From Pirate to Admiral: Barbarossa’s Tale

The island of Lesbos, in the Aegean Sea, is now part of Greece, but between 1462 and 1912 it fell under Turkish control. During the 1470s, Lesbos was the birthplace of one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest heroes. The Mediterranean pirate, who would eventually be remembered as Barbarossa (red beard in Italian), went by many names during his career: Khidr, Hayreddin Pasha, “The Corsair of Algeria” and even “The King of the Sea”, but the name Barbarossa began as his nickname. And his brother Arouj (or Arouj) – the Barbarossa brothers.

The Barbarossa brothers were already experienced pirates in the Mediterranean when Spain completed its conquest of Granada in 1492, defeating the last vestiges of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula, and Muslim immigrants from the region sought refuge in North Africa. By 1505, the Spanish and Portuguese, looking to make territorial gains in North Africa, began attacking the coastal cities. Angered by these attacks on their fellow Muslims, Khidr and Aruj served as special forces under Korkud (one of the sons of the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II) to disrupt Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the western Mediterranean. But the Sultan’s death in 1512 sparked a succession battle between his two sons, Ahmed and Selim. He defeated Salim Ahmed and began a purge of Ahmed’s supporters. Selim also did not trust Korkud, so he executed him. In response, the Barbarossa brothers fled to North Africa to separate themselves from a potentially hostile government, and joined the various kingdoms of the region in their struggle against Spain.

Over the next three years, the Barbarossa brothers rose to prominence among North African societies and assaulted Spanish and Portuguese ships as independent pirates. In 1516, forces led by the two brothers attacked Algiers, and the city fell to Arouj. The Ottomans saw this development as an opportunity to expand their influence in North Africa, and provided their funding and political support to the Ikhwan (allowing Arouj and Khidr to consolidate their gains). The Ottomans then offered the nominal titles of ruler of Algiers to Oruj and chief governor of the sea in the western Mediterranean to Khidr, but the brothers were not yet full subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Arouj died fighting the Spanish in 1518, and the Spanish reconquered Algeria the following year. During this period, Khidr (now known as Khair ad-Din) assumed the surname Barbarossa and advanced to continue the fight, for which he asked the Ottomans for help. Although Algiers changed hands several times over the next decade, the area it controlled became known as the Vilayet of Algiers, the first pirate state, which was autonomous but became more and more dependent on the Ottoman army for protection as time went on. The Ottomans later used Algeria as their main base of operations in the western Mediterranean.

Barbarossa’s official attachment to the Ottomans grew during the same period. Suleiman the Magnificent, who became sultan after Selim’s death, seized Rhodes in 1522 and installed Barbarossa as ruler. beylerbeyi (governor governor). After Barbarossa and his forces captured Tunis in 1531, Suleiman appointed him Grand Admiral (Kapudan Pasha) of the Ottoman Empire, and served as Admiral Commander of the Ottoman Navy.

Perhaps the most famous Battle of Barbarossa was his victory at Preveza (in Greece) in 1538 over a combined fleet comprising elements of Venice, Genoa, Spain, Portugal, Malta and the Papal States. The key to his victory was his use of galleys instead of sailing ships. Since galleys were driven by oars, and thus did not depend on the wind, they were more maneuverable and reliable on wind-sheltered sides of bays and islands than sailing ships. Barbarossa defeated the combined force using only 122 ships against 300 galleons. His victory opened Tripoli and the eastern Mediterranean to Ottoman rule. After leading additional military campaigns, including one in which he aided the French against the Habsburgs in 1543 and 1544, Barbarossa died in Constantinople in 1546.

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