Previously we dedicated a couple of articles to recounting the exploits of the Barbary pirates in the Atlantic, chronicling their attacks on the Canary Islands, the south of England, the Irish city of Baltimore, the archipelagos of Shetland and Faroe, the coast of Denmark, and even the East coast of what are now the United States. Today we complete that account with the narrative of their raids in Iceland, an episode that has passed into the history of that country with the heading of Tyrkjaránið, an Icelandic expression meaning “Turkish kidnappings”.

Despite that designation, they weren’t actually Turks exactly but rather Barbary pirates who, as their name indicates, had their bases in the Barbary Coast (North Africa, encompassing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya). From there, their fleets set sail to raid Christian ports with the aim of obtaining slaves to sell in the markets. They weren’t exactly pirates but privateers, as they entered into the service of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 left the North African Byzantine domains in its hands.

Interestingly, some of the most prominent Barbary captains were of European origin, often former slaves converted to Islam (in that culture, a slave could thrive and even hold important positions) who had the advantage of operating on their own and being able to carry out actions not driven by strategic interests but purely economic ones. One of them was Murat Reis the Younger, a new identity adopted by Jan Janszoon van Harlem, a Dutch pirate captured in Lanzarote who, after renouncing his Christian religion, worked for an experienced sailor named Solimán Reis.

The Barbary Coast on a 17th century map by Dutch cartographer Jan Janssonius
The Barbary Coast on a 17th century map by Dutch cartographer Jan Janssonius. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Solimán also hailed from the Netherlands, where he fought in the Eighty Years’ War before joining the Dutch corsair Zymen Danseker against the Spaniards between 1606 and 1609. Later, after a stint in Algiers, he saw the opportunity to advance if he professed the Islamic creed, organizing a fleet with sailors from his country while defending the interests of the Sublime Porte. When he died in 1620, Janszoon succeeded him as reis (admiral) and president of the Republic of Salé, a small maritime state founded by expelled Spanish Moriscos and located near present-day Rabat, though independent of the Moroccan sultan.

In the seventeenth century, with the onset of the decline of the Ottoman Empire due to internal problems following the death of Suleiman the Magnificent, Salé took over from Algiers as a corsair base. But being on the West African coast, the area of operations shifted from the Mediterranean as it had been until then to the Atlantic Ocean, which again made the Canary Islands a recurrent target (they had been attacked several times between 1585 and 1587) but also other more northern points: Madeira was conquered in 1617 and eight years later a squadron spread panic in England, raiding cities like Sussex, Plymouth, Devon, Cornwall…

In 1627, Janszoon -or Murat Reis, if you prefer- organized another fleet of fifteen xebecs to roam the British coast again. In one of their raids, they managed to seize Lundy, a tiny island of three hundred and forty-five hectares in surface area located in the Bristol Channel, which they used as an advanced base for five years and as a gathering point for the slaves they were capturing in those latitudes. And it wasn’t just the English who suffered those crescent-shaped assaults; also affected were the Irish, Danes, and Scandinavians, some continental and others insular. Among the latter were the inhabitants of the aforementioned Shetland and Faroe Islands, as well as those of Iceland.

Portrait of Jan Janszoon -or Murat Reis- painted by Pier Francesco Mola
Portrait of Jan Janszoon -or Murat Reis- painted by Pier Francesco Mola. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

They reached Iceland thanks to the information obtained from a slave, probably a Danish sailor from a previously captured ship. In reality, the Barbary pirates had already made incursions on that island and on the Faroes before; specifically in 1607, in the expedition (the first large-scale one beyond the Strait of Gibraltar) of another Dutch renegade named Zymen Danseker -alias Simon Reis, taking hundreds of captives to sell in the North African markets.

Therefore, since they were already operating in that area, returning there seemed like a good idea and Janszoon obtained from his slave the missing data to optimize the operation. The target was Grindavik, a fishing village on the southwest tip founded by the Vikings in the 10th century.

In 1397, the Kalmar Union merged the three Nordic monarchies (Denmark, Sweden, and Norway) to form a single state that lasted until 1523, when it disintegrated. The three formed their own kingdoms, although in practice Norwegians and Danes remained linked; Iceland was part of their possessions, although it was somewhat neglected by Copenhagen because it did not need its products (wool and fish), which made the island’s trade balance negative and this had an impact on a modest population of no more than sixty thousand inhabitants.

Aerial view of Grindavik, on the southwest coast of Iceland
Aerial view of Grindavik, on the southwest coast of Iceland. Credit: Olga Ernst annotated by Prioryman / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the corsairs did not take great wealth from Grindavik: preserved fish and hides would have been their meager booty if it weren’t for the fact that they were also interested in human cargo. A dozen people were seized as slaves, a number that soon multiplied by attacking three Danish merchant ships using the old trick of flying a false flag.

That happened on June 20, 1627, and could have continued if an attempt to attack Bessastöðum (the governor’s residence) had not been repelled by the joint action of the cannons of the bessastaðaskans (local fortifications) and a contingent of pikemen hastily assembled.

Janszoon set course for Salé, where he ended up selling his slaves. But after that initial scare, another unpleasant surprise awaited the Icelanders: not yet a month had passed when the sails of two hostile ships appeared on the horizon again. They were a second group of corsairs, these from Algiers, who skirted the island with the north as their objective. For eight days they raided the villages along the fjords of Berufjörður and Breiðdalur, from which they obtained silver, livestock, and other goods; but above all, slaves: one hundred and ten people, to which the crew of a Danish merchant ship was added.

