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Corsairs and Ludo da Portovenere
By J. G. Harlond
Ludo da Portovenere is the wily, charismatic main character of The Chosen Man trilogy. A man nobody should ever trust, yet most people do. He is fictional, but the events in which he becomes involved during the middle of the seventeenth century are all real and include genuine royal, political, and/or Vatican secrets along the way.
Ludo, as a character, came to life during a research trip to Cotehele in Cornwall, England, (called Crimphele in my novels), while I was preparing for the sequel to The Empress Emerald. The genesis of his story emerged from news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and United States mortgage scandals, when I was reminded of Dutch “tulip mania.” During the 1630s in the Protestant Netherlands, tulip bulbs became worth more than their weight in gold: prices soared until one single prized bulb reached the value of an elegant canal-side house – and then the bubble burst. There was a Vatican conspiracy theory behind the scandal and in my version of events Ludo is very much in the mix. His success in Amsterdam leads to other tricky missions for the English and Spanish monarchies.
As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother was captured by corsairs on the Ligurian coast and Ludo was born in captivity in the Berber stronghold of Salé (Morocco). His father, he believes, is the renegade Dutchman Jan Janszoon, who went into history as Murat Reïs, the Younger.
Ludo’s fictional parentage is one of the various elements that I created for the trilogy out of documented history. His mother, Gabriella Doria, is the daughter of Agostino Doria, who was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. The Doria family tree names each of Agostino’s sons, but there is also an un-named daughter – who I borrowed and named Gabriella. Ludo, we learn, is illegitimate; he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers when she returned to Genoa. Gabriella delayed that return as long as she dared in my story, but what happened to her is almost certainly what would have happened to any woman of “gentle birth” redeemed from corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that; her name was sullied. This, in turn, meant she was of no use or value to her father or brothers.
Barbary corsairs were a common and very serious threat to Mediterranean coastal towns and shipping right into the nineteenth century. They were the reason that fishing villages – now popular tourist destinations – have such narrow, winding streets. Building houses along higgledy-piggledy alleys helped locals to escape slave raids or razzias. Nobody with any sense lived on the coast out of choice, and nobody ever loitered on beaches for fear of being sold in a slave market, or ending their days as an oarsman on a corsair dromon, xebec or galleass. When raids occurred, men, women, and children were grabbed indiscriminately, regardless of social class, for they were all of value in their own way. Accounts by men and women, who were ransomed and returned to their home countries, differ regarding the conditions in which they were held captive, but in general the treatment of women and children was said to be (relatively) humane; men were less fortunate.
Captured sea-going vessels afforded rich cargoes and useful mariners who became galley slaves. Records show that in some cases sailors “turned Turk” (adopted Islam) quite happily, seeing it as a way to escape the harsh restrictions of navy or merchant vessel life for the possibility of a wealthy future – something completely out of reach otherwise. Ships’ passengers were taken for ransom. If they were from humble families and a ransom was unlikely, they were sent into the interior as free labour for building projects or taken on as servants by townspeople; some accepted their fate and even married into the local community. Women from wealthier families were held in relatively good conditions because they were a valuable bargaining asset when representatives of the Catholic and Protestant churches came to redeem captives.
Example of a corsair galley (Source: J. G. Harlond)
Corsairs raided ships and coastal towns throughout the Mediterranean, south along West Africa’s Atlantic seaboard, and into the North Atlantic and North Sea as far as Iceland. Specially designed galleys under oar and sail could also reach far inland by river, enabling corsairs to loot for spoils, which were distributed according to strict rules on their return to port. Despite their “barbaric” reputation, a significant degree of honour and fair play existed among these cut-throats. (Both of which my rogue hero has in abundance, but is reluctant to reveal.)
The origin of the names “Berber” and “Barbary” came from a corruption of an ancient Greek word for anything non-Greek. This in turn gave us our word barbarian. Ottoman or Barbary corsairs were pirates who mainly operated out of the North African ports of Salé, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, but the men themselves were not exclusively Maghrebi.1, 2 Some of the more famous captains, such as Kheir-ed-din, Aruj Barbarossa, Dragut, and Simon Danseker, came in fact from the Balkans, Greece, and the Netherlands. The term corsair, however, is tied to the Mediterranean Sea, where from roughly the late fourteenth to early nineteenth centuries the Ottoman Empire fought Christian states for maritime supremacy. The struggle was waged by conventional navies aided by state-sanctioned sea bandits and licenced privateers on both sides.
