Barbary Rovers: Peeps at History - John Finnemore

The Early Corsairs—II

One Barbarossa was dead, but another took his place, and made the name still more terrible. This was the younger Barbarossa, a man as brave as his brother, but with far greater powers as a ruler and statesman. The name scarcely fitted him, for his beard was auburn, not red, but as he had succeeded to his brother's authority, so he succeeded to his title. The younger Barbarossa lived to be an old man, and he rose to a position of great power, winning for himself high renown at sea and a name which is not forgotten to this day in the story of the Turkish Empire. But through all his long life he was first and foremost a Corsair, a Barbary rover, who scoured the seas in search of Christian vessels, and made them his prey.

In a short time after his brother's death the great Barbarossa had won back Algiers in defiance of the Spanish power, and he sent an ambassador to Constantinople to present it to the Sultan. The Sultan was greatly pleased. He appointed Barbarossa the Governor of the country, and sent large forces of troops to assist him. With this aid the Corsair made himself supreme along the Barbary coast, and built for himself a strong fleet. To man this fleet there swarmed to him every Turkish and Moorish desperado from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Levant. Great pirate captains sought him and begged to serve under his flag. Men who had won renown elsewhere flocked to Algiers, drawn by the magic of the name of the famous Corsair.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


It was his custom to send his fleets out in spring as soon as the gales of winter were over. All the summer long his swift galleys kept the narrow seas off the Barbary coast, and even ventured through the Straits and snapped up huge galleons sailing home to Spain, vessels laden with the treasures of the Indies, with gold, and silver, and precious stones. But in their own waters the pirate galleys were almost invincible. Merchant ships, of course, fled from them in terror, and great Christian war-galleys were often loth to engage in battle, unless they were clearly superior in strength. Time and again Barbarossa harried the shores along the northern Mediterranean in search of plunder and captives. He took both in the greatest abundance. The former he stored in his treasury or gave in reward to his followers, the latter he carried to Algiers and forced to work for him, either as slaves on the rowing benches of his galleys, or in tilling the fruitful soil around the city. Vessels of all kinds were brought into Algiers as prizes, from tiny fishing boats to great galleons and warships. On one occasion the cheering populace saw seven royal galleys of Spain brought into their roads, and the greatest of them all was the Capitana, the flag ship, the chief vessel of the Spanish navy. Before long Barbarossa seized the Spanish fort which overlooked Algiers. He made the garrison prisoners, pulled down the fortress, and set thousands of Christian slaves to work to build a breakwater with the stones.

His next great exploit along the Barbary coast was to seize Tunis from a native prince. The prince appealed to Charles V. of Spain, who had his own account to settle with the Corsair, and Charles promised support. In May 1535, Charles sailed for Tunis with a great fleet and a splendid army, and laid siege to the city. There was some fierce fighting, and in the end Barbarossa was driven out of the place with the loss of many men and more than a hundred vessels. Of this feat Christendom was very proud. The great Corsair had been put to flight, and forced to retire to Algiers. But amid all the triumph Barbarossa was busy at his old trade. Feeling sure that no one would expect him at such a moment, he put to sea with the galleys he had left, made a sudden descent on Minorca, plundered a town, seized several rich prizes, and returned to Algiers with six thousand captives and much booty.

Shortly after this Barbarossa was summoned to Constantinople by the Sultan. The latter had made the Corsair, High Admiral of the Turkish navy. Barbarossa took up this great post, and the Barbary coast knew him no more. The story of the rest of his long life belongs to that of the Turkish Empire. In his new position he continued to win greater and greater fame until he died in 1546, an old man nearly ninety years of age, and accounted the greatest seaman of his time.

But though Barbarossa had left the ranks of the Barbary rovers, there were many great captains ready to lead the pirate galleys, with a famous commander named Dragut at their head. Dragut led his raids chiefly along the Adriatic, seizing the galleys of Venice and plundering the shores of Italy. But one day in 1540 he was surprised by a Genoese sea-captain and taken prisoner. The captain made a present of Dragut to his uncle, Andrea Doria, a great Genoese admiral and a life-long foe of the Turkish Corsairs. Doria put Dragut in chains and fastened him to the oar bench of one of his galleys, to toil at the labour of the oar. Three years the pirate captain spent in this wretched case, until Barbarossa, in 1543, ransomed him for 3000 crowns. It was a bad bargain for Christendom. Dragut returned to his old trade, and made his name more dreaded than ever in the western Mediterranean. But while Dragut had been a Captive there had been strange doings at Algiers.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


In 1541 Charles V. of Spain made up his mind to destroy that nest of pirates in Algiers, and make an end of them once and for all. To his vast power the destruction of one small city seemed the most trifling task in the world; the attempt proved to be one of the most shameful disasters ever inflicted on the hosts of Christendom.

Things went wrong from the first. Charles started too late in the year. He launched a great fleet carrying a splendid army in October 1541. Autumn was upon him, and the dreaded winter storms were at hand. Gales buffeted them on the way to Algiers. The troops landed and marched to the city. The weather fought for the pirates as no army could have done. The sea had been so rough that few stores could be landed. The soldiers had neither tents nor cloaks to shelter them from the furious blast of the bitter wind, the pelting showers of cold, driving rain. The water-logged soil became a sea of mud in which the men floundered miserably; their powder was wet; they had little food; they were wet and cold and hungry, and had little heart to fight when the Turks and Moors sallied upon them from the town. The sally was beaten back, and there was some fighting, but nothing decisive.

