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Barbarossa: Pirate or Admiral?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

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One of the most intriguing pages of history is that of the Mediterranean Sea during the period of 1500-1650AD. At the start of this time, an Ottoman subject, commonly known as Barbarossa, helped the Ottoman Empire establish its dominance throughout the Mediterranean Sea. His legendary tactics and military insights have won him high praise from his Sultan as well as his adversaries. His statue today stands in front of the Turkish Naval Museum flanked on both sides by pirates aiding him.

Barbarossa, who`s name is Khayreddin (or Hayreddin) was born in 1478 in the Aegean island of Lesbos to an Albanian father (originally from Venice) Yakup Aga and a local Christian Greek mother Katerina. He came from a family of four sons and two daughters. Initially, the four sons helped with their father`s pottery business, but they soon became more involved with shipping and trading in the area. They soon found their ships frequently raided by pirates from the Knights of St. John, which were based in Rhodes Islands. Two brothers, Hayreddin, and his older brother Aruj decided to engage in the privateering business as well to counteract the Knights of St. John. Both lobbied local rulers from the Mamluks in Egypt to the Sultans in Algiers to provide them with galleys and various ships to raid Christian ports and ships in exchange for a percentage of the collected profit.

The two brothers were so successful in their endeavor that they were eventually given a base in La Goletta (or La Goulette) near Tunisia. From there, their fame and fortune began to rise. They successfully raided southern Italy ports in Lipari, island of Elba, and the Sicillian coast. Between 1504 and 1510, Aruj helped thousands of Moriscos (former Muslims who were forced to convert to Christianity in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492) to flee Spain to the North African coast. He was called `Baba Aruj` by the Andalucians in recognition for this help. This title was later distorted by the Italians into Barbarossa (which sounded similar), or red-bearded, as the two brothers became known as to this day (although all physical descriptions of the brother do not indicate that they had a red beard). In 1509, their third brother, Ishak, joined Aruj and Khayreddin in La Goletta.

In 1511, a disagreement between the three brothers and the Sultan of Tunis meant that they had to abandon La Goletta and move to Mahdiya (or Jijel by its Genoese name) near Algiers. The Sultan of Algiers had been desperately battling the Spanish advance and had asked the three brothers for their assistance. In 1512, Aruj led an unsuccessful battle to free the Sultan`s land, where he lost his arm (and replaced by a silver prosthetic arm). This prompted Aruj to re-establish links to the Ottoman sultan by bringing him gifts of gold, silver, and slave girls in exchange for artillery and Janissaries (Ottoman soldiers). After some preparation, Aruj led his force which consisted for 12 vessels and 1,000 Ottoman soldiers and re-captured the Bougie fortress from the Spanish in 1514. In 1516, they succeeded in liberating Jijel and Algiers from the Spaniards. They eventually assumed control over Algeria and ousted the local Sultan. To secure their control, they offered Algeria as a province to the Ottoman Empire in 1517. The Ottoman sultan accepted and made Aruj the governor of Algeria. In May 1518, the Emperor Charles V, used his North African outpost of Oran to launch an attack on Aruj`s forces. With 10,000 Spanish soldiers, the help of the ousted Algerian sultan with his thousands of tribal warriors, they attacked Aruj and Ishak, which were protected with a total of 6,500 soldiers. After a 6 month siege, Aruj led a night time attempt to escape the city, but he and his brother were captured and killed.

Now, Khayreddin Barbarossa led his brothers forces against the Spanish attacks. He successfully led raids against the Spanish and Italian forces in throughout the western Mediterranean from 1518 to 1533. In 1518, he captured the Algerian city of Tlemcen, the city in which his two brothers were besieged, as well as Bone. In 1519, he repelled a combined Spanish and Italian invasion force sent to Algiers. In 1529, he shifted his focus from attacking Italian ports to Spanish ports. In May 1529, he wrestled Penon de Velez de la Gomera off the Moroccoan coast away from Spanish dominion. In August 1529, after softening Spanish defenses along the coast, he sent a total of seven round trips to carry 70,000 Moriscos fleeing Spain to the North African coast. He also raided areas near Tripoli, which were controlled by the Spanish at the time.