Ludo, as I mentioned, believes his father to be Murat Reïs, who started his career as Jan Janszoon, a Dutch privateer sailing out of Haarlem with letters of marque to harass Spanish shipping during the Thirty Years War. Janszoon was married to Soutgen Cave in 1595, and they had two children, Edward and Lysbeth. Tempted by greater profit, Janszoon turned from licenced privateering to common piracy, using whichever national flag served his purpose (something Ludo copies when he has his own vessel). When attacking Spanish vessels, he continued to use a Dutch flag, but was just as likely to come alongside a galleon sailing into Cadiz laden with New World silver using a Spanish flag so that he could board the vessel “to inspect and assess the cargo” without alerting his victim too soon.
During this period, Janszoon abandoned his Dutch family and married again – at least twice – fathering several children and becoming the “illustrious” ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family. In 1600 he married a woman named Margrietje, who belonged to a Moorish family living in Cartagena, or possibly Málaga (Spain).3 They had four sons: Abraham, Phillip, Cornelis, and Anthony Jansen or Janszoon Van Salee.4 Anthony crossed the Atlantic on a Dutch West India Company vessel around 1633. Using generous funds provided by his father, he became one of the more troublesome Manhattan landowners and a founding father of New York City. Anthony was known to many as “the Turk,” either because of his mother’s Moorish background, or because of his father’s dubious fame as a corsair admiral.
Jan Janszoon’s rise to become admiral began around 1618 when he was captured by corsairs in the Canary Islands and taken to Algiers, where he “turned Turk” and set sail with Suleiman Reïs (another Dutchman named De Veenboer). Algiers subsequently concluded peace with several European nations, so when Suleiman Reïs was killed in 1619, Janszoon moved to the Moroccan Atlantic coast and joined the Salé Rovers. To be free of paying dues to their Ottoman overlords, the men of Salé declared their port an independent republic. Fourteen pirates were elected to lead the community: Jan Janszoon became their President and Grand Admiral – or Murat Reïs.
Business in Salé thrived, making Janszoon a very rich man, but instead of staying at home and living off his share of stolen goods, he sailed into the English Channel, raided along the southern English coast, then docked in the Dutch port of Veere under the Moroccan flag, claiming diplomatic privileges for his official role as Admiral of Morocco, which was then at peace with the Dutch Republic. In an attempt to persuade him back to his useful role as a privateer, the Veere authorities brought his first wife and children to plead with him to return home. Jan Janszoon laughed in their faces and sailed out of port with a dozen Dutch volunteers.
This is the period when, by choice or otherwise, many northern European mariners took their navigational and shipbuilding skills to the Barbary Coast. Captured carracks and galleons were adapted for hunting and raiding; many also acquired a triangular ram at the prow. Having these larger vessels crewed by men familiar with the Atlantic and the dangers of the North Sea meant corsairs could raid far beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. In 1627 Janszoon captured the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel, holding it for five years as a base for raiding expeditions. In that same year, his corsairs raided in Iceland, capturing between 400 and 900 prisoners. The governor of Iceland retaliated, cannons were fired and the militia was quickly mustered, but the Salé Rovers sailed home unscathed to sell their blond captives into slavery.
Janszoon became a legend in his own time – and was then captured by the Knights of Malta, whose treatment of prisoners was far less than humane. After five years in a dungeon, Janszoon somehow managed to escape. But he returned to Salé – or possibly Algiers – a broken man. His daughter Lysbeth travelled from Veere to care for him in 1640, and stayed with him until August 1641, when he may have died. She then returned to Holland and there is little mention of Murat Reïs, the Younger thereafter, although as I said earlier, he established a significant legacy through his descendants.
That the Barbary slave trade involved appalling cruelty cannot be denied. Conditions for men labouring in Meknès in northern Morroco, for example, were much worse than terrible, but some returned captives did reveal a softer, kinder element in their treatment. On balance, however, one should not belittle the horror of being snatched from one’s home by men perceived as “barbarians” knowing you will never see loved ones again.
