Doria and Barbarossa 1536–1541

Portrait of Andrea Doria

Portrait of Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha (1478-1546)

Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha defeats the Holy League of Charles V under the command of Andrea Doria at the Battle of Preveza in 1538

Charles and Doria, Suleiman and Barbarossa. After Tunis it was clear that the two potentates who would contest the Mediterranean had chosen their champions and were gathering their forces. If Barbarossa was the sultan’s grand admiral, Doria was Charles’s captain-general of the sea. Both seamen were the executors of their master’s wars. The sea was no longer an outer frontier to be contested by pirates; it had become a major theatre of imperial conflict to rival the plains of Hungary. Year on year the violence grew. When Barbarossa struck Italy again in 1536, Doria responded by capturing Ottoman galleys off the coast of Greece the following year. And the fleets got bigger: in 1534, Barbarossa had built ninety galleys; in 1535, one hundred twenty. The two commanders had repeatedly sailed past each other, tracked each other’s squadrons around the capes and bays of Italy, but they had never fought. The sea war was a series of uncoordinated punches, like a contest between amnesiac boxers. Many factors conspired to hinder coherent battle: the conditions imposed by the sea, the limits of the campaigning season, the logistical time lapses in preparing campaigns, the blind trawling for opponents before the age of radar, and not least the natural caution of experienced sailors. Both men understood the risks of naval warfare. Fractional disadvantages could aggregate great consequences that could hinge on a slight shift in the wind. A safe raid was always better than a chancy battle. Yet by the mid-1530s, the insistent pressure of imperial ambitions and the race for bigger fleets were shrinking the sea.

The French cannonballs at La Goletta were a disturbing portent for Charles of events about to unfold. In 1536 he embarked on another exhaustive two-year war with Francis, the Valois king of France. It was one of the bitter truths of a fragmented Europe that the Catholic King would spend more time, money, and energy fighting the French and the Protestants than he ever devoted to war with Suleiman. The perceived power of the Hapsburgs frightened rather than united Christendom, and in this climate Suleiman was able skillfully to affect the balance of power in the Mediterranean Sea.

The French had been flirting with an Ottoman alliance for years, either directly through furtive embassies or by means of the Barbarossas. As early as 1520, they sent an ambassador to Tunis to persuade the corsairs “to multiply the difficulties of the Emperor in his kingdom of Naples.” They supplied Hayrettin with military technology—guns, powder, and cannonballs—and intelligence about the emperor. “I cannot deny,” Francis admitted to the Venetian ambassador, “that I wish to see the Turk all-powerful and ready for war, not for himself—for he is an infidel and we are all Christians—but to weaken the power of the emperor, to compel him to make major expenses and to reassure all the other [Christian] governments who are opposed to [Charles].” In early 1536, Francis and Suleiman signed an agreement that granted mutual trading rights; behind it lay an understanding that they would fall on Italy in a pincer movement and destroy Charles. The Mediterranean moved center stage in the sultan’s imperial war. Francis was evidently well informed on his ultimate objective. “The Turk will make some naval expedition,” he told the Venetians, “going perhaps as far as Rome, for Sultan Suleiman always says ‘to Rome! To Rome!’” The sultan ordered Barbarossa, now back in Istanbul, “to build two hundred vessels for an expedition against Apulia, to the completion of which he accordingly applied himself.” It was a further escalation of sea power.

At the top of the Adriatic, the Venetians watched these developments with grave disquiet. An expedition aimed at Rome almost certainly involved encroaching on her home waters in the Adriatic. Venice maintained a queasy balancing act, trying to maintain her independence between two menacing superpowers. Charles had swallowed up all of Italy around her; Suleiman’s navy threatened her maritime possessions. The republic’s sole ambition was to trade profitably on a calm sea. Unable to compete militarily, she had built her security on adroit political maneuvering. No one courted the Grand Turk so assiduously, bribed his ministers so handsomely, spied on him so obsessively. The Venetians sent their top diplomats to Istanbul, where they kept a trained corps of Turkish speakers and cryptographers, who dispatched endless coded reports. It was a policy that had bought them thirty years’ peace. The cornerstone was the special relationship with Ibrahim Pasha, the powerful chief vizier, born a Venetian subject on the shores of the Adriatic. He occupied a uniquely trusted position in the sultan’s favor, but as Suleiman turned his intense gaze on the sea, all this started to unravel.

