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The Pirates of Porto Santo

“On the island of Porto Santo, they cleared the place!” — David J Whyte

Today, Porto Santo’s beach is a picture of tranquillity. It wasn’t always so!

"A Barbary Pirate" by Giovanni Guida (1837-1895)

You’ve no doubt heard of the Barbary Coast and its infamous pirates. They evoked a certain cinematic image; brazen buccaneers bedecked in turbans and gold earrings armed to the teeth with daggers and deadly scimitars. Like Johnny Depp and ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean’ they had the cache to fill movie theatres. On the island of Porto Santo, they cleared the place!


Barbary Pirates were mostly Muslim or Berber privateers who operated from ports along the North African coast between Algiers and Tunis. From the mid-16th century to the 1830s, they attacked coastal communities from Italy, France, Spain and Portugal, as far north as Iceland and even up the Thames towards London. Their primary ‘stock-in-trade’ were Christian slaves to be sold throughout the extensive Ottoman empire as well as in Arab slave markets in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Barbary Coast in 1590

Barbary pirates were renowned for their ferocity and ruthlessness. It’s a little-known fact that some of the most nefarious corsair captains were Englishmen who took to the pirate’s life in search of fortune and adventure, some even changing their names and converting to Islam. The Barbary corsairs looted the cargo of ships but their primary goal was to capture non-Muslim people for sale as slaves or for ransom. Captives who converted to Islam were generally freed since the enslavement of Muslims was prohibited but this meant that they could never return to their native land.

“Between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates”

According to American historian, Robert Davis, between 1 million and 1.25 million Europeans were captured by Barbary pirates and sold as galley slaves, labourers and concubines for their Muslim masters.

The ancient volcanic string that makes up Porto Santo


Porto Santo was the first of the Madeiran islands to be discovered by the early Portuguese explorers. In 1418, João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira set foot on the golden sandy beach of Porto Santo, a year before they landed on the larger island of Madeira. The two mid-Atlantic islands were ideally placed as provisioning stops for the rapidly growing transoceanic trading network that had sprung up during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Around the time, the Barbary pirates had extended their base of operations to the present-day Moroccan capital of Rabat, less than 700km from Madeira - to take advantage of the increasing trans-Atlantic traffic.


In 1617, Porto Santo was raided by 8 or 9 Algerian pirate ships. It was a ferocious attack that went entirely unchallenged. The pirates spent several days looting and rounding up the locals before setting fire to their homes and farms leaving the island devastated and devoid of its population. It is estimated that 1,200 people were captured, leaving only 25 survivors who had hidden in caves and underground grain stores. There had been aggressive incursions on Madeira from European powers throughout the islands’ early centuries but nothing like this. Portugal was under the rule of Spain at the time and it was felt that the Spanish crown had done little to protect its Portuguese population leading in part to the Treaty of Lisbon of 1668 where Spain, with the mediation of England, recognised the sovereignty of Portugal's new ruling dynasty, the House of Braganza.


Bombardment of Algiers 1816

The pirate problem continued for almost 200 years into the early 19th century when the ruling sea powers of the day decided to put a stop to it once and for all. A fledgling US Government undertook its first foreign military action against Tripoli in eastern Libya in 1805. This was followed by a joint attack by the Netherlands and Britain on the city of Algiers in 1816 called the ‘Bombardment of Algiers’ and the Barbary pirate problem was finally ended by the French in 1830 with the conquest of Algiers.


All that’s left of Porto Santo’s once thriving wheat industry are a handful of picturesque windmills

Peaceful Porto Santo gradually recovered. The island offered useful natural resources such as the sap from the Dragon Tree used in dyeing and tanneries. Lime, clay and salt were also abundant. The island’s main trade though was in supplying ships calling by on their way to the Americas and a thriving wheat trade sprung up largely based on this. Nowadays, the main invading force on the island of Porto Santo is the annual influx of holidaymakers, especially in the long summer months when the island’s scimitar-shaped beach is packed with Portuguese party people.

David J. Whyte


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