This 16th-century corsair was the most feared pirate of the Mediterranean

No Spanish ships or ports were safe when dreaded pirate Barbarossa, ally of the powerful Ottoman Empire, sailed the high seas.

By Juan Pablo Sánchez
Published 12 Oct 2019, 08:00 BST
Hayreddin’s brother Oruç was the first to be known as Barbarossa. His nickname was “Father Oruç,” ...
Hayreddin’s brother Oruç was the first to be known as Barbarossa. His nickname was “Father Oruç,” Baba Oruç, which the Italians took to mean barba rossa, or red beard, for Oruç did indeed have a red beard. Hayreddin inherited the nickname even though his hair was golden brown. López de Gómara, a Spanish chronicler, described Barbarossa: “He was of a cheerful disposition when he did not grow fat; he had very long eyelashes, and his sight became very poor. He lisped, could speak many languages, and was very cruel, exceedingly greedy, and very luxurious in both senses.”
Photograph by Akg, Album

From his base in Algiers, North Africa, Hayreddin Barbarossa terrorised 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.

Brothers in piracy

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 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. (Explore the remants of Blackbeard's pirate ship discovered off the coast of North America.)

The fort of Bizerte, in Tunisia, fell to Barbarossa in 1534 but surrendered to the Spanish the following year.
Photograph by Reinhard Schmid, Fototeca 9x12

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.

A pirate haven

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 Peñón 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 swiftly moved on to capture the Algerian cities of Ténès 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.

Rise of Barbarossa

In Algiers Barbarossa took over as leader. 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, which allowed Barbarossa to carry on his piracy while conquering additional strongholds. Nevertheless, the main threat remained right on his doorstep: the Spanish still occupied the Peñón of Algiers. In 1529 he bombarded the garrison into surrender before beating its commander to death.

In 1534 Barbarossa launched an attack on Fondi, near Naples. His goal: to capture Giulia Gonzaga, a young widow of legendary beauty and carry her off to Süleyman’s harem. A traitor led 2,000 Turks to Giulia’s home, from which, according to legend, she’d only just escaped, riding through the night on horseback.
Photograph by Philip Mould, Art Archive

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, and 200 enslaved women for the harem in Istanbul. Süleyman was delighted and made Barbarossa admiral in chief of the Ottoman fleet. (Explore the pages of a pirate's pilfered atlas.)

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 terrorised 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.

Barbarossa’s revenge

However, Barbarossa’s success was brief. The following year Charles V sent a mighty military expedition that managed to recapture Tunis after a week-long 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. The ruse allowed him to enter the port unmolested. When the meager garrison realised the deception, they attempted a defence, 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.

Barbarossa's fleet at the allied French port of Toulon in 1543. This contemporary miniature was painted by the famed artist Matrakçi Nasuh.
Photograph by Topkapi Museum Istanbul, Dagli Orti, Art Archive

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.

A Muslim hero

Barbarossa headed from Italy to the French ports of Marseille and Toulon. He was welcomed with every honour, 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. 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.”


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