On the evening of March 5, 1536, Ibrahim came to the royal palace as usual to dine with Suleiman. As he was leaving, he was surprised to meet Ali the executioner and a posse of palace slaves: the ambitious vizier had overreached himself, almost assuming that the authority of the sultan was his own, and winning the particular disfavor of Suleiman’s wife, Hurrem. When the hacked body was discovered the following morning, it was apparent from the bloody walls that Ibrahim had gone down fighting. The spattered room was left untouched for many years as a warning to ambitious viziers that it takes but a single Turkish consonant to fall from makbul (the favored) to maktul (the executed).

The execution marked a pivotal moment in Suleiman’s reign. Henceforth his style would become more austere; an Islamic piety would replace the previous brilliant ceremonial display of the man who would be Caesar. At a stroke, Ibrahim’s death deprived Venice of an influential champion at court. It was clear that Suleiman was growing intolerant of the “Venetian infidels…a people famous for their great wealth, their extensive commerce, and their deceit and perfidy in all their transactions.” Edgy clashes in the Adriatic between Venetian galleys and Turkish corsairs provided a pretext for Ottoman aggression. At the start of 1537, Suleiman prepared a two-pronged assault on Italy, with the support of the French, and eyed the Venetian base at Corfu as a stepping-stone for invasion. The Venetian senate was sent a pointed request to join the alliance. The republic found itself between a rock and a hard place; the unspoken threat was the inevitable choice between Charles and Suleiman. The Venetians squirmed, declared their neutrality, politely declined the sultan’s request, then armed a hundred galleys “as we observe that all the other princes in the world are doing.” They waited to see what would happen next.

The French king’s predictions proved entirely accurate. In May 1537, Suleiman set out with a sizeable army for Valona on the Albanian coast of the Adriatic; at the same time, Barbarossa was dispatched by sea. One hundred seventy galleys pulled out of Istanbul and beat down on the Adriatic coast of Italy; for a month Barbarossa “laid waste the coasts of Apulia like a pestilence,” burning castles, seizing slaves, spreading panic all the way back to Rome. Doria’s fleet was too small to confront this shock force; he withdrew to Sicily and watched. In late August the sultan announced a change of tactic and ordered Barbarossa to take Corfu; twenty-five thousand men landed on the island and besieged the citadel, but to the Venetians’ own surprise the defenses held. The much-anticipated linkup with the French failed to materialize, the siege guns got bogged down in the autumn rain, and the Venetians had prudently strengthened their bastions. After three weeks Suleiman called it off, but Venice was now irrevocably committed to warfare, and the emperor’s cause. Over the winter of 1537, Pope Paul III brokered the terms of a Holy League against “the common enemy, the Tyrant of the Turks.” It was to take the form of a maritime crusade, whose ultimate objective was the capture of Istanbul and the establishment of Charles as emperor of Constantinople. The Venetians, being pragmatists, tacitly preferred the notion of a quick defeat of Barbarossa and a return to peaceful trading with the Islamic world.

It was a crucial moment; Southern Europe felt itself hanging in the balance. A decisive Christian defeat now would lay the whole sea open to the merciless raids of the Ottoman fleet. In the spring of 1538, while the allies were maneuvering and organizing, Barbarossa was already at sea, giving the Venetians a taste of what failure would mean. As well as Cyprus and Crete, Venice held a string of small ports and islands across the Aegean—Naplion and Monemvasia in the Peloponnese, Skiathos, Skopelos, Skyros, Santorini, and a scattering more, each with its neat harbor, Catholic church, and dour bastion, with the lion of Saint Mark carved above the gateway. Hayrettin sacked them one by one, massacring their garrisons and carrying off other able-bodied men for galley service, before sailing on, leaving each one smoking and desolate beneath the hot sky. The Ottoman chroniclers tersely enumerated the extent of the republic’s loss: “This year the Venetians possessed twenty-five islands, each having one, two or three castles; all of which were taken; twelve of the islands being laid under tribute, and the remaining thirteen plundered.” Hayrettin was ravaging the south coast of Crete when a galliot brought news that the Christians were gathering a sizeable fleet in the Adriatic. He turned north to confront it.

