Heyred­din Bar­barossa

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.”

Span­ish pre­sid­ios

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,

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