Abraham Browne’s Captivity by the Barbary Pirates, 1655

IN the January 1848 issue of the New England Historical & Genealogical Register, Charles Browne communicated a note regarding a manuscript journal kept by his ancestor, Abraham Browne.1 The title and dedication of the journal were given as follows:

A Book of Remembrance of God’s Provydences towards me, A.B., throughout the cours of my Life, written for my own medytacon in New Engl.

To his honnered father in law, Mr. Hezykiah Vsher, Segr. marchent in Boston, N.E.

Honnered Sr. whatever afflicons hath befalne me in the wholl cours of my life, whether in body, minde, estate, or name, I know my sin to be the procuring caws. Jere. 4:18 I medle not with God’s decrees, tho I believe our stations, situations, and ends limmited by God. What I was unwilling to do while living, I have left to be presented to you after my decease, viz., a few lines of my life and experiences, which, when you have perused it, I desire my child, Hezykiah Browne, may have it. I pray God make it of use to him, that he may not trust to worldly enjoyments of any kinde, but in Christ Jesus, to live unto him, to be forever blest of him. This Booke is, as it weare, of two parts;—The second part I bequeath unto my dafter, Elizabeth Browne, the original of which I write in captivity, and once intended for my friends in England. I am sorry my Condicon will admitt of no other portion (as you have been there friend) soe I hope the Lord will be their portion.—Fr. your kindness to them I have own’d and shall own with all dew thankfulness to my dying hower.

Your obliged Sonn in Law

Abraham Browne

In the April 1891 issue of the Register, Dr. James A. Spaulding of Portland, Maine, wrote asking about the location of the manuscript for which he had been searching a long time.2 In 1975, the Massachusetts Historical Society bought the manuscript from an English bookseller.

Perhaps all of us are familiar to a degree with the Barbary Pirates and their threat to commercial shipping in the early days of our republic. Their activities began as early as 1492 and were not halted until 1830. It has been said that the “first half of the seventeenth century may be described as the flowering time of the Barbary Pirates” when more than 20,000 captives were believed to have been imprisoned in Algiers alone.3 It was Abraham Browne’s fate to be captured by the Pirates in 1655. His detailed account of this episode in his life makes up the body of this paper.

Abraham Browne was born in Plymouth, England, about the year 1630. His father was a merchant and shipmaster, often at sea, so that the upbringing of Abraham was left to his mother, a godly woman. She had some difficulty with this son, for by his own admission he had not the least inclination to good in his early years. Indeed, as he graphically put it, he “was fully bent to sin.” This manifested itself in his thought, word, and deed. At the age of seven, God was pleased to intercede, and Abraham came to realize that if he did not mend his ways “that hell would be my portion.” He reformed, attended church regularly, and might be termed a model boy.4 Throughout his life Abraham was to experience these swings from moderate dissipation to rectitude as his journal amply indicates.

About this time word reached Mrs. Browne that her husband, returning to England from France in a ship and cargo of his own, was taken captive by the Turks and carried off to Algiers. The sad news greatly distressed her, a sadness that was increased by the failure of many of her pretended friends to come to her aid. Her efforts to persuade them to help her secure her husband’s redemption met with no success. Mrs. Browne was finally reduced to selling her possessions, including her plate, gold rings, and bracelets, to raise the £150 sterling necessary for his ransom. A trusted friend arranged for the payment of this money, but it took three years before Mr. Browne was released.5

Once back in England, Mr. Browne was able to reestablish his business, concentrating on shipping between the British Isles and Holland. At the age of twelve, Abraham accompanied his father on a voyage to the Continent and was placed by his father with a French family. While voyaging from Scotland to Holland, his father died. All his goods were lost. Abraham remained with the French family for almost three years, staunchly resisting their attempts to interest him in Catholicism, before returning to his mother in Plymouth. He was scheduled to return in a pink,6 but it sailed without him only to be captured by pirates two days after leaving port. The pirate galleys were a constant threat at this time, ranging as far north as Iceland.