It had taken an age for the Holy League to assemble at Corfu. The Venetians and the pope’s galleys were there by June, eager to fight. They then waited nearly three months for Doria, the overall commander, to drag himself tardily around from Genoa. He did not arrive until early September, by which time the weather was on the turn. There was instant bickering among the Italian and Spanish contingents. The Venetians were impatient and fretful at the long delay. The cost of the galleys was hurting the republic badly; they were anxious for a decisive strike before Barbarossa could inflict more damage on their islands. The politics of Christian Europe played heavily in the atmosphere; the parties had quite distinct strategic goals that even the optimistic pope, Paul III, had been unable to paper over. Venice was waging war to protect its possessions in the Eastern Mediterranean. For Charles the maritime frontier stopped at Sicily and he had little concern with Venetian interests farther east. Doria’s tardiness was most likely at the emperor’s behest. As for Doria, there was scarcely veiled distrust, bearing out the ancient grudge match between Genoa and Venice. None of this boded well.

It was early September before the assembled fleet moved out to seek a decisive encounter with Barbarossa. They had the weight of numbers on their side—139 heavy galleys and 70 sailing ships, to the enemy’s 90 galleys and 50 light galliots—but the Ottomans had tucked themselves into an inlet on the west coast of Greece, the gulf of Preveza, and were well protected by shore-based guns. For nearly three weeks the Holy League blockaded Preveza, but it proved impossible to tempt Barbarossa out, and the season was getting late; the possibility of a gale wrecking his fleet concentrated Doria’s mind. On the evening of September 27, he decided to weigh anchor and slip away. At this moment, Barbarossa, watching closely, saw his opportunity. Doria and Barbarossa had been playing cat and mouse in the Mediterranean for years; now the moment had come to try conclusions for control of the sea.

September 28 was a blustery autumn day. As the Ottomans emerged to fight, the Christian fleet to seaward was badly strung out; the combination of the national flotillas and the mixture of galleys and sailing ships was badly coordinated. The Venetians, eager for battle, rowed forward with shouts of “Fight! Fight!” Doria unaccountably kept his squadron back. The lead ships were isolated. The Venetians had brought a heavily armed galleon in their fleet, which held its own against a swarm of Ottoman galleys. Other vessels were captured and sunk. When Doria turned toward the battle, he kept his ships well out to sea and engaged only in long-range cannonading. The great galleon held off the Ottoman fleet all day, but as night fell and the wind shifted, Doria abandoned the fight and withdrew, extinguishing his stern lanterns to foil pursuit. In the words of the Ottoman chroniclers, he “tore his beard and took to flight, all the smaller galleys following him.”

Barbarossa claimed a famous victory and returned triumphant. “Such wonderful battles as those fought between forenoon and sunset of that day were never before seen at sea,” wrote the later chronicler Katip Chelebi. When news was brought to Suleiman, “the proclamation of the victory was read, all present standing, and thanksgiving and praise were offered to the Divine Being. The Kapudan Pasha [Barbarossa] then received orders to make an advance of one hundred thousand pieces of money to the principal officers, to send proclamations of victory to all parts of the country, and to order public proclamations in all the towns.”

In the scale of things the actual fighting had been quite light; the shattering collision of massed galleys had simply not occurred. The Holy League lost perhaps twelve ships, a number dwarfed a few days later when seventy Ottoman ships were destroyed in a storm, but the psychological damage to the Holy League was immense. The Christians had been totally outmaneuvered. Of the Christian losses, most had fallen to the Venetians. Their ships had not been supported by Doria, and the Venetians were furious. They sensed treachery, malice, or cowardice by the Genoese admiral. Either Doria had been less than enthusiastic in the enterprise or he had been outmaneuvered by superior seamanship and had cut and run to limit the damage to his galleys. It seems highly likely that Barbarossa had gained the upper hand; safely tucked into the gulf of Preveza, he could choose the moment to strike when his opponents were at the mercy of the wind, but there were other factors that might have compromised the desire of either man to fight to the death.

What the Venetians did not know was that Charles, having failed to destroy Barbarossa at Tunis, had resorted to underhand methods. In 1537 he entered secret negotiations with the sultan’s admiral to induce him to switch sides, and these talks were still taking place on the very eve of battle. On September 20, 1538, a Spanish messenger from Barbarossa held a meeting with Doria and the viceroy of Sicily. The terms could not be agreed—Barbarossa was said to have demanded the return of Tunis—but the negotiations suggested a certain complicity between the two admirals; both were hired hands whose reputations were at stake; both had reasons to be cautious. They had much more to lose than gain by a rash gamble on the state of the wind. The Spanish knowingly recalled the proverb that one crow does not peck out another’s eyes. For Doria there were other business considerations: many of the galleys were his own property; he was certainly loath to lose them helping the detestable Venetians. It would take less experienced commanders to throw caution to the wind and risk everything in the same stretch of water thirty years later.

