Aruj Barbarossa: Most Notorious Pirate of the Barbary Corsairs
Aruj Barbarossa, known also in Turkish as Oruc Reis, is one of the most notorious pirates in history. He lived between the 15th and 16th centuries, and was one of the most well-known Barbary corsairs. As allies of the Ottomans, the usual targets of Aruj and his corsairs were Christian and other non-Islamic vessels that sailed in the western Mediterranean.
The Barbary corsairs were pirates / privateers who operated from ports on the Barbary Coast, that is, the western portion of North Africa from Tripoli in the east, to Morocco in the west. During Aruj’s lifetime, the Barbary Coast was part of the Ottoman Empire. Aruj submitted Algiers in 1517 to the Ottomans when they became the rulers of that region. As allies of the Ottomans, the usual targets of Aruj and his corsairs were Christian and other non-Islamic vessels that sailed in the western Mediterranean.
Aruj Barbarossa’s Life
Aruj Barbarossa was born around 1474 on the Greek island of Lesbos, which was taken from the Genoese by the Ottomans in 1462. Aruj’s father, Yakup, may have been a sipahi, i.e. a feudal cavalry knight. Others, however, have speculated that Yakup was a janissary from Vardar, an area in modern day Macedonia. Aruj’s mother, Katalina, was a local Christian woman, who was also the widow of an Orthodox priest. Aruj had an older brother by the name of Ishak, as well as two younger brothers, Khizr (more commonly known as Hayreddin), and Ilias.
A (1597) map of Lesbos (Mytilene), the location of Barbarossa’s birth. (CC BY 3.0)
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The Four Brothers
Eventually, all four brothers became sailors. The corsairs were not the only pirates in the Mediterranean. During one of their sea-faring missions, the brothers encountered the Knights of St. John - Christian pirates who operated from the island of Rhodes. During the ensuing sea battle with these Christian pirates, one of Aruj’s brothers, Ilias, was killed in combat. Aruj himself was captured by the knights, and imprisoned on their island, where he waited to be sold as a slave. It has been suggested that Aruj either escaped from captivity, and fled to Egypt via Italy, or served as a galley slave until he was ransomed by an Egyptian prince, and then sent to Alexandria.
A lithograph of Aruj Barbarossa (Public Domain)
This seems to be the point when Aruj and his surviving brothers turned to piracy, so as to counteract the actions of the Knights of St. John. It is said that, whilst in Egypt, Aruj managed to obtain an audience with the Mamluk sultan, Al-Ashraf Qansuh al-Ghawri, and received a ship from him. This ship was manned and Aruj began to attack Christian vessels.
Baba Aruj and his Battles
In the meantime, the Spanish Reconquista had ended in 1492, and the new Christian rulers of Spain were not inclined to treat their Muslim and Jewish subjects kindly. Many Jews and Muslim decided to flee from Spain to North Africa. It has been claimed that Aruj came to the aid of these people, and helped a large number of them to escape from the hands of the Spanish. It is said that because of this good deed, Aruj became known a Baba Aruj (Father Aruj). Some say that the name Baba Aruj was turned by Europeans into Barbarossa, as the two words sounded similar. Alternatively, it has been argued that the name Barbarossa (Italian for ‘red beard’) was given to Aruj simply due to the color of his beard.
Aruj, however, was not contented with merely rescuing refugees. Apart from mistreating their Jewish and Muslim subjects, the Spanish had also been expanding into North Africa after the Reconquista. Aruj became a mercenary, and was hired by the ruler of the Algerian seaport of Bougie to retake this city.
This mission, however, ended in failure, and Aruj even lost his left arm during the siege. His arm was amputated by surgeons, and replaced with a prosthetic one made of silver. Aruj besieged the city again, though this too ended in failure.
Despite these setbacks, Aruj maintained his reputation, and was hired in 1516 by the city of Algiers to drive out the Spanish. This time, Aruj was successful. Not only were the Spanish driven out, but its former ruler, Selim ben Tumi, was also killed by the pirate. Aruj was now the ruler of Algiers, and a year later, pledged his allegiance to the Ottomans.
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Oruç captures a galley. (Public Domain)
Aruj’s rule would not last long, as the Spanish sent an army to get rid of him in 1518. The Spanish besieged Aruj at Tlemcen, a city near Algiers. Despite being heavily outnumbered by the enemy, Aruj and his men were apparently able to hold out for 20 days, before being overcome by the numerically superior Spanish. Aruj and his brother, Ishak, both lost their lives, and it is written that the severed head of the former was driven into a stake. Aruj was succeeded by his last remaining brother, Hayreddin, who was a fearsome pirate in his own right.
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