Once safely home, Abraham Browne at the age of fifteen was apprenticed by his mother to a Plymouth merchant. Abraham was lucky in his masters; and this one, Mr. Nicholas Opie, was kind to him, later entrusting many details of the business to him. During his apprenticeship of seven years, Abraham was sent on a voyage to Wales and later a voyage to Spain. With money in his pocket, he grew apart from God and His ways spending considerable time “in musike dansing and drinking &c.”7

The Spanish voyage took him to Málaga from Falmouth and later to Alicante, Denia, and the island of Maj orca. Abraham probably matured on this trip, for he had to match wits with other traders. He disposed of a cargo of Newfoundland fish for his master and took on a cargo of salad oil at Majorca. Abraham also enjoyed himself, for he spoke of his drinking and carousing and of the prevalence of lewd women. In the latter case the impression is given that he looked but did not touch. On the return voyage to England the ship Browne was aboard ran into such a violent storm that she was not able to take on bread and water at Málaga as planned. It took ten weeks to reach Land’s End from the Straits. All this time the crew feared that the ship might be taken by pirates. After a stay in London, Browne returned to Plymouth, where he remained for some months.8

It was Browne’s intention to return to Alicante, but his master proposed “he haveing an estate in New England whence he Intended to drive a great trade for bilboe proposed itt to me if I weare willing there to Live some time where my Imployement should be greate to wch I had noe greate Inclynacon at the first But being therunto Encoragd by my mother I did freely Imbrace it, whereupon being then freed from my service by way of an aprentice I was to Live in New england on Commissions as my master gave to others, And soe through Gods provydence haveing taken Leave of my mother and freinds wee Sett sayle from plymouth the first daye of Maye 1650 and arived att new england att Richmonts Island aboute the 20th of June following.”9

After the initial difficulty of securing enough fish to load “our” boats, Browne settled into the life of the country. He found congenial companions, attended the lectures as well as the Sabbath sermons, but confessed “yet all had butt Litle or noe Imprission upon my hart nay it did hardly reach my head and as to desire only the onderstanding part in the Letter though some few notions itt might be I might retayne and in this frame I continued my first three years. And though I minded the dispatch of my bussness yet I as much if not more minded my vayne pastimes and pleasures Litle mindeing or laying to heart the many grasious opportunyties I had for the good of my soule both puplick and privitt.”1 The Lord overtook him in Boston, and at a Sunday lecture Browne was once again converted. He carried on private fasts even to the neglect of his business, and while on his small fishing island devoured theological works a friend had given him.

On 14 November 1654, Browne returned to England to see his friends, settle accounts with his master, and take care of family matters. He fully intended to return to New England for good once this business was completed. After a stay in London, Browne went to Plymouth to see his master and friends. He missed New England, and idle pleasures seem to have lost their charms for him. Finally, an opportunity to return to New England presented itself:

At Last I agreed with my master to goe on a shipp of his the Intent of our voyage was first to maderah next to barbados and thence to newengland where I was to staye but my orders gave me Leave that if our fleet who wear gon for Spanyoala had taken itt or any Considerable place from the Spanyard I should goe thether with our Cargo of wines And then afterwards I might goe for N.E.2 That now being in Redynes in the month of May to sett sayle from plymouth and having put abord all that I could recover in [bond?] what I had in goods fitt for madera Barbados and newengland being somewhat considerable to my beginings And after having taken a solom and sorowfull Leave of all my frinds in plymouth and their about wee sett sayle from thence the latter end of May 1665 [1655] in company with a dutch ship of 12 gunns and an English shipp of 10 gunns bound Likewise for the Maderas. We kept them compa some 11 dayes ontill we came in sight of the groyne3 on the Coast of gallisia and makeing from the shor the Next night after being under a gale of winde not a storme we Lost them strangly I may Saye Carelislye But it was to fulfill the purpose of God who many times denyes us the means of preservation when he Intends the Contrary for Ends best knowne to himselfe for two dayes after we Lost the company of those two shipps wee fell into the company of two other shipps to our greate sorow and misery they being our most crewill Enymes Two Turkes men of war belonging to Sally4 thuse when men are in the most likelyest way for outward gayne and advantage for such a Condicõn was I now in had we gonn in safetye the Lord disapoynteth our hopes to make us see the Insufyciency and vanytye of the Creture being that wch shall be yether taken from us or wee from itt for by those crewill and blody men we wear taken and Lost all wee had aborde and everyone of us sorly Captyvated under those crewill Taskmasters of wch greate and sore tryalls during said missery I now come to make mencõn of next.