It is impossible to determine Barbarossa’s sincerity in these maneuvers. Maybe the downfall of Ibrahim Pasha had illustrated the perils of high office in the sultan’s service, or perhaps Charles had offered Barbarossa the chance to realize his dream of an independent kingdom in the Maghreb. More likely, Barbarossa’s behavior was a way of playing Charles and Doria along, lulling his opponents into doubt and hesitation. Certainly, a French agent in Istanbul by the name of Dr. Romero had no doubts. “I can guarantee that [Barbarossa] is a better Muslim than Mohammed,” he wrote. “The negotiations are a front.”

If at first sight the immediate military consequences of Preveza seemed slight, the political and psychological ones were enormous. Only a unified Christian fleet could match the resources at the disposal of the Ottomans. In 1538 the idea of any coordinated Christian maritime response to the Turks had proved unworkable. The Holy League collapsed: in 1540 the Venetians signed a humiliating peace with the sultan. They paid a hefty ransom and acknowledged the loss of all their possessions taken by Barbarossa. They were virtually reduced to the status of vassals, though no one was using that term. The Venetians, the most experienced mariners in the whole sea, would not launch ships in anger for a quarter of a century, when distrust of the Doria clan would rise again. Preveza opened the door to Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean. All that the Venetians took away from the fight was the performance of their great galleon; they stored for future reference the value of stoutly built floating gun platforms.

Charles made one further personal attempt to break the strangle-hold of Ottoman power in the western sea. Remembering the triumph of Tunis, he determined on a similar operation against Algiers. In the summer of 1541 Suleiman was in Hungary and Barbarossa was conducting naval operations up the Danube. It was an ideal moment to strike.

There was a streak of risk-taking in the emperor. By 1541 his treasury was under extreme pressure. To cut costs, he decided to descend on Algiers late in the year. It reduced the number of troops he had to pay, as he could be sure no fleet from Istanbul would come to oppose him on the wintering sea. Doria warned him about the gamble, but Charles was resolved to ride his luck.

The outcome was catastrophic. His substantial fleet sailed from Genoa in late September. Among the gentleman adventurers who accompanied the expedition was Hernando Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, trying his fortune in the Old World. It was October 20 before all the units were gathered at Algiers, but the weather was fair. Only after the army had disembarked and was awaiting its supplies did Charles’s luck run out. On the night of October 23 torrential rain started to fall; the men could not keep their powder dry, and suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage. Barbarossa had appointed an Italian renegade, Hasan, as governor of Algiers in his absence. Hasan acted with courage and determination. Sallying out of the city, he put Charles’s army to flight. Only a small detachment of the Knights of Saint John prevented a total rout. Worse followed. Overnight the wind intensified; one by one the sailing ships riding offshore dragged their creaking anchors and rode onto the beach. As the survivors staggered through the pounding surf in the dark, they were massacred by the local population. Charles was forced to beat a ragged retreat twenty miles down the coast to a point where Doria’s galleys could take him off. There were too few ships to re-embark the bulk of the army. With his galley bucking and heaving dangerously offshore, Charles threw his horses overboard and departed the Barbary Coast with the blasphemous screams of his abandoned army reaching him on the tempestuous wind. He had lost one hundred forty sailing ships, fifteen galleys, eight thousand men, and three hundred Spanish aristocrats. The sea had delivered a total humiliation. There was a glut of slaves in Algiers, so many that 1541 was said to be the year when Christians sold at an onion a head.

Charles viewed this catastrophe with a remarkable levelness of spirit. “We must thank God for all,” he wrote to his brother Ferdinand, “and hope that after this disaster He will grant us of His great goodness, some great good fortune,” and he refused to accept the inevitable conclusion that he had sailed too late. As regards the sudden storm, he wrote that “nobody could have guessed that beforehand. It was essential not so much to rise early, as to rise at the right time, and God alone could judge what time that should be.” Any shrewd observer of the Maghreb coast would have begged to differ. Charles never went crusading at sea again. The following year he departed for the Netherlands to confront the intractable problems of the Protestant rebellion and another French war.