The Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland, 1627
This week, I’m delighted to welcome Professor Adam Nichols as my guest blogger. Adam is the co-author of a new book which provides a first-hand account of one of a remarkable but very little known event, the Barbary Corsair raid on Iceland in 1627. Having done quite a lot of work over the years on aspects of Britain’s interactions with the corsairs, I’m very pleased to be able to help Adam publicise the book! So without further ado, I’ll hand over to him.
The early decades of the seventeenth century were the great heyday of the Barbary corsairs. Not only did they swarm the Mediterranean, but with the help of European renegados they also attacked both ships and coastal settlements all along the Atlantic seaboard of Europe, from Spain to the British Isles and beyond.
In the summer of 1627, Barbary corsairs descended upon Iceland, killing dozens of people and abducting more than 400 to sell as slaves in Salé and Algiers. The sheer audacity of this raid—it was a 3,000 mile sail from North Africa to Iceland, a 6,000 mile roundtrip—makes it exceptional. But there’s something else that makes it stand out as well. The Icelanders, who were collectively traumatized by the attack, attempted to process that trauma by writing about what had happened. (Icelanders have always been an astonishingly literate bunch, so writing about the events came naturally to them.) As a result, there is an extensive collection of contemporary descriptions, chronicles, memoires, and letters about the raid—a unique, detailed account quite different from other records of Barbary corsair assaults.
The details of the 1627 corsair raid are not well known outside Iceland, and many references to it are inaccurate. Mainly, this is because few of the Icelandic documents about the raid have been translated. Without access to the primary source documents, amateurs and professional historians alike have had to rely on second-hand précises and summaries of précises.
The documents themselves recount a story somewhat different from the one usually told.
First, the Tyrkjaránið, as the Icelanders refer to the 1627 raid, actually consisted of two raids: one by a group of corsairs from Salé (on the Atlantic coast of Morocco), the other from Algiers. Both groups were led by European renegados who had ‘turned Turk,’ converted to Islam, and made lives for themselves as Muslim corsair ru’asa (plural of Arabic ra’is, meaning ‘captain’).
According to the Icelandic sources on the Tyrkjaránið, the Saletian raiders arrived on June 20 and attacked the southwest corner of the island. This group was led by a Dutch renegado ra’is whom the Icelandic sources call Amórað Reis—the (in)famous Jan Janszoon van Haarlem, aka Murat Reis (i.e., Murad the Captain), a Dutch renegado ra’is who operated first out of Algiers and then Salé, where he became the Admiral of the Salé corsair fleet. Murad Reis is typically credited with masterminding the entire raid on Iceland, but Icelandic documents made it clear that his group was separate from, and caused less damage than, the Algerians. The Saletian corsairs were in Icelandic waters a little over a week, and made off with a few dozen captives and a Danish merchant ship—arriving back at Salé on July 30.
The Algerian corsairs appeared in Icelandic waters on July 5 (a fortnight after the Saletian raiders had sailed away) and remained for two weeks, departing on July 19 and arriving back at Algiers on August 16 or 17. This group was led by another Dutch renegado whom the Icelandic sources refer to as “that soul ripper named Mórað Flaming” (an Icelandic rendering of Murad Fleming, i.e., Murad the Flemish, “Flemish” being a common way of referring to the Dutch at the time). The Algerian corsairs first attacked the East Fjords, on Iceland’s southeast corner, and then raided Heimaey, one of the Westman Islands just off the south coast. After that, they set sail for Algiers. The Heimaey raid was the largest and most brutal attack.
In typical Icelandic fashion, a month after the raid on Heimaey, a Lögsagnari (the equivalent of a deputy sheriff) named Klaus Eyjólfsson was dispatched to the island to interview eyewitnesses and write out an accurate account of what had happened. His report is filled with the sorts of excruciating, detailed anecdotes that come from eyewitness testimony of such violent events:
“Among those who crossed the path of the pirates was a man named Bjarni Valdason, who tried to run away. They struck him across the head above the eyes and killed him. When his wife, who had been fleeing with him, saw this, she at once fell across his body, screaming. The Turkish took her by her feet and dragged her away, so that the cloth of her dress came up over the head. Her dead husband they cut into small pieces, as if he were a sheep. They took the woman to the Danish houses and threw her in with the other prisoners….
“Then they began to set fire to the houses. There was a woman there who could not walk, whom they had captured easily. Her they threw on the fire, along with her two-year- old baby. When she and the poor child screamed and called to God for help, the wicked Turks bellowed with laughter. They stuck both child and mother with the sharp points of their spears, forcing them into the fire, and even stabbed fiercely at the poor, burning bodies.”
Not all the accounts are so harrowing, though.