Then on the morning of the 25th of October there sprang up a most terrible hurricane, which is remembered to this day in Algiers as "Charles's Gale." This hurricane burst upon the great fleet and smote it with awful destruction. Ship crashed into ship. Many were hurled ashore. In six hours one hundred and fifty vessels went to the bottom. Andrea Doria saved the rest by taking them out to sea, where they rode the storm in safety.

The losses of stores, above all, food and clothing, were so great that Charles saw he could not maintain his position before the city. So he gave orders that the troops should strike camp and retire to the ships. The retreat was begun. Great quantities of baggage and artillery were abandoned, for they could not be carried over the sodden soil and swollen rivers which must be crossed to gain the seashore. The unhappy infantry sank knee-deep in the thick mud; they were washed away in scores when attempting to wade the furious mountain torrents. At last they were forced to use the timbers of their own wrecked ships to construct bridges. Upon their flanks hung crowds of Turks and Moors and Arabs, who cut off great numbers of stragglers and harassed the retreat; but at length the unhappy army gained the shore and the shelter of their ships.

[Illustration] from Barbary Rovers by John Finnemore


Here a new difficulty arose. So many ships had been lost that there was no room to embark the horses; and these were no common horses. The chivalry of Spain had followed Charles and brought their finest chargers with them, animals of priceless value and the pride of the Spanish breed, at that day as famous in Europe as the English thoroughbred is now. They could not be carried. Charles reluctantly issued an order, and they were, to the grief of their masters, all destroyed. It was an almost fatal blow to the great Spanish breed.

As the fleet put off on the return voyage the wind was rising. Charles was among the last to embark, his heart full of sadness at this overthrow. It is said that the mighty Emperor took his crown from his head and flung it into the sea, saying, "Go, bauble; let some more fortunate prince wear and redeem thee."

Again the ships were assailed by a most dreadful storm, and were driven hither and thither by the gale. Some were wrecked near Algiers and their crews seized by the pirates. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Charles himself made the homeward voyage in safety, leaving many of his soldiers and sailors in the hands of the enemy. "Algiers teemed with Christian captives, and it became a common saying that a Christian slave was scarce a fair barter for an onion."

Harbor of Algiers


The next Christian expedition was an assault upon Tunis, nine years later, in 1550. The famous Dragut had established himself in that city, and a strong army was sent to drive him out, with old Andrea Doria in command of the ships. This time the Christians scored a success. The city was seized and Dragut had to fly. But the Sultan gave him twenty galleys, and the Corsair was soon harrying Christian shores to make good his losses. Doria scoured the seas in pursuit of Dragut, in hopes once more to seize him and chain him to a rowing bench, and regretting bitterly that he had ever let the Corsair go.

Then a wonderful stroke of luck came (16th Century) in the way of the great Genoese admiral.

He heard that Dragut was near the island of Jerba, and he sailed thither, took the Corsair utterly by surprise, and blocked his way of escape. Behind the island of Jerba lay a vast inland lake, a favourite resort of the Corsairs, reached from the north by a narrow passage down which Dragut had sailed. Here he lay in the lake, busily engaged in scraping the keels of his galleys and greasing them that they might slide more swiftly through the water. To his dismay the powerful fleet of Doria hove in sight, and the Genoese planted his ships squarely across the mouth of the northern channel, and chuckled to think he had shut up Dragut in a trap.

Doria did not come into the lake for excellent reasons. His heavy vessels would find it dangerous to attempt the narrow channel whose shoals and sandbanks the lighter pirate galleys had passed with ease. And the famous old admiral was a very cautious man; he never risked seamen or ship except at urgent need, and here he had only to wait till the Corsair was forced to come out. He sent word to Europe that he had safely trapped the Corsair fleet, for though there was a southern channel it was so shallow, so filled with mud and sand, that no one had ever heard of a vessel passing that way to the open sea.

At first Dragut knew not what to do. It was hopeless to think of venturing out of his refuge. He could not hope to pit his galleys against a fleet not only vastly more powerful, but under the command of the most famous admiral of Christendom. So his nimble wits went to work to find a way out of the trap. First of all he landed some of his cannons, placed them in an earthwork and fired briskly on the enemy. He did them little damage, but he did not trouble about that: he wished only to make Doria hesitate still further before attacking, and this object he gained. Meanwhile, his men were working like furies at the southern end of the lake. Assisted by thousands of native labourers called from the country round about they cut a channel and prepared a way of escape. On a given night, as soon as darkness fell, all hands turned to the task. Rollers were put under the keels of the galleys, and they were hauled across the shallows by hundreds of willing hands. Next they were worked along the canal which had been cut, and long before dawn, oars were dipped in the deep water at the southern end of the island, and Dragut and his men were off full speed for Turkish waters and safety.

At daybreak Doria rubbed his eyes in amazement, and looked and looked again. At nightfall he had seen the pirate galleys lying in the lake. Where were they now? Never had the famous old seaman endured a more bitter disappointment. Dragut had now had enough of cruising on his own account. In 1551 he joined the Turkish navy and assisted the Turkish fleet to harry the Christians until he fell at Malta in 1565, during the great assault which the Turks made upon that stronghold of the Knights of St. John.