In the morning abowt Sun Rising wee descryed two sayle wch made both towards us. Wee keeping in our Cours the winds right aft and they being asterne we percevd they gatt grownd of us that by 12 or one of the Clocke the Lesser of them Came up with us having 8 gunns and 140 men hayld us saying they weare both of Argeer with whom wee had peace. But wee beleavd them not becawse these frigotts weare to small for Argeer5 men of war that we concluded them to be as they weare. After this the other being admirable came up haveing 12 gunns and att Least 20 ports open and abowte 170 men who sayde he was of Argeer. Likewise by this Long chase we weare prepared though our boate was not hoysed out nor our mayne sayle furled up as it should have been. Then the Lesser of those two shipps came under out starne calling us doggs commanded us to Amearce wee giveing them the like Term told them we would not Amearce. They Answered us if we would not they would aborde us presently. Wee told them they should Come and if they durst whereupon we saluted them by a greate gunn we had in the Cabin out of the starne ports on which he fell astarne to parlye with his consort what they should doe. In the meanwhile wee Incoraged one another being resolved to fight and then I fetcht up a bottell and made every man to drinke Encoraging them in the best manner I could telling them w[ha]t a dredfull thing itt was to come into their hands who all answered they would doe their utmost and soe the men goeing to prayer I alsoe committed my selfe to God who was pleased I may saye without ostentation to put a greater Corage in me then I am of natureally wherby att this as God had been filling my spirit for itt To make Choyce Rather to dye then to fall into the hands of Those onreasonable men. But the Lord was pleased to preserve my Life merackulesly of wch afterwards.

The two men of war haveing thus parlied together that of 8 guns came up and did us aborde where befor he gatt aborde us I stood with the master and one that was a parsenger upon the quarter deck soe Long as wee could and when by Reason of ther muskett shott wch came soe thick wee could staye their noe Longer wee went into the Rownd howse and made it fast and soe thence into the greate Cabin wheare from the Loops the passenger and myselfe discharged our muskitts and trafersing the greate gun in the Cabin They did us a Bord on the starbor quarter and Lasht themselfes fast unto us there first worke when they came aborde us They cut downe our antient6 and as many Ropes as they could and our Rownd howse being but small and slight the bulke heade thereof being built only with some deal with axes they made way into the Rownd howse where we plast only one man who befor they had taken itt he gatt downe Into the Cabin by a Scutal wch when he was come to us we fastned onderneath from the forcastill Our men with me shot [and] wounded severall of the Turkes that weare upon deck, the lesser of the two men of war haveing been abord abowte an houers space the greater ship never came up to Laye us abord but kept Just on our starne and with his chase peeces racked us for and aft also his musket shot came very thick Abowte us wherewith the gentelman who was passenger and was in the Cabin with me reed a musket shot into his body and soe was committed to the docters charge, not Long after as I was about to discharg my muskitt came in a Cannon shot wch threw severall peeces of Timber from the starne about my ears and with severall splinters I was sorly wonded in the heade and browe the marks whereof I shall Cary to my grave and with all soe stund I Laye as a dead man and was flung between dex as one that was in Curable. And upon my being wonded the man alsoe onder the Qt dex was Alsoe beaten downe with splinters whereupon the masters heart begun to fayle and then begun to call for quarter. And it seems as afterwards we onderstood when he first cald out they heard him not being possest with greate feare and gitting aft as fast as they coud haveing Cutt there fasts and had been of [f] had not the flux [flukes] of there Ancor hung in our shrouds. And in all Likelyhood had they been once of [f] had never borded us agayne, for in there lying us abord with our gun out of the quarter we kild them [there] many men, their men being all open upon deck, in all we understood we had killed 21 of their men and wonded 15. The Captain of the greate shipp was an Absolut Coward, Butt our master not knowing all this cald agayne the second Tyme for quarter and they then hearing him came abord us. Thuse weare wee by the Just Ju[d]gm[en]ts of God and the desert of our sinns Captivated unto Crewell taskmasters on the 21st of June Anno 1655 abowte one of the Clocke att noone. I was abowt here to blame Instrum [en] ts in wt was now befallne me and the rest but I shall be sylent Least I be found to repine agaynst God whom in the wholl proceedings in this voyag I saw by the Event that he had before apoynted us to undergoe such an aflicting Stroak. And now I shall relate of Gods Dealings with me in his Dispensations both in relation to my I[n]ward and outward man from my first takeing by those blody men untill the Tyme hee was pleased to deliver me out of their Hands vzt.

