The 16th-century Mediterranean was ravaged by brutal pirates called corsairs. When the most feared of all, Barbarossa, allied with the Ottoman Empire, no Christian ship or city was safe.
From his base in Algiers, North Africa, Hayreddin Barbarossa terrorized the western Mediterranean in the first half of the 16th century. He fearlessly hijacked ships and sacked ports, loading his pirate galleys with vast hoards of treasure and prisoners fated for slavery. Yet Barbarossa was much more than a soldier of fortune. He was a skilled warrior with a political instinct that led him to found a prosperous kingdom, allied with the Islamic empire of the Ottoman Turks, and actively defy one of Christian Europe’s most powerful monarchs, the Spanish Emperor Charles V.
However, Barbarossa had modest beginnings. He was born on the Greek island of Lesbos, the son of a Christian renegade who had joined the Ottoman army. Oruç, Barbarossa’s elder brother, was the first to take to the sea in search of adventure. It is unclear whether Oruç joined the powerful Ottoman navy or a merchant vessel, but in 1503 his ship was attacked and captured by the Knights Hospitaller, a Christian military order then based on the island of Rhodes, in present-day Greece. Oruç spent two terrible years as a galley slave on one of the knights’ ships, but eventually he managed to escape. Reunited with his brother, they settled on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia. The place was a veritable den of corsairs, and they enthusiastically joined their ranks.
The brothers found they had a talent for piracy. Their attacks on Christian ships, especially Spanish ones, brought them huge amounts of loot and attracted the attention of the emir of Algiers, with whom they joined forces. Soon they commanded a fleet of about a dozen ships, which they used to launch daring attacks on Spanish strongholds in North Africa. It was while attacking one of these that Oruç lost an arm to a shot from an early musket called a harquebus.
Founding a Pirate Kingdom
Oruç had begun to dream of becoming more than a mere pirate: he wanted to rule his own North African kingdom. His chance came in 1516, when the emir of Algiers requested his help in expelling Spanish soldiers from the neighboring Peñon of Algiers, a small island fortress. Not a man to miss an opportunity, Oruç established his rule in the city of Algiers, disposing of the emir, who was apparently drowned while having his daily bath. Oruç then had himself proclaimed sultan, to the joy of his brother and a growing army of supporters.
Oruç didn’t stop there. He swiftly moved on to capture the Algerian cities of Ténes and Tlemcen, creating for himself a powerful North African kingdom that threatened and defied the authority of King Charles, just a short sail away in Spain. The Spanish reaction was not slow in coming. In 1518 a fleet set out from the Spanish-controlled port of Oran and soldiers stormed Tlemcen. Oruç fled, only to be found hiding in a goat pen, where a Spanish soldier first lanced him and then beheaded him-an ignominious end for the great corsair.
In Algiers Barbarossa took over as the leader of the corsairs. In the face of renewed Spanish pressure Barbarossa showed his political cunning and sought help from Süleyman the Magnificent, the Islamic sultan of the vast Ottoman Empire centered in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, Turkey. Süleyman sent him 2,000 janissaries, the elite of the Ottoman army. In exchange, Algiers became a new Ottoman sanjak, or district. This allowed Barbarossa to carry on his piracy while consolidating his position by conquering additional strongholds. Nevertheless, the main threat remained right on his doorstep: the Spanish still occupied the Peñon of Algiers. In 1529 he bombarded the garrison into surrender before beating its commander to death.
Sultan versus Emperor
Barbarossa’s fame spread throughout the Muslim world. Experienced corsairs, such as Sinan the Jew and Ali Caraman, came to Algiers, drawn by the prospects of making their fortunes. But Barbarossa fought for politics as well as piracy. When Charles V’s great Genovese admiral Andrea Doria captured ports in Ottoman Greece, Süleyman summoned Barbarossa, who quickly answered the call. To impress the sultan, he loaded his ships with luxurious gifts: tigers, lions, camels, silk, cloth of gold, silver, and gold cups, as well as slaves, and 200 women for the harem in Istanbul. Süleyman was delighted and made Barbarossa admiral in chief of the Ottoman fleet.
Barbarossa now commanded over a hundred galleys and galliots, or half galleys, and started a strong naval campaign all around the Mediterranean. After reconquering the Greek ports, Barbarossa’s fleet terrorized the Italian coast. Near Naples, Barbarossa and his men attempted to capture the beautiful Countess Giulia Gonzaga, who only narrowly escaped. Barbarossa even threatened Rome, where a dying Pope Clement VII was abandoned by his cardinals, who fled after plundering the papal treasury. However, these raids were just part of a bigger strategy, a diversion to distract from Barbarossa’s true goal, Tunis. It worked; he took the port by surprise in 1534.
However, Barbarossa’s success was brief. The following year Charles V sent a mighty military expedition that managed to recapture Tunis after a weeklong siege punctuated with bloody battles. Back in Algiers, Barbarossa was undaunted and out for revenge. He sailed to the western Mediterranean, and on approaching the Spanish island of Minorca his ships hoisted flags captured from Spain’s fleet the year before. This ruse de guerre allowed him to enter the port unmolested. When the meager garrison realized the deception, they attempted a defense, but surrendered a few days later on the promise that lives and property would be spared. Barbarossa broke this promise and sacked the city anyway, taking hundreds of people to sell into slavery.
During the next few years Barbarossa, now commanding 150 ships, raided all along the Christian coastline of the Mediterranean. In 1538, cornered in the Ottoman port of Preveza, Greece, he defeated a stronger fleet commanded by Andrea Doria. In 1541 he also repelled the great expedition Charles V personally led against Algiers. Spanish chronicles mention that Barbarossa, by then in his 70s, fell in love with the daughter of the Spanish governor of the Italian coastal fortress of Reggio. True to form, Barbarossa carried her away.
A Muslim Hero
Barbarossa headed from Italy to the French ports of Marseille and Toulon. He was welcomed with every honor, as France and the Ottoman Empire had formed an alliance, united by their rivalry with Charles V. From France, some of Barbarossa’s ships sailed along the Spanish coast sacking towns and cities.
In 1545 Barbarossa finally retired to Istanbul, where he spent the last year of his life, peacefully dictating his memoirs. He died on July 4, 1546, and was buried in Istanbul in the Barbaros Türbesi, the mausoleum of Barbarossa. The tomb was built by the celebrated Mimar Sinan, considered the Ottoman Michelangelo. It still stands in the modern district of Besiktas, on the European bank of the Bosporus. For many years no Turkish ship left Istanbul without making an honorary salute to the grave of the country’s most feared sailor, whose epitaph reads: “[This is the tomb] of the conqueror of Algiers and of Tunis, the fervent Islam soldier of God, the Capudan Khair-ed-Deen [Barbarossa,] upon whom may the protection of God repose.”