This predator of the seas rose from corsair captain to grand admiral, becoming a master of galley warfare
A master of galley warfare, he rose from corsair captain to Ottoman grand admiral
Shouts of joy rose from the docks of the port of Mahon in the Balearic Islands on an October day in 1535, as the galleys of a powerful squadron flying Spanish flags glided into the turquoise waters of the harbour. Church bells tolled a hearty welcome, and a Portuguese caravel lying at anchor fired a salute to welcome the triumphant squadron.
Four months earlier, the Spanish king, Charles I, had led a great armada to Tunis. In a month-long battle, he drove Turkish Grand Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa from the port. The notorious Barbarossa was rumoured to be dead. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands had suffered mightily as targets of the redbearded corsair’s raids in the preceding years, and they celebrated his demise with relish.
Suddenly the arriving galleys began firing their bow cannons at the caravel. Shock registered on the faces of the Christians on the quay and aboard the caravel.
Swarms of Turkish troops emerged from their hiding places behind the bulwarks of the galleys. They clambered up the sides of the Portuguese caravel and thronged onto the quay. By then the inhabitants of Mahon had discerned that the Spanish flags were a ruse. The commander of the squadron was not a friendly Spanish admiral but the fearsome Barbarossa. The Ottoman admiral stayed long enough to round up 1,800 Christian captives to be sold in the slave markets of Algiers.
Just before he departed, the burly Ottoman admiral left a note pinned to the tail of a horse. “I am the thunderbolt of heaven,” the note boldly stated. “My vengeance will not be assuaged until I have killed the last one of you and enslaved your women, your daughters and your children.”
Following the conclusion of the Spanish Reconquista, which ended with the subjugation of the Emirate of Granada in 1492, the more than 500,000 Muslims living in Spain faced increasing pressure to convert to Christianity. In 1502 Queen Isabella of Castile issued them an ultimatum: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The departing Moors found their way by boat to the Maghreb (literally meaning ‘the west’), the region that included modern Morocco, Algeria and Tunis. The Europeans called this area the Barbary Coast.
The Maghreb at that time was experiencing a power vacuum. The three Berber kingdoms in existence at the outset of the 16th century were in steep decline. Unrest existed between the Berbers and the Arabs living in the region. The arrival of the Spanish Moors in the Maghreb, coupled with the emergence of corsairs from the Levant, further de-stabilised the region. The Berber kings could do little to discourage the corsairs, who operated not only from ports and harbours, but also from coves and inlets along the 1,900 kilometres (1,200 miles) of Maghreb coastline. The corsairs posed a threat to Spanish shipping, as well as coastal towns and villages throughout Spain, Italy and the nearby islands.
The guiding force behind the Spanish initiative to establish a string of fortified outposts, or presidios, along the Maghreb coast to deter the corsairs was Archbishop Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who swore to Queen Isabella that he would do his utmost to stamp out the corsair threat.
Jiménez’s containment policy reached its pinnacle between 1508 and 1510 when skilled military engineer Count Pedro Navarro oversaw the capture of half a dozen key ports, including Algiers, Tripoli and Tunis, as well as the construction of presidios at locations where their guns could command the harbour. Some of the more famous presidios were built atop rocky islands, known as peñóns.
Following Isabella’s death, Jiménez kept
King Ferdinand focused on the containment policy. When Spanish King Charles I (the future Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) took the throne in 1516, he inherited the corsair problem.
War in the Maghreb
In 1502 two brothers, Oruç and Khizr, arrived in Tunis to prey on Latin shipping. Like other Ottoman corsairs, they used oared warships, known as galliots, which were miniature versions of the galley. A galliot had two lines of rowing benches, a lateen sail and a centreline bow cannon. In addition to the small crew, a galliot might have an average of 60 rowers and 40 soldiers.
Hailing from the Ottoman-controlled island of Lesbos, the brothers were sons of a former Ottoman soldier and his Greek Christian wife. Despite their mother’s religion, they were raised as Muslims. Both brothers had red beards,