After the master had yeelded up the shipp as befor exprest and that wee weare fully in there possession they noe sooner came to the sight of us mor like Ravones beasts then men beganne to fall upon us in striping of us all stark naked haveing noe Respect to any of us that weare wonded that as they did to others soe likewise they did to me though I was as one that walowed in blod. And they haveing stript me of all my cloths to an old peace of Lynning drawers I requested them they would have mercy upon me though indeed I was soe faynt by Reason of the Loss of so much blod I could scars stand upon my Leggs, yett all would not prevayle but my drawers they would have of [f] Likewise soe that they Left me nothing but an old Lyning Cap all blody one my heade. And being in this Lamentable Condic̃on they tooke one of my shoose and with the soules thereof beate me sorly on my naked back and soe in that naked posture they Led me abord there ship wch was made fast to ours and as soone as they could they brought all the Rest of our men abord and Led us Altogether as itt weare in a heap upon there quarter deck And being thuse together naked they begun to Pass ropes and binde every mans hand behinde their backs Except myselfe and one more that was wonded and having soe don the Captaine tooke up a greate spung rope almost as thick as my arme and began to Laye over our shoulders with all his might till he was quit weary and amongst the many blowes he gave us it pleased God but one fell to my part which brock my heade in a new place that had I not been soported by a greater strength then my owne I had perished in this very begining of my distres for my spirets were brought soe Low that I did rather desire to dye then to Live and was upon this Temptacon to neglect means that I might be brought to my Last end the Lord was pleased to rayse me above this temptacon. Befor night wee weare all put downe into there hold where all night ontill the next morning wee Laye in this dismall and naked condicon on their watter Caske I am not fully able to Express the greate sadness of my heart this night wherein I was almost overwhelmed with sorow and yet the greatest part of this God was pleased to help mee to meditate on the 46 psalm and the begining which I often repeated to my selfe and sometymes spoake out to the heareing of all my fellow Captives with me that God is our refuge and strength and a very present help in trouble wch according to my poor abilety I did speake unto ym for the Comforting of my selfe and others whereby I was by the power of God kept from those dispareing thoughts that now in this condic̃on I was excersizd with: O Lord thou art wonderful in thy workings and in the midst of thy Ju[d]gements thou remembrest mercy.

