Words To Remember

"The truth is this--genealogy is our living, and we are busy every minute, [and we] could use more hours." --Jane Wethy Foley, 1942

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Jan Janszoon the Pirate

17th Century Rabat-Salee
A journey of about 17 miles from Tangier, south along the Atlantic Coast, brings the traveler to the present-day twin cities of Rabat-Salee. Rabat, with a population of 600,000 is the capital of the Kingdom of Morocco. ... On the north side is the city of Salee (pronounced Sally) which was, during the Middle Ages, the most important merchant port and center of trade in Morocco. Many attempts were made by French and English expeditions to purge this den of its infamous pirates. Finally, the French succeeded in the 17th century.

Jan Janszoon (Jansz or Jansen) was one of the most successful corsairs (pirates) of the Mediterranean Sea. As a young seaman, Jan Janszoon of the Netherlands ventured forth into the world and eventually won the favor of the Sultan of Morocco. The Sultan designated Jan as Murat Reis or Admiral of the Sultan's fleet at Salee (or Sally), Morocco. In addition, Jan received other honors such as the Governor of the Castle of El Qualidia. The plain truth is that Jan was a pirate leader who sailed the seas in the latter part of the 16th and early 17th centuries and was rewarded for his exploits by his employer.

Janszoon as Murat Reis
Jan, originally from the seaport city of Haarlem in the Netherlands, began his career as a Dutch privateer harassing Spanish shipping. He sailed with a letter of marque to capture pirates that operated from Dunkirk in Belgium. He found there wasn't enough profit in this, so he sailed south to the Barbary Coast, where he became a pirate and attacked ships of all countries. When he attacked a Spanish ship he flew the Dutch flag, when he attacked all others he flew the red half-moon of the Turks. He sailed with a small boat from La Rochelle in France, but he was captured in 1618 at Lanzarotte (or Lancerote), one of the Canary Isles, by Barbary pirates and taken to Algiers. After this, he became a member of the crew of De Veenboer, another notorious and very successful pirate who had become Admiral of the Fleet of Algiers in 1617. Sailing under De Veenboer, he managed to work himself up to steerer. When De Veenboer decided to stay ashore, Janszoon took over as a commander of his ship (1618 or 1619).

Jan had abandoned his wife and at least two children back in Haarlem, but he apparently had one of his sons, Antonie, with him in 1618 when he was captured. Jan embraced his new life, achieving success with the Admirals of the Turkish fleet. Jan is quoted as saying, roughly, "It's better to sail with the Moor than to sail for the Papists." Antonie grew to manhood in Morocco, training as a sailor.

While in Algiers, Jan converted to Islam and took a Moorish woman as a second wife, which is acceptable according to the Islamic faith. He also adopted the name of Murat Reis (Murat, Morat, Murate or Morato). In 1619, Jan took Salee, a port city in Morocco, as his base of operations. Algiers was no longer a suitable harbor at that time to sell the cargo and captured ships because Algeria had made peace with several European nations. Salee was the infamous home of the "Salee Rovers," notorious buccaneers who preyed on shipping in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coasts and the Indian Ocean. The port was nominally subject to the Sultan of Morocco. With a fleet of 18 ships that were fast and well provisioned, Jan soon made Salee almost as feared as Dunkirk.

In 1620, Jan met a Dutch man-of-war in the area of Malaga, a port city in Spain. When the ship noticed the corsairs, it immediately altered its course and sailed directly after them while raising the red flag (this means that no quarter will be given). After seeing this, Jan turned and fled from the advancing ship. According to the Dutch consul in Algiers, the ship was not a man-of-war, but a courageous merchant who bluffed his way out of the meeting. Not long after this, in June and July of 1620, Janszoon was again capturing ships. Unlike his predecessor De Veenboer, Jan attacked ships of all nations and did not distinguish between Dutch and other ships.

Janszoon became a rich man between his Admiral perks, payments for anchorage, pilotage, other harbor dues and from the brokerage on stolen goods. He would become bored from time to time and sail off on an adventure.

Salee became very prosperous and consequently the pirates declared Salee an independent republic governed by fourteen pirates and a president who was also the Admiral of the Navy. Jan was elected the first President and Admiral. After an unsuccessful siege by Morocco, the Sultan eventually acknowledged its independence. The main sources of income of Salee were piracy, shipping and dealing in stolen property. Janszoon went privateering in the North Sea, the North Atlantic Sea and the Canal.

