Posted on October 4, 2007

White Slaves

Dan Snow, The One Show (BBC), October 4, 2007

The thousands of shipwrecks off Devon and Cornwell are a tragic legacy of this formidable coastline.

But did the treacherous sea once save a village from a fate worse than death? Dan goes to find out.

A few years ago, the remains of a mysterious ship were discovered just off Salcombe in Devon, along with a huge hoard of treasure. This treasure links the ship to a time, 400 years ago, when people were taken from villages all along the south coast of Britain—to be sold into slavery.

The treasure is now kept at the British Museum and looked after by curator, Venetia Porter. “It includes over 400 gold coins—two dated the 17th century, which allows us to date the wreck,” Venetia tells Dan, “It’s from Morocco, so to find something like this on the seabed off the coast of Devon is pretty remarkable.”

So the question is, what was it doing off the coast of Devon? Dan heads to Salcombe to find out.

Salcombe today is a peaceful holiday town, but it was very different picture 400 years ago. Back then, pirates from North Africa’s Barbary Coast were making daring raids all along Britain’s southern shores—and they weren’t just stealing loot.

Coastal communities like Salcombe lived in fear of the Barbary pirates—with good reason. In 1631, almost the whole of the village of Baltimore in Ireland was captured and shipped off to Africa and sold into slavery.

Is it possible that the shipwreck in Salcombe once belonged to pirates on the hunt for white slaves? Maritime archaeologist Dave Parham is trying to answer that very question.

He takes Dan on a dive to see what’s left of the wreck. On the seabed, where most of the gold has been found, the ship’s timbers have rotted away, but its guns remain.

“Just in front of us we can see the first group of cannons, and there’s another group of four canons with a large anchor between them,” Dave points out to Dan, “It would suggest that the vessel that was wrecked here was armed with a number of large guns in the back and a number of large guns in the stern.”

This is the same layout as a pirate galley, with cannons at both ends, and space for slaves to row in the middle. It looks like this is a pirate ship. However, other items found near the wreck, including a merchant seal, pieces of pottery and pewter, suggest otherwise.

The items are not from North Africa, they’re Dutch, so it might not be a Barbary pirate ship at all. Instead, it could be a Dutch merchant that was trading with Morocco, or smuggling gold out of North Africa.

But there’s one other possibility that fits the pirate theory. According to Dave, “A lot of European seamen captured by the Barbary pirates became pirates themselves. In fact, the pirate vessel that attacked Baltimore in Ireland was skippered by a Dutchman.”

“So what’s your gut feeling?” Dan asks him.

“I don’t honestly know, is the answer. I would like it to be a pirate vessel—but I can’t put my hand on my heart and say that,” Dave admits.

So whether it was a ship carrying Dutch traders—or Barbary pirates, we might never know for sure.

If it was a pirate ship attempting to raid the south Devon coast, then one thing is certain—the treacherous waters saved the inhabitants of Salcombe from a life in chains on the Barbary Coast.