For over 300 years Barbary pirates preyed upon the coasts of the south west of England. Thousands of the ordinary folk were taken captive and held for ransom or sold as slaves in markets in North Africa. Those most at risk were fishermen and merchant sailors whose unarmed boats made easy targets, as Owen Phippen, a man who now lies in Truro Cathedral, was to discover.
Owen Fitzpen alias Phippen
The Fitzpen family were originally from Dorset and seem to have spelt their name Phippen or Fitzpen pretty much at random. Owen was born in Melcombe Regis in 1582, the eldest son of Robert Fitzpen and Cecily Jordan. He had one older sister, Cecily and three brothers, Robert, David and George. Sadly their father died when Owen was just seven years old and though his mother and sister did their best to support the family he was forced to start work on merchant ships at a very young age.
Owen worked his way up through the ranks however, eventually becoming fairly wealthy. This new financial security meant that he was not only able to care for his mother but also pay for his younger brother’s education. George Phippen became a Master at Truro Grammar School and then rector of St Mary’s Church in 1629, the parish church in the town before the cathedral was built.
Life it seems was going rather well for Owen, in July 1603 he had married Annie Coinie in what was said to have been a “lavish ceremony” for the era. But these were uncertain, dangerous times for seamen, and that danger for once was not merely from the elements – there was a very different threat on the horizon.
The Barbary Corsairs
The terms ‘Barbary Pirates’ or ‘Barbary Corsairs’ has become a catch-all phrase for the ships and men from the North African that were prowling the Mediterranean sea and the coast around the British Isles in the 17th century. Also known as the Sallee Rovers, these ships, from ports such as Salle, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, would target vulnerable coastal villages and attack fishing boats with the aim of capturing Cornish people to sell at the “Arab markets” or to force ransoms from the Government for the more ‘valuable’ prisoners.
There are several accounts of these kind of attacks in Cornwall.
In May 1625 John Trewinnard of St Ives reported that “the Turks are upon our coast . . . they take men to make slaves of them”. He informed Edward Conway the MP for Penryn that eighteen men had been taken from one ship and sixteen from another.
That August Barbary pirates raided Mounts Bay capturing 60 men, women and children. Looe was also targeted around the same, according to Giles Milton in his book ‘White Gold’ the fearsome warriors dressed in djellabas and wielding scimitars poured onto the cobbled streets of the little harbour town and forced their way into cottages and taverns only to find them empty. The local people, who had got wind of what was happening, had fled and were hiding in the nearby fields. Despite this the corsairs still managed to seize some eighty mariners and fishermen in that one raid.
In 1636 it is said that St Keverne on the Lizard was repeatedly attacked.
Richard Plummer, master of a Plymouth barge, the Margery, arrived with three other vessels on June 15th , and were confronted with the emotional aftermath of the boats and crews having been taken. Three of the vessels were from St Keverne, three from Helford, and one from ‘Mollan’ [Mullion] . . . with all taken whilst fishing between Falmouth and the Lizard, near Black Head – a nearby headland barely three leagues from shore. Fifty fishermen and their boats had disappeared: according to his deposition Plummer spent a few days in St Keverne, during which time there was no news of the men or the boats, ‘so that it goes for an absolute truth thereabouts, that they were all surprised by the Turks and carried away’Jo Ann Esra, The Shaping of ‘West Barbary’: The Re/construction of Identity and West Country Barbary Captivity, 2013
The harbours of Looe, Penzance and Mousehole also had many of their fishing boats boarded while out at sea and the crews taken. There were reports of fishing boats found just drifting empty, the men vanished, never to be seen again.
Even accounting for the subsequent, inevitable exaggeration of these circumstances it sounds like a truly terrifying time:
Two hundred and fifty years ago this coast suffered to a degree which seems to us incredible from the ravages of what were then called Turkish pirates but which were in reality Algiers or Salle rovers . . . The justices of Cornwall complained to the Lord-Lieutenant that in one year the Turks had taken no less than a thousand Cornish mariners; while Looe alone in the ten days before the letter was written had lost eighty men. A letter dated July 10th 1636 says that seven boats and two and forty fishermen were taken by the Turks off the Manacles between Falmouth and the Lizard “last Wednesday was three weeks”.Arthur Norway, Highway & Byways of Devon and Cornwall, 1897
(Note: though often referred to at the time as Turks or Moors these pirates were almost certainly from North Africa.)
Cornwall was of course not the only region of the British Isles to suffer these attacks, indeed this was a problem felt across all of southern Europe. At one point it was estimated that as many as 3000 – 5000 Europeans were being held captive in Algiers alone and another 1500 in Salle. The British Parliament was forced to set up a special committee to oversee the payment of the endless ransom demands.
