Pirate Spotlight: The Barbarossa Brothers

Everyone loves to read about pirates and their adventures on the open sea of years past. This article, we will discuss the Barbarossa brothers who sailed from the Barbary Coast in Northern Africa back in the 1500’s.  Barbarossa, which means “red beard” in Italian, was the last name for brothers Aruj and Hizir who became rich through their pirate adventures on the Mediterranean Sea. Continue to read below to learn more about the Barbarossa brothers and their many pirate adventures.

Early Start to Piracy

The Barbarossa brothers career took off when they successfully captured European vessels including two papal galleys and a Sardinian warship early in their career. Shortly thereafter, they began focusing their concentration on Spanish vessels. Around that same time, brother Aruj lost an arm to the Spanish during an intense battle. A few years later in 1516, the Ottoman sultan gave Aruj the power to unofficially oversee the entire Barbary Coast. However, 2 years later  brother Hizir took over following this powerful role after his brother’s death. Hizir was also known as Khair-ed-Din, ended up living out the rest of his years fighting against a variety of Christian enemies including a fleet that was specially created by the pope in the hopes of exonerating the Barbarossa brothers and their reign of terror.

Barbarossa Origins

Between the years of 1462 and 1912, the island of Lésbos in the Aegean Sea which is now part of modern day Greece lay under Turkish rule. During the 1470’s, the island of Lésbos was the birthplace of the Barbarossa brothers who ultimately became two of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest heroes.  In 1492 during the conquest of Granada, the Barbarossa brothers were already well known and courageous pirates in their own right. They successfully defeated Islamic rulers in the Iberian Peninsula which left Muslim immigrants to flee from the region to take refuge in North Africa. Years later in 1505, the Spanish and the Portuguese wanted to take on the continent of North Africa. The began their siege by focusing on coastal cities which enraged their fellow Muslims.  

Fight For Power

Both brothers served as privateers under an Ottomon sultan’s son’s rule. At that time, the Barbarossa brother pirates wreaked havoc on the Spanish and Portuguese trade and shipping ships in the western Mediterranean. When the sultan died in 1512, two of his sons, Ahmed and Selim fought over power until Selim defeated Ahmed and began eliminating the supporters of his brother Ahmed. Due to the unrest in the area, the Barbarossa brothers fled to North Africa to escape ties to that increasingly hostile government  and joined the region’s various kingdoms fighting against against Spain.  

Attack in Northern Africa & Ottoman Support

In 1516, the Barbarossa pirates attacked forces Algiers in Northern Africa and the Ottomans responded by expanding their influence by funding and providing political support to the brothers. The Ottomans also bestowed nominal titles of governor of Algiers to Arūj and Khiḍr was given the title of the Chief Sea Governor of the western Mediterranean.  When Arūj died in battle with the Spanish in 1518, the Spanish was able to consequently recapture Algiers shortly thereafter. At that time, Khiḍr assumed the title Barbarossa had formerly held and continued the fight with help from the Ottomans. Over the next decade, the region flip flopped between control and the Ottomans would later use Algiers as their primary base of operations in the western Mediterranean.

Most Famous Battle

One of the Barbarossa pirate’s most famous battle was in 1538 with his victory at Preveza, Greece. With a combined fleet fighting against Barbarossa that included ships from Venice, Genoa, Spain, Portugal, Malta, and the Papal States, the key to his victory was to use galleys instead of sailing ships since galleys were driven by oars and did not depend on the wind which made them easy to maneuver.  Barbarossa was able to defeated the powerful combined force by using only 122 galleys against 300 sailing ships. Barbarossa’s victory opened Tripoli and the eastern Mediterranean to Ottoman rule. Years later, Barbarossa continued to lead additional military campaigns and at one point even helped the French to overtake the Habsburgs in 1543 and 1544. The end to Barbarossa’s lucrative pirate career was in 1546 when he died in Constantinople.

The Barbarossa brothers are two of history’s most famous pirates who left a lasting mark on the Mediterranean.