The next day [afternoon?] after our takeing wee were all had upon dex where on us they bestowd some old Ragged cloths only to cover our nakedness for to some that they gave a peare of britches to they gave noe Dublett and to others that they gave a Coate to they gave nether dublett nor briches and to all nether Cap, stockings shurt nor shoose. I had only an old partingale7 Dublett and one of our men gave me a peare of Canvas drawers which was all the Cloths I had on till I was sold in Sally to my pateron: while wee weare upon dex that wch did augment my missery, was the seight of those ugly onhumayne cretures wch goe soe disgisd according to there Custome with there heads shaved and their Armes almost naked did teryfie me Exceedingly. After this wee weare put downe into the hold agayne our diett bread and watter, the Captain of the man of warr sent often for our master Examining him whether he had noe man of qualety aborde or a m[e]rchant he answared he had not whereby I was not discoverid being told by the slaves who weare in the vessell that tooke us what to doe and saye and yet our docter was discovered and put often to dress there men Although they had A scilfull Sergent aborde which was A portingale and captive unto them and who tooke greate care abowte dressing me morning and evening who was a greate Instrumt in the preservation of my Life being I was in such a Lowe and weake condition. Some fower dayes after we weare taken wee arived att Sake, which place in our condic̃on was most dredfull to behold wee weare noe sooner come to an Ancor but weare all of us sent ashore and we are noe sooner Landed in old Sally But an exceeding greate Compa of most dismall specktators wee had to behold us In this our Captivated condic̃on who instead of pitieing of us wch according to humanytie they should have don they did on the Contrary deride us scofing att our Callametty and Calling us doggs and the Like butt true patience in wayteing on God was that which att this tyme could be our Cheafest remedy. How sadd my heart was upon the Entrence into this towne I am not fully able to relate. And that I was not now agayne over whelmed with greife and sorow I cannot butt admire and speake of to the prayse of God who brings downe to the gates of death &c rayseth up from thence According to his greate mercy.

From the Landing place we weare garded up to a roome over the dungon where all the Christiens of that towne Laye Every night where all day Long being kept by a gaurdan there was Libertie for all sorts to come and Looke on us, that whosoever had a mind to buy any of us on the daye apoynted that wee should bee sold together in the markett they might see (as I may say) what they weare Like to have for there money whereby we had Soo many Comfortlis vissiters both from the towne and Cuntry one sayeing he would buy this man and the other that, wee remaynd in this Roome abowte a weekes tyme being all of us their by day though at night wee weare all Lett downe in the dongon with the rest of the Christion slaves that weare Sent there every night from there patterones howses and Although our condicon now was most sad Laying on the beare grownd, yet it was some kinde of staye to our spirets to con overe with our Cuntrymen who did aquainte us with the Carage of the turkes and how wee should Cary our selves for not one of our company had Ever been in Captivety befor that to comfort us they told us if wee mett with such and such patterones our usage would not be soe bad as wee suposed, though indeed our men fownde the usage of the best bad Enough; During this tyme before wee weare Sold wee had constantly fresh vitteles once a daye and some rimes twice in abondance with good white breade from the markett place I supose to feed us up for the markett that wee might be in some good plight agaynst the day wee weare to be sold and during this time in regaurde of my weakeness and soars they sent me every Evoning and morning to be drest by a Jew who had Livd many years in france who scilfuly and Carefully did attend me and was pleased after some tyme I had been with him freely of his owne accord to give me an old English bible which in this my sadd Condicone itt was to me through grace my greatest and best Cordiall, that att this tyme I may saye truely with the profitt had not thy word Comforted me I had perished in myne affliccon.

And now I come to speake of our being sold into this dolfull slavery, itt was dolfull in Respect of the tyme and maner butt more Especcially in the Consequence. As to the tyme itt was one our Saboth daye in the morning abowte the tyme the people of God weare going abowte to Injoye the Libertie of Gods howse this was the tyme our bondage was Confermd and now when others weare singing forth the prayses of Jehova in the Congregacions of the saints wee weare now sitting downe by the Rivers of babylon and morning when we remembred Syon. And truely these considera[tions] did add unto my griefe being deprived from those spiretuall as well as Temperall Injoymints. Agayne it was sadd in respect of the manner of our selves being all of us brought into the markit place wee weare Led abowte two or three att a tyme in the midst of a greate concors of people—both of the Towne and Cuntry—who haveing the full sight of you and if that will not sattisfye they come and feele your hand and Looke into your mouth to see whether you are sounde and in helth or to see by the hardness of yr hnd whether you have been a worker or noe. The manner of buying is by as[u]ering that he that gives the greatest price hath you they biding one upon another untill the hyest profferer whose slave you must be wt Ever he is or where Ever he dwells.

