Charles V meets with the Bey of Tunis, 1535. Both Habsburg and Ottoman power in North Africa depended in part on agreements with local clients. Here the size of the Imperial expedition of 1535 is apparent. Note the lines of galleys in the bay to the upper right – projecting power across the Mediterranean took enormous resources.

Town and fortress of Herceg Novi (Ital.: Castelnuovo).

The Ottoman sultan, especially after the conquest of Mameluke Egypt in 1517 (during the first year of King Charles’s reign), enjoyed his own growing influence along the central North African coast. The sultan’s most successful client was Khayr ad-Din, the Barbary pirate better known as Barbarossa for his red beard. Fearful of the growing Spanish influence which threatened his corsairing, in 1518 Barbarossa pledged himself to the sultan Selim and in return received a title and military aid. With a large galley fleet and a mixed army of Maghrebis, Christian renegades, Moorish refugees from Spain and Turkish adventurers, Khayr ad-Din seized Algiers (1529) and Tunis (1534) from local Muslim rulers. In 1533 Süleyman made the pirate his high admiral with all the substantial resources of the Galata dockyards at Constantinople. Barbarossa continued to plague the shores and shipping of Christian Europe until his death in 1546. These were not insubstantial raids, threatening only unlucky fishermen and villagers, but major acts of war. In 1543, his most spectacular year, Barbarossa first sacked Reggio Calabria (for the second time) and then, cooperating with the sultan’s French allies, the city of Nice (a possession of the Spanish-allied Duke of Savoy). The war in North Africa and on the waters of the western Mediterranean thus became a confrontation between the emperor Charles and the sultan Süleyman.

In Charles’s first Mediterranean offensive he personally led the great invasion fleet and 25,000-man army that sailed from Barcelona to take Tunis in 1535, a direct response to Barbarossa’s seizure of the city the previous year. The fortified island of Goletta off Tunis became one of the principal Spanish forts of the Maghreb, and the southernmost position of a Habsburg cordon stretching down from Naples, Sicily and Malta to block further Ottoman expansion. Süleyman replied to the loss of Tunis with a planned invasion of Italy in 1537, landing a preliminary force of horse under the command of an Italian renegade to scour the countryside of Apulia. To secure his crossing to Italy Süleyman first laid siege to the Venetian fortress of Corfu, extensively protected by massive new-style fortifications. The Turkish besiegers proved incapable of reducing the Venetian citadel, and the entire operation had to be abandoned. The next year Charles continued the Spanish offensive, his Genoese admiral Andrea Doria taking Castelnuovo (now Herceg Novi) in Montenegro. In the late summer of 1539 Barbarossa retook Castelnuovo at a tremendous cost of life. Neither power could successfully bridge the straits of Otranto. In 1541 Charles directed an enormous fleet against Algiers, a twin to his successful operation against Tunis in 1535. Again the emperor was personally in command, and success looked certain: Barbarossa was in the eastern Mediterranean; the janissary garrison tiny. But soon after disembarking a tremendous three-day gale utterly wrecked the supporting Spanish fleet, and the invading force (reduced to eating their horses) had to be evacuated. For almost ten years following this Spanish disaster there were no major land operations in the Mediterranean.

Barbarossa (Hayreddin or Kheir-ed-Din Pasha) (c. 1476- 1546)

Ottoman admiral. Born around 1476, at Mitylene on Lesbos, Hayreddin and his older brother Oruj led a fleet of pirate galliots, or open rowing boats, in the Goletta near Tunis.

Ottoman Sultan Bayezit gave Oruj the title of bey (military commander) for his 1505 capture of a Sicilian vessel carrying Spanish soldiers. After Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria drove the brothers from the Goletta in 1512, Oruj moved his base to Djidjelli, Algeria, and Hayreddin moved to Djerba.

In 1516 Oruj and Hayreddin helped the Moriscos (Muslims expelled from Spain) push the Spanish from Algiers. In 1518, however, Spain forced the brothers and their Arab and Morisco allies from Algiers, killing Oruj. Hayreddin rallied the remaining forces, who chose him as their leader and called him “Barbarossa” for his red beard.

Ottoman Sultan Selim I sent 2,000 janissaries and 4,000 soldiers to retake Algiers in 1519, whereupon Barbarossa became beylerbeyi, or governor. King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V tried to retake Algiers in August, but a storm destroyed most of his fleet. Barbarossa then consolidated Ottoman power in Algiers, uniting the Arabs and Berbers with the coastal Moriscos and sending his galliots to raid Spanish and Italian shipping. In May 1529 he forced the Spanish to surrender their base of Penon in Algiers’s harbor. He then had Christian captives build a breakwater to connect Penon with the mainland.

Summoned to Istanbul by Sultan Suleyman I the Magnificent in December 1533, Barbarossa was appointed capudan pasha (admiral in chief). Barbarossa built a galley fleet, which he manned with Anatolian warriors rather than captives or slaves.

In July 1534 Barbarossa used this fleet to raid the Italian coast, and in August he occupied Tunis. King Muley Hassan of Tunis sought aid from Charles V, who sent Andrea Doria there in July 1535. To save his own fleet, Barbarossa withdrew from Tunis. As the Spanish and Genoese celebrated their victory, Barbarossa invaded Spanish waters, taking 6,000 slaves in a raid on Minorca. He then attacked Venetian bases in the Ionian Sea in 1536, and from September to November 1537 he added the remaining Aegean islands to the Ottoman Empire.

Meanwhile, in 1538 Andrea Doria assembled an armada of row galleys and sailing galleons from Genoa, Venice, Spain, and the Papal States to challenge Barbarossa. On 28 September 1538, Barbarossa’s smaller, more maneuverable galleys and galliots defeated the combined armada in a day of fierce fighting off Preveze in the western Ionian Sea, sinking five Spanish sailing ships and two Italian galleys. Venice made peace with the Ottomans in October 1540.

Barbarossa’s fleet supported France’s siege of Nice and forced its surrender in September 1543, then raided Catalonia and Italy, before returning to Istanbul. In establishing Ottoman naval power in the Mediterranean, Barbarossa forced Emperor Charles V to make peace in November 1545.

Barbarossa died at his palace on the Bosphorus in July 1546. For generations, no Turkish ship would pass his tomb at Besiktas in Istanbul without firing a salute to the Ottoman Empire’s “King of the Sea.”

Bradford, Ernle D. S. The Sultan’s Admiral: The Life of Barbarossa. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Fisher, Godfrey. Barbary Legend: War, Trade and Piracy in North Africa, 1415–1830. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1957.
Shaw, Stanford. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Vol. 1, Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 1280–1808. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Wolf, John B. The Barbary Coast: Algiers under the Turks. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

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