The Sack of Vestmannaeyjar in Iceland by Barbary Pirates in 1627

16 July 1627, Murat Reis‘ (née Jan Janszoon of Haarlem) Sallee Rovers, a group of Barbary Pirates, landed on Vestmannaeyjar, a group of islands off the south coast of Iceland, herding together the 300 islanders, killing some of them and abducting 234 people to slavery in North Africa, an event known as Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish abductions.
 
“Of the origins of the Turkish expedition, I cannot myself accurately or truthfully write. But some of those who escaped captivity maintain that two Lords of the Turkish empire made a bet with each other, one wagering against the other that it would not be possible to get even the smallest stone out of Iceland, much less a man. Because of this wager, the expedition was prepared and equipped, and twelve ships were sent to Iceland to capture as many people as possible and bring them back unharmed, for it is said that even one infant could fetch as much as three dollars in Algeria” (Klaus Eyjólfsson in a Letter to the Icelandic Commonwealth)


With the know-how of Western renegades such as Simon de Danser, John Ward and Jan Janszoon, equipping the already hugely successful pirate ships of the Barbary States with new square rigs, allowing them to sail the Atlantic, Northern African piracy raised to an all-time high during the first half of the 17th century. Operating out of Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis and Salé (or Sallee, near modern Rabat) on the Barbary Coast, the corsairs range literally exploded from the Mediterranean to the coasts of western Spain, Portugal and France and north to Ireland and Iceland – their main booty being people to be sold on the slaves markets throughout Northern Africa and the Near and Middle East.


An Icelandic imagination of the Tyrkjaránið


Jan Janszoon already was a privateer when he was captured by Barbary Corsairs off Tenerife in 1618, converted to Islam and began a meteoric rise among the pirates and the Turkish fleet – parts of Northern Africa belonged to the Ottoman Empire during the 1600s – until he managed to become President and Great Admiral of the semi-independent Republic of Salé in 1624. Getting bored from just getting rich with his new office, Murat Reis the Younger set forth on raidsfrom time to time, the most successful being the capture of the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, using the place as base for further operations in the area for the next five years.

Jan Janszoon dressed up as Sallee Rover
What exactly brought him and his ships to Iceland except the huge profit that could be made from selling Northern slaves is indeed unknown – but the Corsairs showed up at Grindavik, Austfirðir and Vestmannaeyjar in July of 1627. The three ships that reached Vestmannaeyjar – ironically named after Irish slaves, Vestmenn, Westmen, settled there by the Old Norse in the Early Middle Ages, were commanded by Murat Reis in person and made the biggest human catch of the expedition. All in all, 400 people were kidnapped from Iceland and sold as slaves on the Barbary Coast. Some were ransomed by the Danish Crown, others by their families or Christian relief organisations. One, Ólafur Egilsson, the Lutheran minister of Vestmannaeyjar, who was abducted himself and lost his family in Morocco, wrote an account of his ordeal, one of the quite common reports of the “Christian-abducted-by-the-Corsairs”-genre existing during the 17th and 18th century with various literary quality and credibility until “Abducted-by-Indians”-tales took over the market and accounts like Egilson’s became fantasy erotic novels, serving a certain taste of 19th century Europe and America, especially since the Barbary States ceased to be a real threat from the 1820s onwards.