“Up in the cliffs above Ofanleiti, the pirates found five stout men, whom they fell upon and captured, binding their hands and feet. They then caught sight of two girls. When they chased after these girls, they passed over a hill so that one of the girls managed to evade them and return to the bound men. As she approached them, one of the men implored her to untie him, which she did in a hurry. After that, one man untied another. When the pirates returned to fetch them, the men ran off as fast as they could, not daring to look back, scattering in all directions, until they could not see each other. The distance was long, so the Icelanders could climb down the cliff and seek hiding places there.”
One of the people taken captive on Heimaey was Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, a Lutheran minister in his early sixties. Of him, Klaus Eyjólfsson writes:
“Since the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson was growing old, and the pirates saw that he was not physically strong, their main captain wanted to leave him behind. But when his wife heard this, she asked him, for God’s sake, not to leave her. He said it should be that way, and that he would suffer along with her.”
And so he did. Reverend Ólafur, his pregnant young wife (who gave birth during the voyage) and their two small children, along with nearly 250 Westman Islanders, were loaded onto the corsair ships and, with over a hundred others who had been captured in the east Fjords, transported to Algiers—where they were sold en mass into slavery.
Reverend Ólafur wrote a memoir, chronicling his experience. Here is his recounting of the moment when his young son was taken from him in Algiers:
“The people from the Westman Islands were brought to the slave market, which was a square built up of stones with seats encompassing it all around. The ground was paved with stones which appeared glossy—which I understand is because they were washed every day, as were the main houses, sometimes as much as three times a day. This market was next to where their local King [i.e., the Ottoman Governor of Algiers] had his seat, so that he would have the shortest way there, because, as I was told by those who had been there a long time, their King took from the captured people every eighth man, every eighth woman, and every eighth child…
“When we came to the slave market, we were placed in a circle, and everyone’s hands and face were inspected. Then the King chose from this group those whom he wanted. His first choice amongst the boys was my own poor son, eleven years old, whom I will never forget as long as I live because of the depth of his understanding. When he was taken from me, I asked him in God’s name not to forsake his faith nor forget his catechism. He said with great grief, “I will not, my father! They can treat my body as they will, but my soul I shall keep for my good God.
“I have to say with Job: What is my strength, that I should hope? Were one to try to weigh my misery and suffering altogether on a scale, they would be heavier than all the sand in the sea.”
Reverend Ólafur was not sold into slavery himself. Instead, he was designated by his captors to act as an intermediary to negotiate ransoms from the King of Denmark (Iceland was a Danish possession in those days). He travelled, penniless, from Algiers to Livorno, in Italy, from there to Genoa, and from Genoa to Marseilles. In Marseilles, he met a Dutch sea captain, with the improbable name of Caritas Hardspenner, who offered him free passage to Holland. From Enkhuizen, in Holland, he managed to get to Copenhagen, where he finally arrived after nearly six months of arduous travel.
It was the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, however, and Denmark was faring badly. The royal coffers were empty. Reverend Ólafur was forced to return to Iceland alone, sans ransom, sans family.
Ten years later, thirty-four Icelanders were finally ransomed (twenty-six women and eight men), twenty-seven of whom made it back to Iceland. Among them was Reverend Ólafur’s wife, Ásta. The two had the better part of three years together before Reverend Ólafur died in 1639, at the age of seventy‑five.
You can read more about Reverend Ólafur’s experiences and about the Tyrkjaránið in The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: the Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627.
Reverend Ólafur (who was born in the same year as William Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei) wrote The Travels to chronicle his experiences both as a captive and as a traveller across Europe. He was a keen observer, and the narrative is filled with a wealth of detail—social, political, economic, religious—about both the Maghreb and Europe. It is also a moving story on the human level: we witness a man enduring great personal tragedy and struggling to reconcile such calamity with his understanding of God.
To give a clearer sense of the extraordinary events connected with Tyrkjaránið, The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson includes not only Reverend Ólafur’s first-person narrative but also Klaus Eyjólfsson’s report on the attack on Heimaey and a number of contemporary letters written by captives describing the conditions under which the enslaved Icelanders lived.
This is the first time any of these Icelandic texts have ever been translated into English.
The Travels also has Appendices containing background information on the cities of Algiers and Salé, on Iceland in the seventeenth century, on the manuscripts accessed for the translation, and on the book’s early modern European context.
The combination of Reverend Ólafur’s narrative, the report and the letters, and the material in the Appendices provides a fascinating first-hand, in-depth view of the early modern world, both Christian and Islamic.
The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: the Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627, translated and edited by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols, is published by the Catholic University of America Press and is available on Amazon.uk
Here is a link to the book’s website: http://www.reisubok.net/
The Icelandic Embassy in London is hosting a European launch for The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson on Thursday, March 2. If you are interested in attending this launch and meeting the authors, contact Adam Nichols, firstname.lastname@example.org.
He can arrange for the Icelandic Embassy to issue you a formal invitation.
Adam Nichols is an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland.
Karl Smári Hreinsson is an independent Icelandic scholar, free-lance writer, and documentary film maker.