Tuesday, June 29, 2010

People: The Albanian Captain(s)

Some time in the early 1530s a boy was born in Albania. Neither he nor those who loved him could have known what fate held in store, but it's a certainty that if even half his story is anywhere near true it would make an incredible action-adventure movie.

We don't know what the boy's given name was but it is probably safe to say that he was raised a Christian. This made him a target for the North African pirates who raided his homeland at various intervals. In 1546, the boy was taken up by the raiding party of the pirate Kari Ali and brought to Algiers as a valuable slave. The first years of his life in the busy port city are also lost to history. What we know is that by 1565 Kari Ali Rais ("Rais" being the equivalent of "Captain" or "Commander" in English) was dead and the young Albanian, now calling himself by the Muslim name of Murat Ali, took his place and became Murat Rais.

Murat's first cruise with the small flotilla his mentor had sailed started badly. He shipwrecked his flagship somewhere either on or near the coast of Sicily and things looked bleak. Fortune smiled a few weeks later and Murat's smaller vessels captured a prize and used it to continue their cruise. More prizes were caught off the Spanish coast and he returned to Algiers with ships and slaves to sell.

What we know of Murat personally is that he was a small man, probably no taller than five feet three inches. He was slender and liked to dress richly. Having embraced the Muslim faith - or "turned Turk" as the British would say - he used his ever accumulating wealth to build a large home wherein he is reputed to have kept three or four wives. He seems to have been a live hard/play hard kind of seaman, and he made himself very popular with the local Beys by bringing in prizes on a regular basis.

Murat's reputation for audacity and success got around the North African seaports and men came not only to join his crews but to sail in partnership with him. Murat, however, was not much of a team player. He would routinely disregard the Barbary codes and this behavior made him powerful enemies. One of these was a so called "Captain of the Seas", a title similar to Commodore, from Algiers named Uluj Ali. Uluj accused Murat of losing a rich galleasse of the Knights of Malta by trying to rush to board her, and a long standing animosity developed. It may have been Uluj who used his influence to keep Murat from attaining the title of Captain of the Seas over the course of the next decade.

Despite the political infighting, which it seems no powerful Rais could avoid, Murat continued his astoundingly lucrative raids on Spanish and Italian shipping. When he captured two powerful galleasses, which were ferrying the Viceroy of Sicily home to Spain in 1574, both the Sultan of Algiers and King Philip of Spain took note. The Viceroy and his entourage were ransomed for an exorbitant amount and Philip put a price on the infidel head of Murat Rais.

Four years later, Murat captured a flotilla from France carrying more in silver and gold coins than the previous ransom from the Spanish King. With this, Murat's reputation was sealed. The Sultan appointed him Captain of the Seas of Algiers, although the post didn't actually stick until it was confirmed by the Ottoman Emperor in 1594.

If your doing the math that means that Murat was somewhere around 60 years old when the Emperor elevated him to the new post. To me, this is where some questions have to be asked of the story. Murat redoubled his raids before and after his appointment, sailing into the Atlantic and, using Sale in modern Morocco as a base, raiding Spanish and Portuguese towns for slaves. In 1595, he took his largest flotilla to date to southern Italy where he captured three Sicilian galleasses while destroying a larger fleet of the Knights of Malta.

With this triumph, he was given command of several squadrons of the Ottoman navy. He continued his predations on Christian ships until he was called to assist - almost ironically - in the siege of Vlore, the largest city in Albania. Here he was killed during fighting in 1636. That's right; he would have been over 100 years old.

Obviously this is where the tale of Murat Ali Rais jumps the track. Even in this day and age, 100 years is a long time to live and not a one of us would be capable of going out to battle at that age. My personal belief is that we are dealing with two men, possibly a father and son, who went by the same name and had a similar talent for piracy. Their personalities blended as their legend grew and, like the Laffite brothers, they have come down in folklore as one man. Another possibility is that the deeds of others have been tacked on to the hero Murat Rais and his true dates of birth and death are now unknown.

Either way, there is no denying that the boy kidnapped from his natal home made more than good along the Barbary coast and may very well have seen his son do the same.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting story. It's kind of like "the Dread Pirate Roberts" in "The Princess Bride", but I think your theory of the father/son thing actually makes more sense, Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think so, too. A guy with four wives has to be able to produce at least one son, right? What I find particularly amusing about it is that so few historians of piracy even bat an eye about the age issue - if they mention Murat Rais at all.

Annah said...

Hmm he was quite the little shortie eh?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Annah! Murat was a small man, especially by comparison (for example, Sir Francis Drake was around five ten). But I tend to be forgiving in the height department. My ancestor Renato Beluche was himself five foot three and it didn't seem to hold him back one bit!

Samir said...

Ahoy, Pauline!
Great Story...!!
I was very surprised about the story of The Albanian seaman &Pirate,
I never heard or read before such story,i am simply amazed!
being Albanian myself, that's make double astonishing that existed such people of my kind.
simply said,Thank you!
it's were nice to know more facts about this story,
like what is the title of the book were you took this story and the writer of that book!
waiting for your answer
and cheers !!

Pauline said...

Thank you for stopping by, Samir; I'm happy to hear you enjoyed the post.

For further reading on Murat Rais and other Barbary corsairs, see "The History of Pirates" by Angus Konstam, "A Worldwide History of Pirates" edited by David Cordingly and particularly "Pirates of Barbary" by Adrian Tinniswood.

I hope that helps you in your search for further information on this fascinating freebooter.

Anonymous said...

well the albanian story is full of pirates. when rome atacked ower predecesors, the illyrians, her pretects and acuses where for piracy, when she made an ultimatum to quin teuta to stop pirating or rome would atack. also the famous fortres of ulqin, (ulchin, now under monte negro), who was a pirate fortres and a nightmare especialy for the italian states like venice or ragusa, in those shores started the legend of miguel servantes, as u know he got be THIS pirates and lost his left arm, for the glory of the right arm as he said, on those ships, and the famous dulchiñe, love of don hijote, was a tribute to those wild lands. as u see whe know a bit abt piracy in ower seas, we didn't know nothing abt this murat ali, but we knew mehmet ali or smth like that, who later become king in egypt was albanian and was a pirate before becoming king. so if one of u knows smth abt albo pirates contact me on facebook.com/banal32
p.s. being short is a physical charasteristic of mostly the south albanians known also like toskë, cs the north albanians knows also like gegë r taller than.