They anchored undetected outside Baltimore Harbour ‘about a musket shot from the shore’ late in the night of June 19th. They launched their attack on the sleeping village before dawn.
More than 200 armed corsairs crept ashore and upon a signal, torched the thatched roofs of the houses and carried off the terrified inhabitants as they fled their burning beds. In minutes, they had taken more than 100 souls, English settlers all. They herded them back to the ships and bore them away from the shores of Ireland to the slave markets of Algiers.
The raid on Baltimore, immortalized in verse by the poet Thomas Davis, was the worst-ever attack by Barbary corsairs on the British Isles. Very few of the 107 known captives were ever heard of again (three women at most, who were ransomed up to 14 years after their abduction). As for the rest, their fate was certain: they ended their days at the oar as galley slaves or as concubines in North African harems. For his part John Hackett was arrested and hanged on a clifftop outside the village.
It is certainly possible that the Sack of Baltimore was a random event, that for Murat Reis, Baltimore was merely a target of opportunity. More likely, however, the raid was orchestrated by the O’Driscoll clan, who had been displaced by the English planters, or the result of a conspiracy between Reis and the notorious Sir Walter Coppinger, a local attorney, magistrate, and staunch anti-English Catholic who had famously employed both legal and illegal means in an attempt to oust the English settlers from Baltimore and secure it for himself. In the end, whether by happenstance or design, Reis achieved both the O’Driscoll’s and Coppinger’s goals and made a veritable fortune for himself in the process.
The Sack of Baltimore
By the summer of 1631, the local Irish population had endured an English plantation settlement in Baltimore for more than 30 years. The locals saw the settlers, here to work Roaring Water Bay’s lucrative pilchard fishery, as interlopers, unwelcomed agents of the English crown. To infuriate local sentiments further, the settlers and particularly the settlement’s founder, Thomas Crooke, stood accused of involvement in the piracy rife along the shores of West Cork. Local community leaders had repeatedly challenged the plantation’s legitimacy in court, disputing the validity of the lease under which they operated, but to no avail.
Algiers, in North Africa, was, at the time, the centre of Barbary piracy. Corsairs raided villages across the Mediterranean Sea, capturing sometimes entire populations to be sold, man, woman, and child, in the city’s slave markets. As the pirates grew bolder, they ventured beyond the Mediterranean, seizing ever faster European sailing vessels on the high seas and imprisoning their crews.
The most successful of these corsairs was a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who had adopted the moniker Murat Reis. He commanded a fleet that could rival all but the largest navies.
Reis set sail for Ireland in the spring of 1631. Over the course of his 1,000-mile journey, he had seized and burned a number of smaller vessels, imprisoning their crews. A Dungarvan man by the name of John Hackett was the captain of one such ship. In exchange for his freedom, Hackett would pilot Reis and his ships to Baltimore.