Pirates of the Mediterranean

It’s not just the Caribbean that’s famous for its pirates. There were pirates in all the seas and oceans of the world – and there still are pirates in some places.

Murat the Great was originally from Albania, but was captured by Barbary pirates in 1546 and decided to join their crew. Ten years later, he was captain of his own ship – which he promptly ran onto a reef and sunk. Not a very good start to a new career.

Murat wasn’t very big, but he was clever and fierce and he was soon wreaking havoc on the fleets of the Knights of Malta and the Knights of St Stephen, taking many ships and hundreds of slaves. He was the first Barbary corsair to sail into the Atlantic, where he attacked the Canary Islands. He was appointed Captain of the Sea, or admiral of the Algiers fleet, in 1594, and went to war against Spain in support of England and France. Murat was appointed Beylerbey, or governor, of southern Greece in 1607 and his first task was … to stamp out piracy.

Kheireddin Barbarossa (or “Redbeard”) wasn’t just a corsair. He was a master at naval tactics, and an expert at organising ships and men on a mass scale. His older brother, Aruj Barbarossa, had conquered much of North Africa. Kheireddin consolidated that power base and threw the Spaniards out of Algiers, until he had dozens of ships in his fleet. Suleiman the Magnificent appointed Barbarossa as Kapudan Pasha (or grand admiral) in 1533, and he sent his fleet of 250 galleys against southern Italy, into the Aegean, and to join with the French navy in the war against Spain. He returned to Constantinople a hero.

Among his key advisors were two of the greatest sailors and corsairs of all time, the brilliant Jewish renegade Sinan Reis, and Dragut Reis, the legendary admiral who perished in the Great Siege of Malta.

Cannon Bodrum castle

Brother Mathurin D’Aux De Lescout-Romegas was a younger son of one of the great families of France. He joined the Knights of Malta, but in 1555 became famous for an accident, rather than a victory. A typhoon hit the ship on which he was an officer. The ship capsized, and many hours later rescuers heard strange tapping noises from inside the hull. They cut a hole in the wood, and out came a pet monkey, followed by a trembling Romegas, who had been standing in water up to his neck for hours. He never stopped trembling, ever, but became famous as one of the bravest and most daring of the Knights.

Romegas spent years hunting along the Barbary coast attacking ships that were larger and more powerful than his own. He took many slaves, including the sultan’s daughter, and the prize from one raid alone was more than 80,000 gold ducats. These raids made Suleiman the Magnificent so angry that they were part of the reason he launched the Great Siege of Malta, where Romegas would come up against the other great corsair of the age: Dragut Reis.

Sir Henry Mainwaring was born in England to a life of wealth and privilege, educated at Oxford and intended for a glittering career in the army. Instead, he went to sea, intending to trade in the West Indies and raid the Spanish shipping routes – he swore that he would never attack English ships. Instead, in 1613, he sailed to Mamora, a Barbary pirate haven, and from there he raided and plundered, earning himself millions of gold pieces. The next year, he and his new fleet sailed clear across the Atlantic to Newfoundland and raided the fishing fleets. He returned, this time to France, and caused the Spanish so much trouble they offered him a pardon and 200,000 ducats a year if he would stop attacking their ships. He turned them down.

Henry wanted to go home. He sailed back to Ireland and asked King James I for a pardon. The king was so delighted that he let Henry and all his crew keep their plunder – especially since it was mostly from Spanish victims. Henry then helped James by chasing the Barbary corsairs out of the English channel. He retired in 1618, was knighted by the king and became a good friend to both James and his son Charles. Sir Henry went on to hold many important positions at court, led some expeditions on behalf of the king, and wrote books – one of them was about how to fight pirates.

Jan Jansz was born in Holland and began his career sailing for the Dutch against the Spanish. (If you’re wondering why everyone picks on poor old Spain, the answer is simple: Gold. Spanish conquistadors had conquered South America and were busy plundering the temples and goldmines of the Inca and Maya. All that gold was shipped back to Spain on what became known as Treasure Ships: the richest prizes on the sea. Of course, there was also a lot of international intrigue and politics going on, but it was the gold that most interested the pirates.)