And as concerning my Selfe—being brought to the weakest condicon of any of our men I was Led forth amongst the Crewell multitude to be sold as yet being ondiscoverid where I was, I was Like to have been sold att a very Low rate not above 15 £ starling, whereas our ordinary Seamen weare sold for 30 and 35 £ starling and 2 boyse weare sold for 40 £ apice and being in this sad posture Lead up and downe at Least one houre and halfe during which tyme a dutch man that was our Carpenter discovered me to some Jews that in breefe from 15 £ they rise me up to 75 £ wch was the price my paterone gave for mee being 300 ducketts and had I not been soe weake and in those ragg[s], And indeed I made my Selfe worse then I was for some time as they Led me I pretended I could not goe and did often sitt downe I saye had not these things been in all Likelyhood I had been sold fore nere as much agayne in the markitt and soe I had been the deerer and the difyculter to have been Redeemed. During the time of my being Led up and downe the markitt I was possest with greate feares not knowing whom the patteron might bee. Some tymes I feared itt might be one of the turkes who might Cary me where I might never retorne or whether itt might not be one of the Crewelest in or abowte Sally some of which wee had sadd Carecters given us by the English Captives and many other dishearting thoughts I had and yett notwithstanding God was pleased to assist me by prayer unto his maiestye who beheld my affliccon unto whome amongst other I utered these words viz. Lord Although through thy Just Jugment I am now in the hand of a crewell man yet Lord I am not out of thy hands who orders all things. Christ soe dispose of me to such a one of whom I may finde fauvour wch Lord grant unto me for thy mercys sake. And though I was like to have [been] sold unto the most Crewelest man in Sally there being but one peece of eight between him and my patteron, yett the Lord was pleased to make him to buy me of whom I may speake to the glory of God was and had been by the report of all the best master to Captives in the place, which accordingly I found.

Abraham Browne was indeed fortunate in his master, for he was given relatively light tasks to perform and was cared for adequately. The thing that troubled Browne most was being under the orders of a black foreman who refused to drink out of the same water bucket used by him: “whereby I was despissed of the most despisedst people in the world.” Browne had been in captivity only three months when he was ransomed by a Philip Payne, an English merchant who had orders to ransom forty captives. Browne’s ransom amounted to £125 sterling, of which sum he gave a bill of exchange of £60 drawn on his master, Nicholas Opie of Plymouth.

After waiting for eleven weeks in Salé, Browne was put aboard a ship bound for England. The voyage of seven weeks was a difficult one, for the vessel leaked and all hands were almost constantly at the pumps. The voyagers despaired of ever reaching England again. Toward the end of December 1655, the vessel reached London, where Browne remained for seven weeks before returning to his friends in Plymouth. His wish to return to New England being still firm, Browne was enabled through his master’s kindness to sail in a ship of 150 tons, partially laden with English goods to the Cape Verde Islands, whence, after picking up salt, she proceeded to New England. The voyage started at Plymouth on 22 May 1656, and, to Browne’s great joy, ended in New England on 12 September 1656.

The joy did not last, for, despite the friendly reception given him, Browne found himself backsliding as the months passed. In about a year’s time he was again consorting with less than godly friends. A young gentlewoman whom he fell in love with in 1658 made his slide even faster. Finally, on the advice of friends, he parted from this enchantress and returned once again to more respectable ways. On 1 May 1660 Browne married Rebecca Usher, the daughter of Hezekiah Usher, a wealthy merchant of Boston. The marriage was performed by Governor John Endecott before a very great assembly. We trust a life of contentment followed. Browne’s comment is revealing: “thuse through the veryetye of changes the Lord was pleased to bring me to a seeming setled condicon, But a Lass our hyest rest here below is disrest and there is nothing under the sonn that can sattisfie the soule of man.”8