In 1622, he and his crew sailed into the English Channel to try his luck there. When they ran low on supplies in November 1623, they docked at the port of Veere, Holland, under the Moroccan flag claiming diplomatic privileges. The authorities could not deny the two ships access to Veere because at that time several peace treaties and trade agreements existed between the emperor of Morocco and the Dutch Republic. While there, the Dutch authorities trotted out his Dutch wife and children to persuade him to give up pirating. The same happened to many more on board. Rather than succeeding in luring any of the crew to leave their footloose ways, several young Dutchmen signed up for a lifetime of adventure and sailed off with Janszoon when he left in December, despite their being prohibited to do so by the Dutch authorities.

After Jan returned to Salee in 1624, Sultan Moulay Zaydan, who wanted a show of sovereignty over the area, appointed Jan Governor of Salee.  In February 1626, Janszoon was again in Holland, though under different circumstances. He had left Salee with 3 ships and had apparently captured a rich Spanish prize that he hoped to sell in the Dutch Republic. When his ships arrived in the North Sea they spotted what appeared to be a rich Dutch merchant ship with only a few men on guard. They went along side, but just when 50 of their crew had boarded the ship, the Dutch flag was struck and the Spanish flag went up instead.

They were immediately attacked by the crew who had hidden themselves. The ship turned out to be a Spanish privateer from Duinkerken. One ship was almost immediately disabled and forced to surrender. The other two ships barely managed to get away heavily damaged and with many dead and casualties. One of the ships managed to sail into the Maas River. The most heavily damaged one was able to reach Amsterdam, via the Isle of Texel, where they had a hard time getting medical aid. The ship in Amsterdam was sold and the pirates left with the ship that had entered the Maas early in 1627.

After this voyage, Janszoon was mainly active in Salee as a dealer in stolen goods. His reputation seems to have suffered from this less adventurous profession. Early in 1627, Janszoon hired a Danish slave to pilot them to Iceland where they raided Reykjavik, further north than he had ever previously sailed. In the harbor of the capital, he attacked a ship, but they only managed to steal some salted fish and a few hides, so they captured 400 Icelanders to be sold as slaves. On the way back, he also took a Dutch vessel and imprisoned more people. The people were sold as slaves in Salee.

The political climate changed in Salee toward the end of 1627, so Janszoon moved his family and operations back to Algiers and seems to have lived in Algiers and Tripoli for some time. In 1631, Jan again sailed north, this time to England and Ireland where they captured and imprisoned about 200 men who were sold as slaves in Algiers. The poem, "The Sack of Baltimore," was written about this raid in Ireland. {You may read the poem in another posting.} In Baltimore alone, he captured 108 men.

The Slave Market by Gustave Clarence Rudolphe Boulanger
From 1631 to 1640, not much is known about his actions. He may have been captured and held prisoner by the "Knights of Malta" for a short period, but whether this is true remains unclear. He apparently escaped because, in 1640, he was appointed by the Emperor of Morocco as the Governor of the Castle Maladia on the west coast of Morocco. Also in that year, his Dutch daughter, Lysbeth Janszoon (Lysbeth Jansen Van Haarlem), sailed to Morocco to visit him. The last thing that is known is that he and his daughter stayed at the Castle of Maladia until August 1641 when she returned to Holland. Nothing is known about him after 1641.

The European records say that Jan the Murat Reis came to a bad end, but this conclusion may have been fabricated to placate good, upright Christians of the time who would have found little propaganda value in the story of a man who had given up his faith and his family, found success with the infidel and died of peaceful old age in the bosom of his loving Muslim family.


  1. One of my favorite subjects. A relative I never hear enough about. Thank you.

  2. Thank you! I enjoyed researching as well as writing this article. And who said History was boring??

  3. Jan Janszoon, by research, is my 10th great grandfather and on down the line via his son Anthony van Salee later of New Amsterdam etc.
    What a fascinating man...
    I kind of wish he had chosen a different profession...
    but then, he would not have been nearly as interesting.

    1. I found out about the connection in John W. Van Sickle's 1880 book about the Van Sickle family (my family name). How surprising to find that Ferdinandus Van Syckelen, after arriving in America, married the daughter of a moor and a hoor!

    2. What a surprise to find I am related to a pirate through his son (a Moor), and the son's wife (a Hoer)!

  4. Have you read Russell Shorto's "Island at the Center of the World"? If you have NOT, then you should! The book gives a fascinating account of early Nieuw Amsterdam [AKA New York City] under Dutch rule. I heartily recommend it!