Jansz he decided he could make more money sailing for himself, so he became a pirate, turning on any ship he could find, including Dutch ships. In 1618 he was captured by corsairs from Algiers, and chose to join them. He converted to Islam, took the name Murat Reis, married a Moroccan woman in Sale (even though he was already married) and settled down to a life as a renegade – a European sailor turned Barbary corsair.

He roamed far and wide in search of plunder, even returning to Holland once, where Dutchmen begged for the chance to join his crew, and raided as far as Iceland, where he took 400 slaves, and Ireland, where he captured 130 people. He sold his slaves in the markets at Algiers, but not long after was captured himself by the Knights of Malta. For some reason, they didn’t hang him, but instead released him, and he ended his days as the Governor of the Moroccan city of Oualidia.

of Brindisi started off as a local bandit but by 1187 he was in charge of the King of Sicily’s fleet. When Greek ships tried to take over Cyprus, Margarito attacked and took the admirals prisoner.

But he wasn’t content with just being a corsair. By 1182, he had conquered the Ionian Islands and declared himself lord. The King of Sicily appointed him the Count of Malta. He was legendary among pirates, as an example of the poor boy who became a nobleman.

But Margarito’s reign was over only two years later, when King Henri VI seized Sicily and the Ionian Islands, and had Margarito blinded as punishment.

Pirate havens

The Mediterranean Sea offered many places where pirates could hideout: to stock up on food and water, repair ships, sign up new crew members, and even visit their families (or at least girlfriends).

Some havens were little towns or fishing villages that welcomed the coins pirates spent ashore, and didn’t ask too many questions about how the money had been raised. Perhaps the inhabitants did a little smuggling of their own, or bought stolen goods from the pirates to sell, like the fishermen in the Inland Sea on Gozo in The Pirate’s Revenge.

Other pirate havens were more organised, equipping and operating their own fleets, or actively supporting corsairs and their expeditions. The Barbary States and Malta were really only very well-organised and legitimate havens, while other ports flourished from time to time, depending on the whims of their kings or queens.

In different eras Crete, Cyprus, Villefranche, Marseilles, Nice, Livorno (or Leghorn), Naples, the Ionian Islands, Bodrum and Rhodes all provided safe harbour to corsair or pirate ships.

Pirate slaves

Taking slaves, and selling them back to their families for a high ransom fee, was one of the most lucrative pirate scams. Everyone did it, even those who claimed to be good Christian or Muslim corsairs.

Ordinary pirate slaves were treated abominably. Men would be chained to the oars of the great galleys of Barbary, Venice or Malta and forced to work all day and night with little food or water or rest. Many died, either at the oars, or in captivity, forced to work in mines or building projects. They were sold in the marketplace, and many women slaves were sent to work as domestic servants or in households.

No matter who you were, being a slave was a fearful and often dangerous experience. Nobles or wealthy people who were captured could expect better treatment, and might be taken to the local governor’s palace to await the huge ransom paid by their family for their return. There was no hope that the families of poor people would ever be able to afford a ransom fee.

For European slaves, one ray of hope was the Redemptionists, a group of priests who raised money to buy back Christian slaves kept in Barbary cities.

Perhaps the most famous pirate slave was the Spaniard Miguel Cervantes, who was captured by Memmi Reis after the Battle of Lepanto. He tried to escape four times, but was eventually released with the help of the Redemptionists, who paid 500 gold escudos for his life. Cervantes went on to become famous as the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, which includes a story about slavery, called ‘The Captive’s Tale’.

Famous fictional pirate slaves (besides, of course, Lily Swann and Carlo, who aren’t treated that badly – at first) include Sir Oliver Tressilian in Rafael Sabatini’s The Sea Hawk. On the other hand, in Captain Blood, Sabatini’s hero Doctor Peter Blood is sent by an English court as a slave to Barbados. He escapes from there and becomes a pirate, and later buys his sweetheart, Arabella, from a French pirate who has captured her.

There’s more information on famous pirates (and their flags) here.

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