When I’m asked to take visitors on a historical tour of Vejer, I like to begin at the top of the Mayorazgo tower. This building, which was not originally associated with the house in whose patio it stands, is a permanent reminder of the white slave trade, and explains in concrete terms why the town exists in the form it does today.
Before the houses to the south-west were built in the twentieth century, it was possible to survey the entire sweep of coastline, including, on a clear day, the North African coast on the other side of the water.
|The far coast of Africa is visible from Vejer|
Nobody could approach during the hours of daylight without being seen from afar. When intruders were sighted, the watchman would ring the bell, alerting the town’s residents, both inside and outside the wall, and all the other town bells would join in the clamour. Vejeriegos had time to get inside the walls before the invaders arrived, and once the gates were sealed, the watch was in prime position to repel unwanted visitors. The pirates never got into Vejer.
For this reason, the town’s walls were carefully maintained, and with their protection, Vejer was able to grow and thrive as an important country town. Most of the suburbs outside the walls did not develop until the pirate threat abated in the eighteenth century, and the convents and bigger houses outside the walls were sturdily fortified.
Other settlements in La Janda were not so fortunate. All along the southern european coast, the threat from pirates was so great that it was not worth developing the coastal areas beyond the minimal resources needed to bring in catches of fish and deal with the traffic along the rivers.
|Barbary Corsairs - 19th century woodcut.|
This is why towns like Conil and Barbate, despite being long-established and possessing some impressive fortifications, seem relatively modern, with few historic buildings. As long as the Dukes of Medina Sidonia controlled the area, Vejer, Barbate and Conil were regarded as a single unit, all fulfilling different functions, with Vejer as the La Janda residential and administrative centre. All the business of importing and exporting goods and passengers was done at the river port of La Barca, hidden behind the hill and supplied with a good selection of caves to hide in when the bells rang out.
The local authorities did not rely on the walls and towers alone to keep the town safe from pirates. The Dukes of Medina Sidonia, perceiving a threat to their income, funded a system of horseback patrols, and land was sold to strengthen the town’s defences. The Juderia gate was closed for several centuries to secure the Castle area from attack via the Barranco de Almarez.
|The Judería Gate, closed for centuries to keep pirates out.|
Piracy has existed since Roman times and before, but the conditions of the sixteenth century turned an irritation into a plague. After the conquest of Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, many North Africans expected a fightback and armed themselves accordingly. When the call failed to come, they turned to guerilla warfare and piracy. There was always something of the jihad in the corsairs’ attitude to Spain.
Although the pirates were happy to plunder cattle, money and jewels, their main objective was to obtain slaves to trade in the southern mediterranean countries. They made themselves a nuisance all over Europe, and one raiding party reached as far away as Iceland. It has been calculated that around one and a quarter million Europeans were traded by North African and Turkish pirates between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Many slaves died, and many males were castrated and could not reproduce, so the demand was steady.
|Galley slaves of the Barbary pirates:1799|
Vejeriegos did not always escape the Corsairs’ attention. Some were taken while away from home and put to work as galley slaves, sex workers, soldiers or manual labourers. When they arrived in Morocco or Algeria, they often found fellow-citizens, with whom they formed groups offering mutual support.
The wealthy were usually ransomed, and Vejer families were often hard put to to find enough money to buy back their family member. Ironically, some Spaniards mortgaged or sold their own slaves to do this. Piracy caused psychological damage to whole communities. When the King’s inspector, Luis Bravo, visited Vejer in 1577, he was horrified to discover that Vejeriegos were so afraid of the pirates that they were only willing to leave the town’s walled enclosure at the height of the afternoon.
|Mrs. Bradley, unfortunately conveyed into captivity by the Arabs|
Although the corsairs were universally hated, there is plenty of evidence that some merchants were willing to do business with them for commercial advantage. In June 1478, Antón Bernal, a Cadiz merchant, was found guilty after attacking and looting a cargo of provisions destined for Vejer. Bernal, who was an alderman of Cádiz, was not punished, merely required to repay the value of the cargo, suggesting that piracy was regarded as sharp practice rather than criminal behaviour.
Piracy along the coasts of Europe disappeared during the eighteenth century, as navies grew more powerful. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15, agreed to co-operate in suppressing the corsairs. The practice was finally ended by the French conquest of Algiers in 1830. Since then the Barbary Corsairs have been featured in hundreds of films and books, the idea of the White Slave Trade sending a delicate shudder through the bodies of many refined readers. Cruel and ruthless though they were, these pirates have nevertheless been accepted into the myth of the Romantic East, which has fascinated Europeans and Americans for almost two centuries.
|The Barbary pirates and their enslaved victims have been romanticised and even sexualised for almost two centuries.|