Role of piracy in Ottoman conquest of North Africa

The Ottoman conquest of North Africa was achieved more through piracy than traditional warfare—though, of course, one man’s pirate is another’s admiral. Sir Francis Drake used piracy to great effect in fighting England’s wars against the superior Spanish fleet in the sixteenth century, yet as a knight of Elizabeth I’s realm and one of her most trusted advisors he hardly conjures the image popularly held of maritime brigands. So it was with Khayr al-Din “Barbarossa”—so called by European contemporaries for his red beard—one of the greatest admirals in Ottoman history. To the Spanish he was a ruthless pirate, the scourge of their Mediterranean shipping, who sold thousands of Christian sailors captured in battle into slavery. To the inhabitants of the North African coastline he was a holy warrior carrying the jihad against the Spanish occupiers, whose war booty was an important component of the local economy. And to the Ottomans he was a native son, born around 1466 on the Aegean island of Mytilene just off the coast of Turkey.

At the turn of the sixteenth century the Western Mediterranean was the arena of an intense conflict between Christian and Muslim forces. The Spanish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula culminated in the fall of Granada in 1492, bringing to an end nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in Spain (711–1492). Faced with life in Catholic Spain, where religious proselytism soon gave way to forced conversion, most Iberian Muslims left their native land to seek refuge in North Africa. These Muslim refugees, known as Moriscos, never forgot their homeland or forgave Spain. The Spanish monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, relentlessly pursued their holy war across the Mediterranean to the Muslim kingdoms in which the Moriscos took refuge. They established a string of fortress colonies, or presidios, along the North African coast from Morocco to Libya and forced local leaders in the inland towns to pay tribute to Spain. Two of these colonies—Ceuta and Melilla—still survive as Spanish possessions on the Moroccan coastline.

The Spanish faced little opposition to their aggressive expansion from the Muslim mini-states of North Africa. Three local dynasties based in Fez (in modern Morocco), Tlemcen (in Algeria), and Tunis ruled in Northwest Africa. They paid tribute to the Spanish crown and dared raise no challenge to the Spanish fortresses that dominated their main ports and harbors. The Muslim rulers’ cooperation with the Spanish invaders discredited them in the eyes of their subjects, and soon local zealots began to organize their own forces to rebuff the invaders. Because the presidios were resupplied by sea, Spanish shipping was more vulnerable to attack than the strong fortresses themselves. Local sailors who armed ships and took their jihad to sea came to be known in the West as the Barbary corsairs (the term Barbary derived either from the Greek for “barbarian” or, more charitably, from the indigenous Berber people of North Africa). While these corsairs took plunder and slaves from the Spanish shipping they attacked, they viewed their war as a religious conflict against Christian invaders. Their bold attacks against the Spanish made the corsairs local heroes and gained them the support of the Arab and Berber inhabitants of the coast.

Khayr al-Din was the most famous of the Barbary corsairs. He followed in the footsteps of his brother, Aruj, who created an independent ministate in the small port of Jijilli, to the east of Algiers. Aruj extended the area under his power across the Algerian coast to Tlemcen in the west, which he captured in 1517. He was killed by the Spanish the following year in a vain attempt to defend Tlemcen. Khayr al-Din understood that the corsairs would need the support of a powerful ally if they hoped to hold their gains against the might of the Spanish Empire, and he raised the corsairs’ jihad to a successful war machine by entering into alliance with the Ottoman Empire.

In 1519 Khayr al-Din sent an envoy to the Ottoman court, bearing gifts and a petition from the people of Algiers, to request Sultan Selim’s protection and offering to place themselves under his rule. Selim the Grim was near death as he agreed to add the Algerian coastline to the territories of the Ottoman Empire. He sent Khayr al-Din’s envoy home with an Ottoman flag and a detachment of 2,000 Janissaries. The greatest Muslim empire in the world had now engaged battle with the fleet of Spain, shifting the balance of power in the Western Mediterranean decisively.

Encouraged by their new alliance with the Ottomans, the Barbary corsairs pressed their attacks far beyond the coast of North Africa. Khayr al-Din and his commanders struck against targets in Italy, Spain, and the Aegean Islands. In the 1520s he seized European ships carrying grain and, like a sea-faring Robin Hood, delivered the food to the people of the Algerian coast, who were suffering shortages from drought. His ships rescued Moriscos from Spain and brought them back to settle in the towns under his control to join the fight against Spain.

Yet Khayr al-Din and his men were best known for their exploits against Spanish shipping. They sunk galleys, freed Muslim slaves, and captured dozens of enemy ships. Barbarossa’s name provoked fear all along the coasts of Spain and Italy—with reason. The number of Christians his men captured numbered in the thousands, with nobles held for high ransom and commoners sold into slavery. For the Muslim corsairs there was a sense of poetic justice: many of them had previously been held captive and sold as galley slaves by the Spanish.

The Spanish navy needed an admiral to match wits with Khayr al-Din. In 1528 the emperor Charles V engaged the celebrated commander Andrea Doria (1466–1560) to lead the fight against him. Doria, a native of Genoa who had commissioned his own fleet of war galleys and hired his services out to the monarchs of Europe, was no less a corsair than Khayr al-Din.