A man called Edmund Cason, acting on behalf of this “Special Committee of the Navie” actually travelled to Algiers to pay for the return of some of the captives at a rate of roughly £30 per person. He paid for 250 people before he ran out of money.
This was a profitable enterprise for the Barbary pirates, no sooner had the ransom been paid on one group of prisoners than they would go on the hunt for the next.
In July 1645 a paper was presented before parliament called ‘An Act for the relief of the Captives taken by Turkish, Moorish, and other Pirats‘ and in it were laid out plans to raise a whopping £10,000 (around £1.5 million today) to pay the ransoms of the kidnapped English natives being held in North Africa.
It became such an issue that Sir John Eliot, Vice Admiral of Devon, declared that we had “lost control of the seas around England.”
“The Turks daily show themselves in Mounts Bay and other places, the poor fishermen are fearful not only to go to sea but likewise these Turks should come on shore and take them out of their homes.”Justices of the Peace for Cornwall, July 1636, John Bruce, ed., Calendar of State Papers, 1636 – 1637
These kidnappings caused not only fear but also widespread poverty in Cornwall. Fishermen became afraid to go to sea and of those that were taken most would have been the main breadwinners of their families and communities which left their relations destitute.
Many never saw home again.
Those that did however, such as the most famous Cornish captive, a Penryn boy called Thomas Pellow, their accounts of life in captivity became the stuff of local legend and also gave us important first hand narratives of this forgotten chapter of our history. But although Pellow has had books written about him, such as the excellent “White Gold” by Giles Milton, Owen Phippen’s story is fair less well known.
The Capture of Owen Phippen
“With pirate ships they infested the seas . . .”Charles Sumner, White Slavery in the Barbary States, 1847
On 24th March 1620 Owen Phippen was sailing through the Mediterranean Sea on a trading trip when his ship was attacked by Barbary pirates. Owen and his crew were seized and, along with a number of other Europeans, for the next seven years they forced to work as slaves close to present-day Algiers. It is unclear exactly what Owen’s circumstances were while he was imprisoned but from Thomas Pellow’s account their daily life could range from backbreaking manual labour and beatings to more harmonious and comfortable conditions if they happened to find favour with one of their captors.
Escape was unusual but did happen, in 1637 Captain Rainsborough who was on an expedition to Salle in Morocco attempting to rescue captured British subjects reported in his ship’s log:
“Some Christians, that were slaves ashore, stole away out of the town and came swimming aboard”
And it appears that Owen Phippen was determined not to end his days in captivity either. After several unsuccessful attempts to escape on 17th June 1627 Owen and ten other captives, including some Dutch and French natives, were being moved by ship to another location. Somehow the prisoners managed to seize an unexpected opportunity and after three hours of fighting onboard they were able to overpower their masters and take control of the ship.
Owen Phippen and his makeshift crew, who were more than likely seamen, then managed to sail their commandeered ship to Cartagena in Spain. News of the successful mutiny apparently so impressed the King of Spain that he offered Owen a position in his navy. Phippen declined, he wanted to return home to England. The escapees apparently sold their stolen ship for £6000, split the money and made their way back to their respective countries. Owen went to Cornwall to be close to his brother George, who was by then living in Truro and became rector at St Mary’s church two years later.
Owen then lived a quiet life in Cornwall until eleven years later he died in the hamlet of Lamorran on 17th March 1636.
Burial in Truro Cathedral
The funeral of Owen Phippen was held on the 18th March 1636 in St Mary’s Church which was then the main parish church in Truro but which has since been incorporated into the Cathedral building. His tomb lies in the crypt and the faded inscription reads:
A plaque commemorating his brother George’s connection to the church can still be seen on the wall of the St Mary’s aisle in the cathedral today but unfortunately Owen Phippen’s memorial is not accessible to the public.
And Finally . . . American Connections
Owen’s other brother David is thought to have travelled to America and settled in Hingham, Massachusetts. It is said that his descendants were veterans of the American Revolution and the family were also related to three American presidents – Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B Hayes and John F Kennedy!
History is a strange and wonderful thing, it never fails to shock, inspire and educate. Often it forces us to rethink what we thought we knew, to take stock of an ugly past and perhaps to see our small corner of the planet as part of a much wider global picture. The story of the Barbary pirate’s reign of terror on our Cornish coasts is one of those episodes. A frightening chapter that has been largely forgotten but must have had a profound effect on our ancestors daily lives. Today perhaps in some small way it might help to give us a greater understanding of our human capacity for diabolical cruelty to one another. Terrible but important lessons to learn.