In 1533, Sultan Suleiman, of the Ottoman Empire, became concerned with the growing Italian raids far into the eastern Mediterranean. After his unsuccessful attempt to conquer Vienna in 1532, he decided to shift his focus from land attacks to building his navy and to secure his harbors and shipping routes. The Ottoman navy at that time has been allowed to decline to a point where it was no longer a match for the Spanish Armada or Italian ships. In 1533, Sultan Suleiman summoned Khayreddin Barbarossa to Istanbul. Khayreddin dutifully brought gifts of gold, silver, and slave girls for the Sultan. The Sultan had appointed him to `Admiral-in-Chief` of the Ottoman navy and his first task was to start on the construction of a modern navy. The ships that Barbarossa commissioned to be built were largely lean, fast ships powered by 20-30 oarsmen per side, and 1-3 latine sails. Few cannon were employed in the front deck of the ship. With this configuration, Barbarossa`s tactic was to quickly maneuver around an enemy ship and try to capture it as opposed to sink it. This tactic would be consistent with his early days of privateering.

By the end of the year, the Ottoman navy had a sufficient force to defend itself against the growing attacks of Italian ships on its coast. Furthermore, to bulwark his position, Sultan Suleiman entered into an alliance with the French against the Spanish, known as the Turko-French Treaty of 1536 (or Franco-Ottoman Alliance). Armed with this alliance and direct support from the Sultan, Barbarossa was eager to restart his raids on the western Mediterranean.

He started his campaign by striking hard on the western Italian coast, especially in ports along the Gulf of Naples. This included raids and landings in Villa Santa Lucia, Sperlonga, Fondi, Terracina, Ostia, slowly edging close to Rome. He had envisaged an Ottoman dominion, under his direct rule, stretching from Gibraltar to Tripoli. He landed his Janissaries in La Goletta (where he and his brothers privateered in early in their career). Instead of the local Sultan fighting Barbarossa, Muley Hassan the Sultan of Tunis, simply fled the city. This gave the Ottoman a strategic foothold on the western Mediterranean. When King Charles V of Spain realized this danger, he first tried to subtly resolve the issue. He sent Genoese spies to Tunis to instruct them to organize a revolt under the pretext of restoring Muley Hassan to the throne. When the plot was discovered and the Genoese spies were executed, King Charles V tried to bribe Barbarossa, but that also failed. Next, King Charles V organized an armada of 400 ships under the command of Andrea Doria along with an invasion force of 24,000 soldiers composed of Spaniards, Germans, and Italians.

In 1535, the siege of Tunis began. The Spanish force started by attacking La Goletta, which was directly south of Tunis. At first, it seemed that an able Jewish corsair commander from Smyrna, was able to defend the port well. However, after a 24 day siege, the port`s walls were breached by an 8-deck cannon ship, which was considered to be the most heavily armed ship of its time. Next, the Spanish force would have to besiege the walls of Tunis. As a backup plan, Barbarossa had an entire squadron sent to Bone (half-way between Algiers and Tunis). Upon the siege of the city, the thousands of Christians that were brought as slaves broke into the city`s armory and fought the Ottoman forces from inside the city walls. Having seen this, Barbarossa withdrew to his backup forces in Bone and Tunis fell. One would have expected that Barbarossa would use this force to either try to retake the city or to defend Algiers from a possible attack. Instead, a tribute to his military genius, he immediately set sail to the now undefended territories of Spain. To achieve complete surprise, he had his ships fly Spanish and Italian flags, and they were welcomed into Spanish harbors as victors. He attacked towns along the Balearic Islands, enslaving thousands of Christians, destroying the harbors defenses, and carrying large treasures to be sold in Algiers.

In 1536, Barbarossa was once again recalled by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman to assist him with attacks in the eastern Mediterranean. This led to a series of attacks on the Kingdom of Naples and the Republic of Venice. In 1538, the Holy League was assembled, which consisted of forces from Spain, Italy, the Holy Roman Empire, Venice and the Maltese Knights, to defeat Barbarossa once and for all. Barbarossa`s ships were vastly outnumbered. Through a series of strategic positioning along with southern Adriatic Sea, Barbarossa was able to fend off the attack. This battle was known as the Battle of Breveza of 1538. It was the battle that established the Ottoman dominance over the entire Mediterranean Sea for decades.

In 1545, Barbarossa decided to retire in Istanbul after a successful career lasting more than four decades. He built himself a palace and had a scribe to record his memoirs. Two years later, he grew ill and died on July 4, 1547. Several centuries later, historians are still not able to decide whether he a pirate or admiral, but all agree that his legacy is that he left the Ottoman Empire dominant in the Mediterranean Sea and delayed the European invasion of North Africa for centuries.


  • [1] Konstam, Angus, The History of Pirates, Canada: Lyon Press, 2002.
  • [2] Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries, The Estate of Lord Kinross: New York, 1977

  • Keywords: Turkey, Barbary Corsair, Barbarossa

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