Doria was a great admiral, but Khayr al-Din was greater. In their eighteen years of dueling across the Mediterranean, Doria seldom got the better of his Ottoman adversary. Their first encounter, in 1530, was a case in point. Khayr al-Din’s forces had taken the Spanish fortress in the Bay of Algiers after a short siege in 1529. The Spanish captives were reduced to slaves and made to dismantle the fort, whose stones were used to create a breakwater to shelter the harbor of Algiers. Charles V was outraged by the loss of the strategic fort and convened a council of state. Andrea Doria suggested an attack on the port of Cherchel, just west of Algiers. Doria’s forces landed near Cherchel in 1530 and freed several hundred Christian slaves but met with stiff resistance from the Moriscos who inhabited the town, who were spoiling for a fight with the Spanish. Khayr al-Din sent a relief force, and Doria, who did not want to risk engaging the larger Ottoman fleet, withdrew his ships—abandoning the Spanish soldiers in Cherchel. Those Spaniards who fought were killed, and those who surrendered were enslaved. Khayr al-Din had dealt two humiliations to the Spanish and secured his position in Algiers.

Barbarossa had also raised his standing in the eyes of the sultan, and in 1532 he was invited to Istanbul to meet with Süleyman the Magnificent. He set off with a fleet of forty-four ships and ravaged the coast of Genoa and Sicily along the way, seizing eighteen Christian ships—which he robbed and burned. Finally he arrived in Istanbul, where the sultan invited him to the palace. When he was ushered into the sultan’s presence, Khayr al-Din prostrated himself and kissed the ground, awaiting his sovereign’s command. Süleyman bid his admiral to rise and promoted him to commander of the Ottoman navy, or Kapudan Pasha, and governor of the Maritime Provinces. Lodged in a royal palace for the duration of his stay in Istanbul, Khayr al-Din met regularly with the sultan to discuss naval strategy. In a final mark of favor, Süleyman pinned a golden medal to Khayr al-Din’s turban during a palace ceremony, to demonstrate his gratitude to the Kapudan Pasha for his role in expanding the territory of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa and delivering victories against his Spanish foe.

On his return from Istanbul, Khayr al-Din set about planning his next major campaign: the conquest of Tunis. He mounted an expedition of nearly 10,000 soldiers and took Tunis without a fight in August 1534. The Ottomans were now in control of the North African coast from Tunis to Algiers, placing Charles V’s maritime supremacy in the Western Mediterranean in jeopardy. Andrea Doria advised the emperor to drive the corsairs from Tunis. Charles agreed, accompanying the fleet himself. He wrote of the vast assembly of galleys, galleons, carracks, fusts, ships, brigantines, and other vessels that carried the Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese troops—some 24,000 soldiers and 15,000 horses—to Tunis. “We left [asking] for the aid and guidance of our creator . . . and with divine assistance and favour, to do that which seems most effective and for the best against Barbarossa.”

As the massive fleet approached Tunis, Khayr al-Din withdrew his forces, knowing that he could not withstand the armada. Tunis now fell to Spanish forces. Charles V claimed in his letters home that the Spanish freed 20,000 Christian slaves. Arab accounts claim that the Spanish killed at least as many of the local inhabitants in the sack of Tunis. In strategic terms, the conquest of Tunis placed the Straits of Sicily, the gateway to the Western Mediterranean, firmly in Spanish hands. The only Muslim stronghold left was Algiers.

In 1541 the Spanish mounted a massive siege force to take Algiers and defeat Khayr al-Din once and for all. An armada of sixty-five galleys and over 400 transport vessels carrying 36,000 soldiers and siege machines set sail in mid-October. Sayyid Murad, the Algerian chronicler, wrote: “This fleet covered the entire surface of the sea, but I was unable to count all the vessels for they were so numerous.” Against the Spanish, the Barbary corsairs raised a force of 1,500 Ottoman Janissaries, 6,000 Moriscos, and several hundred irregulars. Faced with an invasion force that outnumbered his own troops by a margin of more than four to one, Khayr al-Din’s situation looked desperate. One of his officers tried to raise the morale of his troops, saying, “The Christian fleet is enormous . . . but do not forget the aid that Allah gives his Muslims against the foes of religion.” His words seemed prophetic to the local chronicler.

On the eve of the Spanish invasion, the weather suddenly turned and violent gales drove the Spanish ships onto the rocky shores. The soldiers who did manage to reach shore in safety were drenched by torrential rains, and their gunpowder was spoiled by water. The defenders’ swords and arrows proved the more effective weapons in these conditions, as the drenched and demoralized demoralized Spanish were driven to retreat after 150 ships were lost and 12,000 men killed or captured. The Barbary corsairs had inflicted a decisive defeat on the Spanish and secured their position in North Africa once and for all. It was Khayr al-Din’s greatest triumph, celebrated each year in Algiers for the rest of the Ottoman era.

Five years later, in 1546, Khayr al-Din Barbarossa died at the age of eighty. He had succeeded in securing the coast of North Africa for the Ottoman Empire (though the final conquest of Tripoli and Tunis was achieved by his successors later in the sixteenth century).

Rogan, Eugene, “The Arabs”


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