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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Famous Barbary Corsairs
By Cindy Vallar

The best-known Barbary corsairs were the Barbarossa brothers.  Aroudj, born circa 1470, received the name Barbarossa because of his red beard, but Europeans referred to Aroudj and his younger brother, Kheir ed-Din, as such.  The Turks or Moors called them by their given names.  Their father was an Albanian, who had been captured on Lesbos and gained his freedom by converting to Islam.  All four of his sons became corsairs.  Elias died while fighting off Crete.  The Knights of Rhodes captured Aroudj, but the Governor of Aladia paid his ransom.  Aroudj then joined his brothers, Kheir ed-Din and Isaak, and together they garnered reputations as courageous but cruel warriors.  The year after they captured the galleys of Pope Julius II, they took a Spanish ship with five hundred soldiers aboard.  By 1512 Aroudj commanded twelve galleys and one thousand men-at-arms.  He was known far and wide for his daring exploits.

Six years after his lost arm during an attack on a Spanish garrison, Aroudj Barbarossa died in battle in 1518 around the age of forty-four.  Those who knew him said, “He was not very tall of stature, but extremely well set and robust.  His hair and beard perfectly red; his eyes quick, sparkling and lively; his nose aquiline or Roman; and his complexion between brown and fair.  He was a man excessively bold, resolute, daring, magnanimous, enterprizing, profusely liberal, and in nowise bloodthirsty, except in the heat of battle, nor rigorously cruel but when disobeyed.  He was highly beloved, feared, and respected by his soldiers and domestics, and when dead was by them all in general most bitterly regretted and lamented.  He left neither son nor daughter.  He resided in Barbary fourteen years, during which the harms he did to the Christians are inexpressable.” (Lane-Poole, page 52)

While most sailors of the time knew Aroudj, it was Kheir ed-Din who made the Barbarossa brothers legendary.  To honor his dead brother, Kheir ed-Din dyed his beard and hair with henna. Rather than attack one or two ships, he attacked whole fleets.  He seized Tunisian ports, installed himself as the ruler, and made Algiers his capital where he lived off the plunder garnered from his naval exploits.  In 1530 he became a lieutenant general in the Ottoman Navy with a fleet of forty galleys.  Seven years later he had 135 galleys at his disposal and took ten thousand captives.

Like his brother, he was courageous and determined.  He was a prudent man with a keen intelligence and statesmanlike tact.  Unlike his brother, Kheir ed-Din weighed the risk of an exploit against the end result.  If the hazard was too great or defeat was the inevitable outcome, he turned elsewhere.

Kheir ed-Din had many concubines and at least six wives.  One wife was a Moor from Granada.  Aicha--mother of Hassan, who became pasha on his father’s death in 1546--was a Moor from Algiers.  His other four wives were Christians.  His mother chose a captive from Bosnia, but this wife died in childbirth. He captured Beatrice of Orea, a Sicilian, in 1514.  Another wife was Aura, an Italian, but because he loved Maria, the daughter of the governor of Beggio, the most, he freed her father and mother.

When Kheir ed-Din died in 1546 from fever, three Arabic words announced his death.  Translated they mean “The chief of the sea is dead.”

Murad Reis (also spelled Morat Rais) was a famous Algerian corsair and a successful pirate of some renown.  After he captured three hundred citizens--including the governor’s family--of Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands, he ransomed them to their relatives still on shore.  He once dared to attack French ships, even though the sultan considered France an ally.  In 1578 the French ambassador received a present from the sultan--Murad Reis’ head.  The ambassador wrote, “…At the express command of the Sultan this Morat Rais, a great corsair from the Barbary coast, and the principal author of the thefts and robberies, was apprehended and thrown in to irons, his goods and slaves confiscated.” (Heere, page 115)

Nicolo Carraciolo, the Bishop of Catani, set sail aboard a galley belonging to the Knights of Malta in 1561.  He was to attend the Council of Trent, but two days after leaving port, Barbary corsairs attacked the vessel.  The Saracen captain Dragut, another famous Barbary corsair.  While the bishop waited for his ransom of thirty thousand ecus to be paid, he acquired enough information to later publish Discourse of the State of Tripoli. In it he described the city’s defenses and how to attack them.  He said of Dragut: “brave, audacious, as enterprising as bold and who seized everyone he could, generals as well as soldiers.” (Heere, page 120)

Dragut was born in Anatolia and first went to sea at the age of twelve. He served under Aroudj Barbarossa at Djerba.  Eventually he became “a good pilot and a most excellent gunner.” (Lane-Pooke, page 124)  As Kheir ed-Din’s lieutenant, he terrorized the Italians.  “From thenceforward this redoubtable Corsair passed not one summer without ravaging the coasts of Naples and Sicily: nor durst any Christian vessels attempt to pass between Spain and Italy; for if they offered it, he infallibly snapped them up: and when he missed any of his prey at sea, he made himself amends by making descents along the coasts, plundering villages and towns, and dragging away multitudes of inhabitants into captivity.” (Lane-Poole, page 127)

When his retreat from an Italian port was blocked, Dragut forced thousands of peasants to build a road over which he dragged his ship using logs to put to sea elsewhere, rather than surrender.  The Italians relentlessly hunted Dragut, eventually capturing him off Corsica.  He spent four years as a galley slave before Kheir ed-Din effected his ransom.  For the next twenty years Dragut exacted his revenge, raiding the coast of Italy, massacring people, burning villages, and taking captives.  His audacity made him famous and infamous.  Although he became Pasha of Algiers, he was just a corsair captain when he died during the assault on Malta in 1565.

Yussuf Rais was an Englishman named John Ward.  Soon after he joined the Royal Navy, he jumped ship and became a pirate.  On his way to the Barbary Coast, he and his cohorts attacked ships.  By 1605 he had amassed his own fleet and sought protection of the bey of Tunis.  He eventually converted to Islam and became a leader among the corsairs.  For four to six years he led them in attacks on Venetian ships.  An English sailor described in 1608 as being “very short with little hair, and that quite white, bald in front; swarthy face and beard.  Speaks little, and almost always swearing.” (Wilson, page 63)

Five years before the outbreak of war between the United States and Tripoli, a Scot named Peter Lisle worked as a deckhand aboard the Betsy, an American schooner.  Corsairs from Tripoli captured his ship, but rather than become a slave, he converted to Islam and took the name of an earlier corsair as his own--Murad Reis.  The Betsy, renamed Meshuda, became his flagship, and he eventually became admiral of Tripoli’s navy and married a daughter of Yusuf, the bashaw.

The Barbary Corsairs
Captives of the Barbary States

If you’d like to read more about famous Barbary Corsairs, I recommend these books:
Bradford, Ernle. Sultan’s Admiral: the Life of Barbarossa. 1968.

Earle, Peter. Corsairs of Malta.

Heere, Jacques. The Barbary Corsairs: Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1480-1580. Stackpole Books (US), Greenhill Books (UK), 2003.

Lane-Poole, Stanley. Story of the Barbary Corsairs. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1896.
Lloyd, Christopher. English Corsairs on the Barbary Coast, 1981.

Wilson, Peter Lamborn. Pirate Utopias. Autonomedia, 1995.


© 2004 Cindy Vallar
Originally published  1 September 2004

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