When speaking about piracy, one usually hears the same names thrown out as shining examples of successful high seas thievery and debauch. Henry Morgan and Blackbeard always jump to the fore. Mary Read and Anne Bonny come up invariably and they drag their pathetic pirate pal Jack Rackham along with them. Sometimes more seaworthy names come up, Jean Bart, Francis Drake, Bartholomew Roberts or Jean Laffite (who has become the go-to name for any of the great privateers who sailed from Barataria when they are spoken of at all), and sometimes “exotic” names are raised like Cheng I Sao.
What I find unfortunate is that two of the most successful pirates that every sailed, the men who virtually singlehandedly and overnight turned the Barbary Coast into a corsair monopoly, are almost never spoken of. If Barbarossa comes up at all, someone has veered off into the Disneynified fiction of piracy. And at that point, I’m out.
The Barbarossa brothers, who were called that by their Italian enemies once their careers took off (Barbarossa, of course, means Red Beard), were born in Greece at some point in the late 1400s. Where in Greece they were born and what ancestors they could claim is open for debate. Some sources say they were Greek or Albanian or both and most of those sources claim the brothers were baptized Christians. Others say they were Islamic, of Turkish descent, and many of these place their natal region as the Greek island of Lesbos. Some claim their father was a seaman, either a fisherman or a privateer. Others put forth that he was retired from the Turkish army and he ran a business, perhaps as a potter or merchant or both, in Greece. Even the brothers’ names are a confusing jumble of spellings and monikers that becomes hard to wade through. Really, the story is open for debate up until one fateful incident that changed the lives of the brothers permanently.
Uruj, the older of the famous brothers whose name is also given as Oruc, Horusce and Aruja, was on one of his father’s boats some time around 1490. The most plausible story to my mind is that he was in charge of the boat which was returning from delivering his father’s goods to an unknown port. With him was his youngest brother Ilyas. The boat came into the waters around the Island of Rhodes and was attacked by a galleasse of the Knights of St. John – also known as the Knights of Malta – who had held Rhodes since the crusades.
Uruj Barbarossa and his men put up a valiant fight but their numbers were slim and they were easily overwhelmed. Ilyas was killed in the mêlée and those who remained alive among Uruj’s crew were stripped and chained as galley slaves. It is at this point where the story of the brothers being born Christian rings false, at least to my way of thinking. Male prisoners were stripped by both Islamic and Christian pirates in the Mediterranean not only as a form of humiliation but also as a way to identify their religious proclivities. Muslims would be circumcised; Christians would not. If the Knights of Malta had found Uruj to be a Christian, it is highly unlikely that he would have been put to the oar.
During the three to four years that Uruj labored as a slave, he occupied his mind with the strategies and seafaring capabilities of his enemy. He learned their language and their way of piracy and stored this information away in what must have been a remarkably intelligent brain. Meanwhile his remaining brother, Hizir (Khizr, Horuk or Hareaden), went into the business of privateering for the Ottoman Empire. It does not appear that Hizir held a base in Greece and in fact, by the time he was able to buy his older brother’s freedom, he seems to have been using the Turkish port of Anatalya as a base.
Once Uruj recovered from his ordeal the brothers went to sea together, establishing what author Adrian Tinniswood describes as a “sea-jihad” against all Christians and the Spanish in particular. While Uruj had been suffering under the oppression of the Knights of Malta, Spain’s King and Queen had accomplished their reconquista and kicked out all the Jews and Muslims they had not imprisoned or killed. The Spanish Muslims moved into North Africa, particularly Tunis where the brothers set up shop around 1504, and their horror stories only encouraged Hizir and particularly Uruj in their hatred of Christendom.
The brothers, who by now were known in the Mediterranean as “Barbarossa” collectively (much like the Laffite brothers are known now almost exclusively as “Jean”), were well established privateers by 1510 and they ran the Island of Djerba fifty miles from the coast of Tunis. Though neither of them had been recognized by the Ottoman Empire, aside from their commissions, they became the go-to defenders of their area from invasion by the Spanish.
Spain, who was experiencing great success in colonizing the New World, began to move in on North Africa as well. The brothers repulsed Spanish attacks in modern Morocco and Libya with the help of local warlords. Uruj led more than one assault on the Spanish held Algerian port of Bejaia between 1513 and 1515, even losing his left arm in the siege of 1513. He wore a false arm made entirely of silver, including articulated fingers that could be manipulated to hold a goblet or pick up grapes, for the rest of his life.
Though he could not retake all of Bejaia (Spain continued to hold a large fortress there until 1530), Uruj had been largely successful in the endeavor that lost him an arm. And he was not ready to stop. Along with Hizir he took Algiers and became its de facto ruler. From there he moved his forces westward and Christendom became fearful of the seemingly unstoppable brothers Spain had once called “pirate rabble.”
In 1517 the brothers set their sights on the religious center of Tlemcen which was also held by the Spanish. Though the town was easily overcome the Spanish were not finished. They appeared to retreat into the Moroccan desert where they came to an agreement with local Bedouin chieftains who were not entirely on board with Islam. Spain and her Bedouin allies mounted an attack on Tlemcen and a horrible, six month siege ensued.
Hizir was in Algiers during the time, and probably most distressed at the lack of word from his brother. He appears not to have known about the siege of Tlemcen and besides, he had his work cut out for him with the Spanish still in Bejaia.
At some point in early 1518, Uruj seems to have tried to escape the siege and take his best warriors back to Algiers for reinforcements. The plan failed when Spanish troops overtook Uruj and his men. A day long battle ensued but only death awaited the silver-armed pirate and his men. Uruj’s forces were slaughtered including Barbarossa himself. Legend has it that he was pierced through with a pike but continued to fight for another half an hour before falling dead.
The death of Uruj Barbarossa is by no means the end of the story, however. Come back tomorrow and find out what happens to Hizir who will become known as Khair ad-Din Barbarossa.
Header: Contemporary portrait of Hizir Barbarossa in his prime