Having lived for many years on the Mediterranean coast (in Italian Liguria then in Spanish Andalucía), I found it easy to describe what a sudden corsair attack might have been like. To show you, here is a scene from the beginning of The Chosen Man, when Ludo first meets the love of his life, the feisty and equally unreliable Alina. It is told from Ludo’s servant Marcos’ point of view.
Marcos straightened his shoulders, lifted his head to appear taller and began to stroll towards the beautiful young woman. He had taken three steps when the harbour exploded with noise and panic. Ships bells jangled, harbour bells clanged, whistles blew, a hundred men shouted at once. The boys loading the fishing boat and mending nets careered past him. One shouted, “The Turks!”
Marcos froze. Should he run for the tender, jump into the water, or climb into the nearest vessel and lie flat? He’d never been here before, where could he hide? They’d have him this time and he’d be rowing them back to Algiers or Salé if he didn’t make shift. He scanned around for a bolt hole and caught sight of the girl: she hadn’t moved. Didn’t she know what was happening?
He moved towards her again, but it was too late. A dozen dark-skinned bodies in brightly coloured pantaloons were swarming over the quayside. Shots were fired. He dashed towards the girl, fighting against the current of local seamen running for the relative safety of their streets and homes. Grabbing the girl round the waist he pulled her down behind the coiled rope onto the ground. She righted herself immediately and gave him a sharp slap across the head.
“Get off me!” she shouted, scrambling to her feet. As she did so, she was swung into the air by a woolly-headed giant who bundled her under his arm in a practised clinch. He turned back toward the edge of the quay ready to toss her into a boat. She squirmed frantically under his arm in a froth of white petticoats.
Then suddenly she was sprawled on the ground again. The African giant was flat on his face and Ludo was standing over them.
He swore at the corsair in galley slang and pulled the girl to her feet. The huge galley rat stayed cowed on the ground, but a couple of other corsairs abandoned their own catches and turned on him, weapons drawn. He spoke again and they halted.
Marcos nipped between them and stood as close to Ludo as physically possible. The girl smoothed down her skirts, straightened her shoulders and started to walk away. Seeing her move, Ludo reached out and caught the back of her dress, but she deftly turned out of his grip and kicked him. The men laughed. Ludo grabbed her arm and pulled her to him once more. She bit his hand and he let her go with a yelp, “Regazza disgraziata!”
The slavers screeched with laughter. He spoke to them and they slapped their thighs. The girl lifted her nose as if there were a disgusting smell and stared out to sea.
Marcos straightened his back, lifted his chin and folded his arms. Standing in what he hoped was a position demonstrating strength, he watched his patrón deal with the licensed pirates.
“She’s mine, but I’m tempted to let you have her,” Ludo was saying. “She’s nothing but trouble.”
The men guffawed. “You’d get a good price for her.”
“That’s what I tell her. If she doesn’t mend her ways, I say, it’s a one-way trip to North Africa for you.”
“The wild ones are more fun,” said a low-bellied pirate, swinging out with a club to stop a runaway in his tracks.
“Nah, let him go, he’s got a limp,” said another.
“Since when did that matter?” demanded Ludo.
“Only young, healthy ones this time, captain’s orders, and we’re nearly full.”
The pirates looked pointedly at Marcos. Ludo shook his head. But the pirates were torn: here was a pretty youth and a yellow-haired maid to please the most fastidious sultan.
Seeing their doubt, Ludo said, “And the ship out there?” He nodded at the vessel in the bay. “She’s carrying silver from the New World.”
“Not for us to decide,” said the low-bellied pirate. “Come on, let’s move. We’ve got work to do.”
The men broke into a run towards the fishermen’s hovels.
The girl watched them go, eyes as round as saucers. Marcos started to shake.
Ludo let out a protracted sigh and said, “Don’t faint, we’re not safe yet. Get into that boat over there.”
Marcos moved mechanically towards a small rowing boat now bobbing on the high tide at the level of the stone quayside. The girl stayed stock still.
“Follow him and get into the boat,” Ludo ordered.
“I live inland, why should I get in the boat?”
“Because I have just saved your life and they think you’re mine! If they see you again, you’ll be in that galley and in a pasha’s harem by the end of the week. That’s if they can keep their hands off you for that long. It’s your only chance. Get into the boat!”
