Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Early Corsairs—I

In the year 1492 the Moors were driven from Spain. When the Moorish kingdom of Granada fell, great numbers of Moors left the land of Spain, crossed the Straits to Africa, and made new homes for themselves on the farther shore. It was seven hundred years since their forefathers had crossed from Africa to Spain and conquered fair kingdoms for themselves on Spanish soil. Now Spain had won her own again, and the banished Moors were forced to make the return journey.

They never forgot the vineyards and corn-fields of the rich and pleasant country they had lost. After holding it for seven centuries the Moors felt towards it as to their own, their native land, and their hatred of the conquering Spaniard was deep and bitter. No sooner had they established themselves upon the African shore than they began to think of revenge. They could not hope to harm the Spanish by land—their numbers were too small to think of open battle—but it seemed to them that by sea something could be done.

The Moors were brave, daring, and skilful seamen. They knew every inch of the waters between Morocco and Spain they knew the Spanish shore and—the Spaniards did not know theirs. For the Barbary coast might have been designed for the refuge of the light galleys which the Moorish pirates used. It was a coast full of creeks, of small harbours, of broad lagoons whose waters were of little depth. But everywhere the pirate galleys, which drew little water, could run in and lie in safety, and this was a great advantage when the rovers were fleeing from a heavy Spanish war galley which dared not venture into the shallow water.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


Then, again, the Barbary coast was, and is, subject to sudden and dreadful storms which spring up with little warning. From these storms the rovers, knowing every inch of the coast, would run, and lie hidden in some nook of the shore or behind some sheltering promontory. From some such refuge they watched, in perfect safety, their enemies floundering among shoals and sandbanks, and when the gale had blown over they calmly ran out and picked the bones of the broken and stranded vessel, and clapped into chains those of the crew who had not been drowned.

The vessels of the early Moorish pirates, the brigantines, were no more than large rowing boats. They were driven by twenty oars, ten on each side; and each rower was also a fighting man, with his musket and broad curved sword, the scimitar, resting beside his rowing bench. Another ten or a dozen men for steering and relieving the rowers made up the crew. If the wind was fair, a broad lateen sail was hoisted on the single mast and the oars were shipped.

It was not long after the banishment of the Moors when these tiny vessels became a terror along the Spanish coast. A small squadron of them would sail by night into a hidden bay on the shore of Spain. From each tiny vessel thirty stout fellows would spring ashore. The ships were run up the sand, a dozen men left to guard them, and a couple of hundred pirates crept inland to attack a village in the land which they had lost, a village, perchance, of which they knew every house, every road and path around it.

Looting Spanish town


Every man had his appointed share in the assault, and all orders were carried out with perfect discipline. On a given signal there was a rush upon the sleeping village. Next followed a scene of fearful confusion and uproar. The inhabitants were seized or slain, the houses were sacked, and then the torch was put to every building. Laden with plunder and dragging trains of captives, the Corsairs were lighted back to their ships by the flames of the burning hamlet, and, long before the countryside could be roused against them, their swift ships had faded beyond the horizon. Such were the exploits of the exiled Moors, but a greater terror for Christendom was soon to dawn in the rise of the Turkish Corsairs.

A dozen years after the Moors had settled on the Barbary coast there came to its shores two small ships, seeking a good harbour and a safe place from pursuit. These ships were under the command of a young Turk who had already made a name as a buccaneer, and was to make a much greater one in the future. The most striking feature in this pirate's appearance was his great red beard, and thus he gained the name of Barbarossa, which in Italian means Red-Beard.

Barbarossa settled at Tunis, for he had heard many stories of the rich argosies which sailed past the Barbary coast, and he was eager to dip his fingers into Christian treasuries. In a short time his name was ringing in all ears, Christian and Moslem alike. He set off on a cruise from Tunis, and was lying near the isle of Elba when he saw two great galleys rowing quietly along. These galleys were of the largest size, rowed by many oars with several men at each oar, and were known as galleys-royal. Such a galley was like a small fortress.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


At the prow of it a large platform was built, and this was armed with guns and filled with soldiers. At the stern was another platform called the poop, and here was the commander of the galley with his officers, and another strong guard of troops. Between these two platforms stretched the long, low body of the galley, the "waist" as it was called, and across the waist ran rows of narrow benches on which the oarsmen were seated, five or six men to a single oar, and thirty oars on each fide. The oarsmen had nothing to do but row: they left the fighting to the troops on board, and a royal galley could carry many soldiers.

