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27th April 2020

The Arctic Corsair trawler is arguably Hull’s best loved ship. Owned by the local Boyd Line it had the prefix ‘Arctic’ to its name, as did many of their trawlers.

But what of the Corsair? Many people have a rough idea of what a Corsair was but what are the details? Even less people are aware of a tale from the 1600s involving unfortunate sailors from Hull.

The Barbary corsairs attacked Christian shipping in the Mediterranean. They were based in the Barbary states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli in North Africa. Corsairs from Morocco also posed a threat. In response, Christian corsairs attacked Muslim shipping and were mostly based at Malta.

The main target for corsairs was not treasure but people.

Captured people would either be ransomed off or used as slaves. The mortality rate was high and the conditions they were kept in were harsh, especially for those forced to row the galley ships.

The system of ransoming off captives back to European countries became well established, with agents taking their cut. It was system that Hull found itself enmeshed several times as it tried to free its own sailors.

One example was the Norwich of Hull in 1678. On board were John Lightly, John Kirkas, William Grantham, Richard Clarke, George Dinsdale and Lawrence Clarke. Their ship was taken by Moroccan corsairs.

Months of fund raising and uncertainty followed for the families and officials back in Hull. The Bench in Hull were responsible for the town’s affairs and they included Anthony Lambert whose fine portrait has survived and hangs in the Guildhall. They did their best for the crew of the Norwich, negotiating and seeking money. Much of this tale lies in the archives at the wonderful Hull History Centre but some answers do get lost to the past. It is not known if the crew members all got home. It is likely that most didn’t, as was the case with many.

Anthony Lambert, 1678 – by a follower of Sir Godfrey Kneller

A Muslim galley was often commanded by a European captain who had turned mercenary. These sailors shared maritime knowledge with their Barbary employers and were greatly valued. With these skills, Barbary corsairs could make longer voyages. This even meant raids on the south coasts of England and Ireland. In 1631 a raid on Baltimore, Ireland took over one hundred slaves.

The activities of Barbary Corsairs went on for centuries. In 1816 an Anglo-Dutch force bombarded Algiers and liberated around three thousand people. The end of the corsairs finally came in 1830 when the French invaded Algiers. It has been estimated that over a million Christians were enslaved by the Barbary corsairs.

Our Arctic Corsair saw its own fair share of adventure but its crew were perhaps fortunate not to have been sailing in the 17th century Mediterranean.