Map and location of the Vestman Islands in southern Iceland
Map and location of the Vestman Islands in southern Iceland. Credit: Pinpin / Wikimedia Commons

When they reached the north of the village of Fáskrúðsfjörður, in the eastern part of the island, they encountered strong adverse winds that forced them to turn around, towards the southern coast, where they were joined by a third ship. Along the way, they boarded an English fishing boat, but found no ports or beaches to land, so when on July 16 they spotted the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago (the Westmen, eighteen tiny islands -some just reefs) a few kilometers off Iceland, they decided it could be an alternative and headed for Heimaey, the largest (so to speak, as it does not reach fourteen square kilometers) and only inhabited one.

They spent three days there, at the end of which, on July 19, they left taking two hundred and forty-two residents as slaves and leaving behind a devastating scene, after killing another thirty who tried to resist or were of no interest to them (due to being old or sick) and having set fire to the houses and the church.

The fate of those unfortunate souls was to be sold in Algiers, adding to the copious number of Europeans who passed through its market and those of Tripoli and Tunis throughout the seventeenth century, estimated at around thirty-five thousand people (some authors estimate more than a million over three hundred years).

Engraving by Jan Goeree and Casper Luyken showing the disembarkation and mistreatment of Christian slaves in Algiers in 1706
Engraving by Jan Goeree and Casper Luyken showing the disembarkation and mistreatment of Christian slaves in Algiers in 1706. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

As for Iceland, the total number of kidnappings that fateful summer was around four hundred according to Icelandic sources, although Emanuel d’Aranda, a slave of the Barbary pirate Ali Bitchin who in 1666 wrote a book about his experience titled Relation de la captivité et la liberté du sieur, stated that a fellow companion of his doubled that number. In any case, many died during and after the journey, and of those who survived, only about fifty were able to regain their freedom. About a hundred, most of them young, converted to Islam while others refused to renounce Christianity.

The letters from several of them allowed a brief reconstruction of how that period was. For example, Guttormur Hallsson sent one in 1631 explaining how they had caught the attention of the North Africans because of the paleness of their skin, arousing in them a certain sympathetic sadness and prompting them to give food to the children prisoners. He added that the fate varied for the purchased captives, as while some masters were good and kind, others behaved extremely harshly, keeping them tied with shackles all day and providing them with very scanty food and clothing.

Some of the Icelanders achieved certain fame. The most famous, Guðríður Símonardóttir, was the simple wife of a fisherman named Eyjólfur Sölmundarson and mother of a family. She was one of the women kidnapped in the town of Stakkagerði, in the Vestman Islands, and was destined to be a concubine for a decade. She managed to send a letter to her husband, who had managed to escape during the attack, asking him to arrange her rescue. This was achieved through the mediation of the Danish king Christian IV, although he had to leave his young son, also abducted, in Algeria.

Engraving by Jan Luyken showing Christian prisoners sold in the Algiers slave market (1684)
Engraving by Jan Luyken showing Christian prisoners sold in the Algiers slave market (1684). Credit: Jan Luyken / Wikimedia Commons

Guðríður and others who were rescued arrived in Denmark and underwent a process of reeducation in the Lutheran faith by Hallgrímur Pétrusson, a famous Icelandic poet who was studying theology at the time. They fell in love and, when she became a widow, they married and had three children, of whom only one reached adulthood. They returned to Iceland, but she was poorly received, accused of being a pagan and an adulteress -she was contemptuously nicknamed Tyrkja Gudda-, with the aggravating factor of being sixteen years older than her husband, who died of leprosy in 1674; she survived him by eight years.

Another renowned slave was Ólafur Egilsson, the Lutheran pastor of Vestmannaeyjar, kidnapped along with his family. He was soon released with the aim of raising money to pay the ransom, and so he reached Copenhagen, where this task proved much slower and more frustrating than expected; he could not recover his wife until 1637 and they never saw their two children again. We know of the terrible experience because he recounted it himself in memoirs titled En kort Beretning om De tyrkiske Søerøveres onde medfart og omgang, da de kom til Island i året 1627 (“A brief account of the bad behavior and dealings of the Turkish sea robbers, when they came to Iceland in the year 1627”).

The first major ransom payment for slaves could not be realized until nine years after the raid, when thirty-four Icelanders were freed (although six died during the return). In 1645 there was a second delivery of money that allowed the return of eight more, and a few more managed to escape, but in general, and subtracting those who did not survive, most spent the rest of their lives in slavery. As mentioned earlier, only around fifty regained their freedom, and of them, there were a few who chose to stay and live in North Africa.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 3, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en La triste historia de los islandeses capturados y vendidos como esclavos por los corsarios berberiscos en el siglo XVII


Ólafur Egilsson, En kort Beretning om De tyrkiske Søerøveres onde medfart og omgang, da de kom til Island i året 1627 | Emanuel d’Aranda, Relation de la captivité et la liberté du sieur | Robert C. Davis, Christian slaves, Muslim masters : white slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 | Simon Webb, The forgotten slave trade. The white european slaves of islam | Peter Lamborn Wilson, Pirate utopias: Moorish corsairs & European renegadoesT | he story of the Barbary corsair raid on Iceland in 1627: The travels of reverend Ólafur Egilsson | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.