Two such galleys as these then hove in sight while Barbarossa was waiting for prey, and he ordered his men to row forward and lie on their course. They were galleys belonging to the Pope and were richly laden with goods from Genoa, goods which were bound for Rome. They were well manned with Papal troops and were of commanding strength. We must remember that in those days the Pope was not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but was also a great prince who held broad lands and had fleets and armies of his own.

When the Turks on Barbarossa's small galley saw what their leader meant to do they were filled with fright. They begged their captain not to attempt so great an enterprise, but to look for some vessel nearer to their own size. The only answer of the daring captain was to toss most of the oars overboard so that escape was impossible, and his men must either fight or be sunk. On came the foremost galley-royal. She saw the small galley but felt no alarm. The only pirate-ships known in those waters were the tiny Moorish brigantines, and of these she had no fear: no Turkish Corsair had ever been seen so far west as this. But suddenly her crew were aroused. They saw Turkish turbans aboard the strange galley and the drums at once beat to arms. As they did so the vessels slid along-side each other, and Barbarossa, at the head of his men, boarded the great galley-royal, poured in a hail of shot from muskets and bolts from bows, then fell on with sword and spear, and carried the big vessel by assault.

Barbarossa the Turk


This was a great victory—Barbarossa resolved to cap it—he determined to seize the second galley-royal, which was some distance behind. His officers begged him to rest content with the great gains he had made, but nothing could move him. He dressed his crew in the clothes of the Christian captives, set them to work about the galley-royal as if they had been its proper crew, and so drew the second galley, all ignorant of her consort's fate, within easy striking distance. A second fierce rush, and the bewildered troops and seamen were driven under hatches and secured as prisoners. The second galley was his also.

Barbarossa returned to Tunis in triumph with his two magnificent prizes, and the fame of this exploit rang through Europe. From that day the Turkish captain was a hero among the Moslems, an object of dread among the Christians. Barbarossa now had a great number of captives, and these he resolved to use as rowers. In this way he would keep his own men fresh for fighting. So the oars of his galleys were now worked by Christian captives, while his Turkish fighting men lolled at ease on poop and prow. The other Corsairs followed his example, and right away to the nineteenth century the pirate galleys were rowed by Christian slaves. So it was on the other side. When a Christian ship took a Moslem galley, the Turks and Moors were made captive and placed on the rowing bench to drive the navies of Christendom.

The power of Barbarossa grew steadily. He built a navy out of captured ships, he gathered an army, he fought by land and sea, and established his rule along part of the Barbary coast. Then he was called to a great enterprise: the seizing of Algiers.

We have spoken of the Moorish brigantines which ran out of Algiers to harry the Spanish coasts. At last Spain was roused, and a fleet of Spanish galleys attacked the pirates' den, and built a strong fort to keep Algiers in order. The Algerines called upon Barbarossa to rescue them from the Spanish yoke, and the Corsair marched upon the town with a strong body of Turks and Moors. A Spanish Armada was sent to assist the Spaniards in the threatened fort, and a strong army was landed. Barbarossa attacked and routed it; this was a great feat, for at that day the Spanish troops were accounted among the finest soldiery of the world.

Other victories he won, and the ire of the King of Spain, the great Charles the Fifth, was kindled against him. Charles dispatched a body of his best troops, ten thousand strong, against the Corsair, and gave orders that he and his bandits should be destroyed.

The Spanish host drew near Barbarossa's camp when he had only fifteen hundred men with him. Barbarossa took his treasure and fled: his troops fled with him. The Spaniards pursued hotly. The Corsair scattered his loot, his gold and jewels, in the way, hoping that the Spaniards would stay to secure the treasure. But the Spanish commander fiercely urged his men forward, and the precious spoil was trodden underfoot and neglected. The pursuers came up with the flying pirates at a point where a river with steep banks lay square across the line of flight. Barbarossa with half his men had crossed, and were in sight of safety: the Spaniards fell upon the rear-guard with the utmost fury. When the dauntless Corsair saw the straits of his men, he at once turned back, dashed across the stream, and hurled himself into the fray. His followers turned upon their pursuers and supported their great leader with desperate courage. But the odds were too great. Scarce a single Turk or Moor made his escape from that fatal field, and Barbarossa, fighting to the last, fell amidst his men.