Today in European history: the sack of Baltimore (1631)

We don’t often talk about Irish history around here, but the travels of the Barbary corsairs (who are often treated as simply a Mediterranean phenomenon) can take you to some unexpected places, and I think it’s fun to occasionally point how just how far their reach extended. In this case, it extended all the way north to the southern tip of Ireland, the town of Baltimore in County Cork.

baltimore ireland
Baltimore, Ireland. Also, pay attention to the waters in the Bristol Channel, south of where it says “WALES” on this map. It’ll be important in a minute. (Google Maps)

If we’re going to talk about the sack of Baltimore then we need to say something about the man who perpetrated it, Murad Reis the Younger (d. sometime after 1641), AKA Jan Janszoon van Haarlem. Murad, or Jan, was a Dutch sailor who began a career as a privateer before being captured by Barbary corsairs and “Turning Turk,” which was the almost entirely inaccurate term for European sailors who were captured by Muslim pirates and converted to Islam (either genuinely or out of a desire to improve their lot as future slaves and/or impressed sailors. Janszoon seems to have been a pretty enthusiastic convert. He may have genuinely adopted Islam, or he may have come to the realization that working as a privateer for the Barbary states, which meant he could attack pretty much everybody’s ships, was a lot more lucrative than doing it for Holland, which only allowed its privateers to attack Spanish ships. Maybe both, or neither.

Janszoon sailed under another Dutch convert working for the emir of Algiers for some time, before establishing his own command out of the short-lived 17th century Republic of Salé (now part of Morocco). Sailing out of Salé allowed him to attack targets at his own discretion, without worrying about whatever diplomatic arrangements Algiers might have made with the various European states. Salé was a pirate republic, so there would be no diplomatic relations at all, and Janszoon became its leader (well, inasmuch as a leader of a bunch of autonomous pirate captains can actually be considered a “leader”). This arrangement lasted until late 1627, when Janszoon moved his base of operations back to Algiers because Salé was too unstable. Earlier in 1627, Janszoon captured Lundy Island, located in the Bristol Channel. It’s too small to show up on that map above, but if you look directly south of the “WA” in “WALES,” it’s in that general vicinity. He and his crew actually raided a village in Iceland that year as well. So he was obviously very familiar with this area.

Baltimore may have fallen victim to Janszoon’s men in part because of Irish-English animus. Most of the people living in Baltimore at this time were Protestant English transplants, who’d been given a license to operate a sardine fishing concern in the area by the Irish Catholic O’Driscoll family. Janszoon seems to have been steered toward Baltimore by an Irish captain named John Hackett, whose ship had been seized by Janszoon during their voyage north from Algiers. The story goes that Janszoon allegedly had his eyes on the port of Kinsale, further east, which had been conquered by English forces in 1602 in the climactic battle of the Nine Years’ War. But Hackett convinced him that Kinsale was too well-defended and that Baltimore was a much easier target. Was Hackett genuinely offering good advice to Janszoon or was he directing the corsairs to attack the heavily English population of Baltimore as payback for Kinsale? There are even suggestions that the whole raid was orchestrated either by the O’Driscolls, who’d fled Ireland after Kinsale was captured and thus could no longer exercise their claim on the land, or by a rival of the O’Driscolls named Walter Coppinger, in either case in the hope that the raid would remove the English population from the town and allow some nice Irish family to move back in and take over.

Janszoon’s raid carried off well over a hundred captives (slaves were usually the most lucrative product of these types of attacks), most of them English, who were then sold into slavery in Algiers. Very few ever made it back to Ireland. Hackett was eventually arrested and hanged, while Coppinger, whether he’d been involved in plotting the raid or not, did ultimately gain control over Baltimore as the English settlers who were left after the raid opted to relocate to nearby Skibbereen, and the O’Driscolls were unable to reassert their claim from exile. However, the town remained largely depopulated really until the early 18th century. The Irish writer Thomas Davis (d. 1845) memorialized the raid in a poem, “The Sack of Baltimore,” if you’re in to that sort of thing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.