They were Ishaq, Aruj, Ilyas and the youngest and most famous, Khair ad Din, who became known to Europeans as Barbarossa, or Red Beard.
Prisoner of the Knights of St. John
At first, the brothers were employed as sailors, working to combat the privateering activities of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, originally a military crusading order in the Holy Land, but now based on the island of Rhodes.
While returning from a trading mission to Tripoli in Lebanon, Aruj and his younger brother Ilyas were attacked by a vessel belonging to the Knights.
Ilyas was killed and their ship was captured. Aruj, who lost his left arm in the fighting, was taken prisoner and incarcerated in the Knights’ castle of Bodrum on the Aegean island of Rhodes. Subsequently the lost limb was replaced with a prosthetic made of silver, earning Aruj the nickname of ‘Silver Arm.’
Rescued by Barbarossa
Aruj remained in prison for three years until Barbarossa discovered where he was and staged a daring rescue. Once free, Aruj moved on to Egypt.
There, he presented himself before the Mameluke Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri and persuaded him to hand over a ship so that he could attack the Christian-ruled islands of Rhodes, Malta and Crete.
In about 1505, Aruj expanded his operations. He seized three ships and based himself on the island of Djerba off the Tunisian coast. From there, he was able to patrol the western Mediterranean and earned plaudits in the Islamic world for rescuing the Mudejars – the small number of Muslims still living in Christian Spain – and taking them to North Africa.
The Spaniards in Algiers
Meanwhile, in 1511, the Spaniards captured Algiers. With this, the Barbary pirates were faced with the loss of their prime base and Aruj and Barbarossa were called in to expel the Christian invaders. They managed to retrieve Algiers in 1516, but two years later Aruj died in battle with the Spaniards as they attempted to win back the city.
The Spaniards now possessed a formidable army that might not be so easy to defeat a second time. Barbarossa, who took Aruj’s place as sole leader of the Algerines, as the pirates of Algiers were called, asked for aid from Selim Khan I, Sultan of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Sultan aimed to extend his Empire and make it the most powerful and influential of Muslim possessions.
Barbarossa’s request was a prize chance to gain the alliegance of a successful band of pirates: with that, Sultan Selim would acquire control over their principle pirate haunt in Algiers. He sent troops and at last, in 1529, the Spaniards were driven away.
Suleiman the Magnificent
Selim, meanwhile, had died and in return for Ottoman aid. Barbarossa declared allegance to his successor, Sultan Suleiman Khan I, better known as Suleiman the Magnificent.
In 1533, Suleiman appointed Barbarossa Admiral in Chief and furnished him with a great fleet. Five years later, this fleet finished Spanish ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean and secured it for the Ottomans for the next 33 years.
In 1544, King Francis I of France, asked Suleiman for aid in fighting the Spaniards, who had declared war on him. Suleiman sent Barbarossa to the French king. Barbarossa thrashed the Spaniards yet again and for good measure captured the Spanish-controlled port of Naples in Italy.
But once a pirate, always a pirate. During his raid on Naples, Barbarossa took 4,000 prisoners. They were afterwards sold into slavery together with another 9,000 captives – almost the entire population – which the pirates seized in the Lipari Islands.
Suleiman rewarded Barbarossa for his achievements by making him Supreme Commander of the Ottoman Navy in the Mediterranean with the title of Beylerbey, meaning Commanding General. In 1545, Barbarossa retired to the palace he had built for himself close to the Bosphorus waterway in Istanbul. He died there the following year.
Like Barbarossa, several other Mediterranean pirates were appointed beylerbeys and acquired the title of reis (admiral) which hid their activities behind a mask of legitimacy. Strictly speaking, a reis was a privateer, whose voyages were licensed by a recognised ruler.
The deal was that the pirate ships were fitted out by rulers, aristocrats, merchants and other wealthy patrons and commanded by the beylerbeys. They handed over 10 percent of the value of the plunder or alternatively, the prices fetched in the market by the sale of slaves.
The Role of the Beylerbeys
In reality, it made little difference whatever the beylerbeys were called. They were still pirates, still preying upon shipping and coastal villages still inspiring terror at the mere mention of their names. Homes, property, freedom and life itself were at their mercy and their mercy was in very short supply.
For most of the 16th and 17th centuries, the beylerbeys were ruthless. One of the most infamous was Turgut Reis, a friend of Barbarossa who succeeded him as Commander in the Mediterranean after Barbarossa’s death in 1546.
Turgut was nothing if not thorough. In 1551, he removed some 6,000 people – the entire population of Gozo, one of the Maltese islands in the Mediterranean – and transported them to Libya for sale in the slave markets.
Four years later, he appeared off Bastia on the island of Corsica, pillaged the town and carried off another 6,000 prisoners for the same purpose. Yet more victims headed for the slave markets after Turgut reis landed on the coast of Granada, in southern Spain, seized several coastal settlements, and enslaved even more people – 4,000 on this occasion.
Meanwhile other Barbary pirates had been just as busy. In 1554, their tally of victims amounted to 7,000 after they assaulted Vieste in southern Italy. In 1558, the pirates pillaged Ciutadella on the Balaeric island of Minorca, destroyed the town, butchered most of the inhabitants and finally set sail for Istanbul with 3,000 survivors on board.