The Mediterranean – Sixteenth Century

(c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Cornelis Hendriksz Vroom, Spanish Men-of-War Engaging Barbary Corsairs, 1615.

By the mid-century the Mediterranean was a sea of disappearances, a place where people working the coastal margins simply vanished: the lone fisherman setting out in his boat; a shepherd with his flock on the seashore; laborers harvesting corn or tending vines, sometimes several miles inland; sailors working a small tramp ship around the islands. Once seized they could be in the slave mart at Algiers in a couple of days—or they could be subjected to a lengthy cruise in pursuit of other prizes. Those who weakened or died en route would be dumped overboard.

In a particularly cruel twist, the captives might reappear at their home village a day or two later. The raiders would materialize offshore, hoist a flag of truce, and display the victims for ransom. The grieving relatives would be given a day to raise funds; the families might mortgage their fields and boats to the local moneylender and enter a spiral of inescapable debt. If they failed, the hostages would be gone forever. The illiterate peasantry too poor to be ransomed seldom saw their birthplace again.

The sudden terror of these visitations cast a profound dread over the Christian sea. Those who were taken, such as the Frenchman Du Chastelet, seized in the seventeenth century, never forgot the trauma of their capture. “As to me,” he wrote, recalling the nightmarish moment, “I noticed a great Moor approaching me, his sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, holding a sabre in his large hand of four fingers; I was left without words. And the ugliness of this carbon face, animated by two ivory eyeballs, moving about hideously, terrified me a good deal more than were frightened the first humans at the sight of the flaming sword at the door of Eden.”

This was a terror sharpened by racial difference; across the narrow sea two civilizations communicated through abrupt acts of violence and revenge. Europe was on the receiving end of the slavery it was starting to inflict on West Africa—though the numbers slaved to Islam far exceeded the black slaves taken in the sixteenth century, and where Atlantic slaving was a matter of cold business, in the Mediterranean it was heightened by mutual religious hatred. The Islamic raids were designed both to damage the material infrastructure of Spain and Italy and to undermine the spiritual and psychic basis of Christians’ lives. The ransacking of tombs and the ritual desecration of churches that Jérome Maurand witnessed in 1544 were acts of profound intention. The Italian poet Curthio Mattei mourned “the outrage done to God”—the holy images skewered to the floor with daggers, the mocking of the sacraments and altars. Mattei was equally appalled by the disinterring of corpses and the destruction of generations of past people: “The bones of our dead are not secure underground…dozens of years after death.” The corsairs entered Italian folklore as agents of hell, and what made it more difficult to bear was that as often as not Satan’s emissaries were renegade Christians who had defected to Islam through circumstance or choice, and who were extremely well placed to maximize damage on their native lands.

In this atmosphere, Charles’s failure to retake Algiers in 1541 assumed a grave significance. The city, now protected by a breakwater and powerful defenses, became the center of piracy. It was a gold rush town, a place where a man might dream of becoming as rich as Barbarossa. Adventurers, freebooters, and outcasts came from across the impoverished sea and from both sides of the religious divide to try their luck at “Christian stealing.” The city resembled in part a gaudy bazaar where humans and booty were bought and sold, in part a Soviet gulag. Thousands of prisoners were kept in slave pens—the dark, crowded, fetid converted bathhouses—from whence they would be taken daily in chains to work. Wealthy captives such as the Spanish writer Cervantes, held in Algiers for five years, might enjoy tolerable conditions, awaiting liberation through ransom. The poor would lug stones, fell timber, dig salt, build palaces and forts, or, worst of all, row galleys until disease, abuse, and malnourishment finished them off.

It is impossible to know how many slaves were being taken in the decades after 1540, but it was not a one-way trade. Both sides were engaged in “man-taking” throughout the whole length of the sea, and if Islam was in the ascendancy, there were small correctives. The Knights of Saint John were ruthless slavers, particularly La Valette, the French knight who had fought as a young man at Rhodes. Putting out a small force of heavily armed galleys from Malta, the knights returned to their old haunts in the Aegean, disrupting the Ottoman sea-lanes between Egypt and Istanbul. They could be as unscrupulous as any corsair on the high seas. Jérome Maurand reached the Venetian island of Tinos shortly after a visit by a knight with some ships. The islanders had greeted the visitors “as friends and Christians,” until one morning, after most of the island men had left the town to work in the fields, “this Knight and his men, seeing that there were only a few men at the castle, killed them, sacked the castle, and took away the women, boys, and girls as slaves.” This treacherous act soon got its own comeuppance; the knight was in turn seized by Turkish corsairs and taken off to Istanbul, where Maurand was in time to witness his execution. Changes of fortune could be abrupt.

The knights were not alone; any small-scale Christian pirate might try his hand at raiding the eastern sea; Livorno and Naples on the Italian coast had active slave markets. Muslims disappeared into the Malta slave pens or the pope’s imperial galleys, but their numbers were far fewer than those taken to the Maghreb or Istanbul. There is a vast literature of Christian slave narratives; about the Muslims almost nothing. Occasional muffled accounts of personal suffering break the general silence. In the late 1550s Suleiman was bombarded by tearful requests from a woman called Huma for the restoration of her children, taken on a voyage to Mecca by the Knights of Saint John. The two daughters had been abducted to France, converted to Christianity, and married off. Distraught and persistent, Huma was a familiar figure in the Istanbul streets, trying to push a petition into the sultan’s hand as he rode by. Twenty-four years after their disappearance, Sultan Murat III could still write that “the lady named Huma has time and again presented written petitions to our imperial stirrup.” As far as we know the girls never came back; a further brother probably died at the oars of a Malta galley. There were countless thousands of such small tragedies on both sides of the religious divide, familiar tales of abduction and loss.


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