin. "So people will probably be quite surprised to hear that the greatest Islamist invasion ever made in Ireland or Britain was made 375 years ago, by people who were steering wooden ships instead of planes - and brandishing scimitars instead of Ak47s." For the people who lived on the southern coast of Ireland in the 17th century, piracy seems to have been more the rule than the exception.
Across the bay from Baltimore, a rocky harbour called Leamcon was, at one point, the base for a pirate fleet of nine ships which boasted some 250 guns and 400 men, many of whom had wives and children in the area. On Sherkin Island pirates served as jurors, and pirate ships regularly stocked up on food, drink and spares along this wild stretch of coastline, where the locals often had no choice but to collaborate with their tormentors; "Baltimore," as Ekin puts it in The Stolen Village, "had become the seafaring equivalent of a motorway service station." As a result of all this seafaring shenanigans, being sold into slavery was a much more common fate than we might imagine.
"Normally when we think about slavery, we think about European slavers landing in Africa and taking African captives," says Ekin. "But this is the complete opposite - slave-traders from north Africa coming to northern Europe in search of white slaves, who were highly prized. It's estimated that over the 300 years in which the Barbary Coast pirates were active, a million Europeans were sold into slavery." After being snatched from their homes, captives would be taken to the enormous slave markets in Algiers. The journey was horrific, the experience traumatic - particularly for the Baltimore captives, among whom were 50 children. These would have been separated, as brutally as was considered necessary, from their parents. After that, the most appalling fate which could befall a slave was to be "condemned to the oar". This meant a back-breaking stint in the bowels of a galley-ship, half-naked, half-starved and subject to constant beatings from the slave-drivers. Galley slaves worked, quite literally, until they dropped dead, when their bodies were pitched unceremoniously into the sea.
BUT, AS EKIN explains, not everybody was at the brute end of slavery. "A slave owner would say, 'Okay, I can either have this guy working flat out and dying in a couple of years - or I can set him up in a trade and he can give me a certain amount of his income and save towards his own freedom'. Male slaves had the opportunity to advance in society; in fact, there have been some quite amazing cases of Irish slaves who rose to quite staggering heights and positions of power."
One such was Richard Joyce, a Galway man who was abducted at sea, taken to Algiers and apprenticed to a goldsmith. "He became so good at his trade that by the time he was ransomed, his owner begged him tearfully to stay, offering him half the business plus his daughter's hand in marriage," says Ekin. Joyce returned to Galway regardless, bringing back with him - so legend has it - the design for the Claddagh ring.
Female slaves had fewer options. Many worked as domestic servants. The most beautiful might end up shipped to the harem of the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople - where the strict routine of the draughty palace, as portrayed by Ekin in two particularly engaging chapters, "Beyond the Gate of Felicity" and "Through the Silk Tunnel", bore more resemblance to life in an impoverished convent than to the images in the voluptuous orientalist paintings of Delacroix and Ingres. Other women converted to Islam, married and settled down to life in Algiers - which, despite its fearsome reputation abroad, was a very pleasant city.
"It was an absolutely fascinating place. I'd love to travel back there," says Ekin. "It was quite a civilised city for the era. It had advanced amenities - running water and sewage - and the people had a good diet, rich in fruit and vegetables.
"It was everything that Europe, at the time, wasn't." Ultimately, however, it was a city which built its prosperity on human trafficking.
"Religion came into it, too," says Ekin. "Algiers was a rogue state, but it was also the western arm of the Ottoman Empire. They were half in, half out - one of these situations which again we would find very familiar today. The Christian European nations would complain to the Turkish sultan and say, 'Listen, we've got a treaty with you but still our citizens are being seized by pirates from Algiers'. And the sultan would say, 'Well, I can't control them - they're a law unto themselves'. But he would still take advantage when he got his cut of the profits. When you listen to some of the statements that are coming out of the Middle East nowadays, you realise it's a very similar situation."
RELIGION ALSO OFFERS a clue as to why the Sack of Baltimore appears to have been swept under the carpet of Irish history. "Because the people who were taken into slavery were Protestant English settlers, there have been a lot of hidden agendas and a certain amount of special pleading in the historical accounts of the episode," Ekin says. "Some accounts imply that they deserved everything they got. One even said that they had slaughtered all the Irish, so they deserved to be ill-treated by the Algerines. Of course that wasn't true at all. They had leased the land from the local Gaelic chieftain and paid a substantial amount of money to him; so although many people were unhappy about them being in Baltimore, they had every right to be there." Whatever the ins and outs of their status as "Irish", the Baltimore captives were - apart from one woman whose family managed to raise the money to ransom her - left to their own devices for some 15 years. "Then the British government decided to ransom them," says Ekin. "The Civil War had just happened in England and King Charles - who really couldn't care less - was out of power. An envoy was sent out to pay the same money as they had originally fetched on the slave market."
Incredibly, however, only two of the original 105 slaves applied to be ransomed. What happened to the others?
"Well," says Ekin, "I don't think many of them would have died. Algiers was a healthy city, and most of them were young people, or even children. I imagine most of them would simply have made the best of a bad situation and settled into their new home."
The Stolen Village: Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates, by Des Ekin, is published by O'Brien Press at €14.95