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Moorish Corsairs - AD 1534-1705

Constantinople was not only the political capital for the Turkish empire but the religious center of the whole Moslem world. The Arab states on the southern borders of the Mediterranean acknowledged the suzerainty of the Turkish ruler. This fact was of great importance, for it enabled the Turks to become masters of the inland sea. In 1492 the greater part of the Moors - the descendants of the Arab conquerors of Spain - were expelled from the Peninsula by the conquest of Granada. This event was hailed with joy throughout Christendom, but it had an unexpected and terrible consequence. Flung back into northern Africa, and filled with hatred because of the persecution they had endured, these Moors embarked on a career of piracy directed against Christians.

In making common cause with the Turks the Moors supplied the fleets that the Turkish power needed to carry out its schemes of conquest. Apparently the Turks had never taken to salt water as the Arabs had done, but in these Moorish pirates they found fighters on the sea well worthy to stand comparison with their peerless fighters on land, the Janissaries. Between 1492 and 1580, the date of Ali's death, there was a period in which the Moorish corsairs were supreme. It produced three great leaders, each of whom in turn became the terror of the sea: Kheyr ed Din, known as Barbarossa, Dragut, and Ali. It is a curious fact that the first and third were of Christian parentage.

So long as the Turk invaded Christian territory by land alone, the Venetians were unconcerned. They made what treaties they could for continuing their trade with communities that had fallen into the conquerors' hands. But when the Turk began to spread out by sea it was inevitable that he must clash with the Venetian, and so there was much fighting. Yet even after a successful naval campaign the emissary of Venice was obliged to come before the Sultan, cap in hand, to beg trading privileges in Turkish territory. Everything in Venetian policy was subordinated to the maintenance of sufficient friendly relations with the Turk to assure a commercial monopoly in the Levant. Although the Moslem peril grew more and more menacing, Venice remained unwilling to join in any united action for the common good of Europe.

Of course Venice was not alone in this policy. In 1534 Francis the First, for example, in order to humiliate his rival, Charles V, secretly sent word to Barbarossa of the plans being made against him. Indeed France showed no interest in combating the Turk even at the time when he was at the summit of his power. But Venice, as the dominating naval power, had the means of checking the Turkish invasion if she had chosen to do so. Instead she permitted the control of the Mediterranean to slip from her into the hands of the Moslems with scarcely a blow.

The leading part in the resistance to the Moslem sea power was taken by Spain under Charles V. He had, as admiral of the navy, Andrea Doria, the Genoese, the ablest seaman on the Christian side. Early in his career he had captured a notorious corsair; later in the service of Spain, he defeated the Turks at Patras (at the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth), and again at the Dardanelles. These successes threatened Turkish supremacy on the Mediterranean, and Sultan Soliman "the Magnificent," the ruler under whom the Turkish empire reached its zenith, summoned the Algerian corsair Barbarossa and gave him supreme command over all the fleets under the Moslem banner. At this time, 1533, Barbarossa was seventy-seven years old, but he had lost none of his fire or ability. On the occasion of being presented to the Sultan, he uttered a saying that might stand as the text for all the writings of Mahan: "Sire, he who rules on the sea will shortly rule on the land also."

The following year Barbarossa set out from Constantinople with a powerful fleet and proceeded to ravage the coast of Italy. He sacked Reggio, burnt and massacred elsewhere on the coast without opposition, cast anchor at the mouth of the Tiber and if he had chosen could have sacked Rome and taken the Pope captive. He then returned to Constantinople with 11,000 Christian captives.

Charles V was roused by this display of corsair power and barbarity to collect a force that should put an end to such raids. Barbarossa had recently added Tunis to his personal domains, and the great expedition of ships and soldiers which the emperor assembled was directed against that city. Despite the warning given by the King of France, Barbarossa was unable to oppose the Christian host with a force sufficiently strong to defend the city. The Christians captured it and the chieftain escaped only by a flight along the desert to the port of Bona where he had a few galleys in reserve. With these he made his way to Algiers before Andrea Doria could come up with him. The Christians celebrated the capture of Tunis by a massacre of some 30,000 inhabitants and returned home, thanking God that at last Barbarossa was done for. Indeed, with the loss of his fleet and his newly acquired province it seemed as if the great pirate was not likely to give much trouble, but the Christians had made the mistake of leaving the work only half done.

Robert Blake's reputation stands second only to that of Nelson among the sea-fighters of the English people. Cromwell sent him with a squadron into the Mediterranean to enforce respect for the Commonwealth from the Italian governments and the Barbary states. He conducted his mission with eminent success. Although the Barbary pirates did not course the sea in great fleets as in the palmy days of Barbarossa, they were still a source of peril to Christian traders. Blake was received civilly by the Dey of Algiers but negotiations did not result satisfactorily. At Tunis he was openly flouted. The Pasha drew up his nine cruisers inside Porto Farina and defied the English admiral to do his worst. Blake left for a few days to gain the effect of surprise and replenish provisions. On April 4, 1655, he suddenly reappeared and stood in to the attack.

The harbor of Porto Farina was regarded as impregnable. The entrance was narrow and the shores lined with castles and batteries. As Blake foresaw, the wind that took him in would roll the battle smoke upon the enemy. In a short time he had silenced the fire of the forts and then sent boarding parties against the Tunisian ships, which were speedily taken and burnt. Then he took his squadron out again, having destroyed the entire Tunisian navy, shattered the forts, and suffered only a trifling loss. This exploit resounded throughout the Mediterranean. Algiers was quick to follow Tunis in yielding to Blake's demands. It is characteristic of this officer that he should have made the attack on Tunis entirely without orders from Cromwell, and it is equally characteristic of the latter that he was heartily pleased with the initiative of his admiral in carrying out the spirit rather than the letter of his instructions.

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