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The Ottoman Pirates and the Icelandic Abductions: A Forgotten Chapter in Maritime History

In the early 17th century, the tranquil shores of Iceland experienced a harrowing event that would leave an indelible mark on its history. Ottoman pirates, known as Barbary corsairs, carried out audacious raids on Icelandic villages, capturing over 400 people to be sold into slavery. This dark chapter in Iceland's history unfolded in the summer of 1627, an event often referred to as the "Turkish Abductions" (Tyrkjaránið).

The Arrival of the Corsairs

The Barbary corsairs were notorious for their pirate activities along the Mediterranean coast and beyond. Operating from North African bases, primarily Algiers and Tunis, these pirates targeted European coastal towns and ships, capturing thousands of Europeans who were then sold into slavery. In June 1627, their attention turned toward the remote and relatively undefended island of Iceland.

The raids were meticulously planned. Under the command of Murat Reis the Younger, a former Dutchman turned corsair, three ships set sail towards the North Atlantic. Their voyage culminated in a series of attacks on Icelandic settlements.

The Raids Begin

The first raid struck the small village of Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula. On June 20, 1627, the peaceful inhabitants were startled by the appearance of strange ships on the horizon. The pirates descended upon the village with ruthless efficiency, pillaging homes, and capturing men, women, and children. Eyewitness accounts described the scene with chilling clarity.

Eyewitness Ólafur Egilsson, a Lutheran minister, later recounted the horror in his memoirs. He wrote, "Our small village was engulfed in chaos. The invaders showed no mercy, dragging my fellow villagers from their homes, binding them in chains. The screams of the taken and the cries of those left behind still echo in my mind."

After Grindavík, the corsairs turned their sights on the Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar), a more populated and prosperous target. On July 16, 1627, the pirates launched a brutal attack on the islands. The islanders fought valiantly, but they were no match for the well-armed and battle-hardened corsairs. The pirates rounded up hundreds of captives, killing those who resisted and setting buildings ablaze.

The Captivity

The captives, numbering over 400, were herded onto the pirate ships and transported back to Algiers. Among them was Ólafur Egilsson, whose detailed account provides a rare and invaluable perspective on the ordeal. In his narrative, he described the gruelling journey across the Atlantic, the fear and uncertainty that gripped the captives, and their arrival in the bustling slave markets of Algiers.

Algiers slave market

Although the journey to Barbary was undoubtedly challenging for the prisoners, resulting in some deaths, there is no indication that the people were subjected to mistreatment. In his Travel Book, Ólafur Egilsson explicitly mentions that when his wife Ásta gave birth to a child at sea and lay down on a bed, the Turks displayed great care towards the child.

Egilsson's account reveals the harsh realities of life in captivity. He wrote,

"Upon our arrival, we were paraded through the streets, our chains clanking with every step. The markets buzzed with activity as potential buyers inspected us like livestock. Families were torn apart, mothers separated from their children, husbands from their wives."

Some letters sent by prisoners made their way to Iceland. Guttormur Hallsson, a captive from the East Fjords, mentioned in a letter from Barbary in 1631:

“There is a great difference here between masters. Some captive enslaved people get good, gentle, or in-between masters. But some unfortunates find themselves with savage, cruel, hard-hearted tyrants who never stop mistreating them. They force them to labour and toil with scanty clothing and little food, bound in iron fetters, from morning till night.”

The Aftermath and Legacy

The raids of 1627 left an indelible scar on Icelandic society. The loss of so many people, coupled with the sheer brutality of the attacks, plunged the nation into mourning. Efforts were made to negotiate the ransom and release of the captives, but success was limited. Some captives were eventually freed, including Ólafur Egilsson, who returned to Iceland in 1628. However, many remained in captivity for the rest of their lives, assimilated into the society of the Barbary Coast.

The memory of the Turkish Abductions persisted in Icelandic folklore and history. It served as a grim reminder of the vulnerability of isolated communities in an era of rampant piracy. The raids also highlighted the far-reaching impact of the Barbary corsairs, whose activities extended far beyond the Mediterranean, reaching the northernmost edges of Europe.



  1. Ólafur Egilsson, "The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: The Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627"

  2. Robert C. Davis, "Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800"

  3. Gisli Sigurdsson, "The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method"

  4. Abulafia, David. The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean. Oxford University Press, 2011.

  5. Fisher, Godfrey. Barbary Legend: War, Trade, and Piracy in North Africa, 1415-1830. Clarendon Press, 1957.

  6. Milton, Giles. White Gold: The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and North Africa's One Million European Slaves. Hodder & Stoughton, 2004.

  7. Mundy, James. "Piracy and Captivity in the Early Modern Mediterranean." Journal of Mediterranean Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2002, pp. 25-48.


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