Ludo pushed her so hard she would have fallen head first off the quay if Marcos hadn’t caught her. The little skiff rocked wildly, shipping water. Ludo stepped in regardless and shoved off. Marcos took up the second oar and they pulled out into the Bay of Biscay.
Their ship had been left untouched, but all on board, passengers and crew alike, were in a state of prolonged panic. They had heard the harbour bells and ships’ bells clanging, heard the sound of gunfire, and the shouts had carried across the still water of the bay. The crew knew exactly what was happening, although none of them had seen the pirate galley approach in the thick mist. The captain was still ashore and his First Officer was in a dither.
Ludo took control. “Give the order to set sail. We must get out into open sea as fast as possible.”
The officer looked at him blankly. “Not without the captain.”
“Look, they left you alone going in because it wasn’t part of their strategy, or because they didn’t see you; but if they don’t get what they want in the harbour they’ll be over us like a plague of rats. You and your crew would be a useful prize, and if you’re not worried about saving your own skin you’d better think about your passengers. And what about all the silver you’re carrying? It’s your soldiers’ pay and they deserve to get it. No one and nothing is safe from a Barbary corsair, except me. They won’t touch me. Now, give the order to sail. If you don’t, I’ll do it myself.”
“You can’t do that!”
“I can do that. I have done it in the past. Now move before I organize a mutiny.”
Like Ludo’s mother, Alina’s brush with corsairs will mar any prospects of a good marriage – and she is the daughter of a Spanish grandee. Alina chooses to take her chances with Ludo: not a wise decision because he then sells her to a British nobleman . . . . Ludo is first and foremost a charming rogue, and remains until late in the third book a corsair at heart. But he met his match in Alina, who never quite goes away.
If you would like to read more about life as a captive on the Barbary Coast, I recommend DJ Munroe’s Slave to Fortune blog.
A horrifying account of how one young Englishman survived capture and slave labour can be found in White Gold by Giles Milton (Hodder Headline, 2005).
For differing accounts of life in captivity, see Linda Colley’s excellent book Captives: Britain, Empire and the World 1600-1850 (Jonathan Cape, 2002).
1. CV: The Barbary corsairs were privateers of the Ottoman Empire rather than pirates. While their exploits sometimes bordered on piracy and some naval captains and admirals had once been pirates, the objective of their raids altered from one of pure plundering and enslavement to a holy war waged against Rome and Christianity. In later centuries, especially as the Barbary States paid less homage to the Ottoman Empire and more to themselves, they became pirates. Oftentimes, these states declared war to “legitimize” their attacks and to gain more profitable tribute for peace.
2. CV: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Maghreb (also spelled Maghrib) is “a region of north and north-western Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and Eygpt, comprising the coastal plain and Atlas Mountains of Morocco, together with Algeria, Tunisia, and sometimes also Tripolitania.” The word itself is Arabic and means “place of setting (of the sun).” “Barbary” on the other hand is “a former name for Saracen countries of north and north-western Africa, together with Moorish Spain.” Between the 1500s and 1700s it was “a haunt of pirates.” This word comes from Latin.
3. Some writers call Margrietje Margarita, because she was supposedly a Malagueña, so Spanish. I use the Dutch form because I think that's what Janszoon would have called her.
4. In the Netherliands, Cornelius is spelled Cornelis.
The Chosen Man Trilogy is available from all main book retailers.
You can read reviews for each book on Readers’ Favorite and Discovering Diamonds.
There is more about the history behind the trilogy on my website and in my blog ‘Reading & Writing.’
Secret agents, skulduggery, and romance that crosses continents
J.G. Harlond (Jane) writes page-turning historical crime novels weaving fictional characters into real events. She is particularly interested in aspects of power and skulduggery so international intrigue and domestic politics are significant elements in her novels. For many years, Jane worked in International Education; she then gave up a successful and enjoyable career to become a full-time author. After travelling widely, Jane and her husband, a retired Spanish naval officer, are now settled in southern Spain. They have a large family living in diverse parts of Europe and the USA. Apart from fiction, Jane also writes school textbooks under her married name.
Copyright © 2019 J. G. Harlond
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