The Legend of the Barbarossa Brother Pirates

There is something magical and mysterious about pirates that has piqued interest in many people over time. Here we will discuss the Barbarossa brother pirates who sailed from the Barbary Coast in Northern Africa way back in the 1500’s.  Barbarossa, which means “red beard” in Italian, was the last name for brothers Aruj and Hizir who became famous and powerful by accumulating riches during their pirate adventures on the Mediterranean Sea. Read below to learn more about the Barbarossa brothers and their many pirate adventures.

Origins of Their Careers

The origins of the Barbarossa brothers career occured when they successfully captured European vessels early in their career.  They successfully captured two papal galleys and a Sardinian warship which ignited their passion for pirating. Shortly thereafter, they focused their concentration on attacking and conquering Spanish vessels. Sadly, brother Aruj lost an arm to the Spanish during an intense battle around that time. Later in 1516, an Ottoman sultan gave Aruj the power to unofficially oversee the entire Barbary Coast. However, 2 years later  Aruj was killed in battle and his brother Hizir took over following this powerful role after his brother’s death. Hizir was also known as Khair-ed-Din, and he ended up living out the rest of his years fighting against a variety of Christian enemies including a fleet especially organized by the pope with the hopes of exonerating the Barbarossa brothers and their reign of terror.

History of the Region

During the years between 1462 and 1912, the island of Lésbos in the Aegean Sea which is now part of modern day Greece were ruled by the Turks. During the 1470’s, the island of Lésbos was the place where the Barbarossa brothers were born.  Two of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest heroes, the Barbarossa brothers were already well known and courageous pirates in their own right. In 1492 during the conquest of Granada, they successfully defeated Islamic rulers in the Iberian Peninsula and that left Muslim immigrants to flee from the region in order to take refuge in North Africa.  A few years later in 1505, the Spanish and the Portuguese set their sights on taking over the entire North Africa region. They began focusing on coastal cities and continued their siege in the interior of the continent which further enraged their fellow Muslims.

Power Struggle

At one point, both of the Barbarossa brothers served as privateers under an Ottomon sultan’s son’s rule. At that time, the Barbarossa brother pirates caused major problems for the Spanish and Portuguese traders and seized many ships in the western Mediterranean. When the Ottoman sultan died in 1512, his two sons Ahmed and Selim fought over power until Selim defeated Ahmed. Shortly thereafter, Selim began eliminating the supporters of his brother Ahmed. The Barbarossa brothers fled to North Africa to escape the unrest in the area due the power struggle between the sultans, and wanted to disassociate themselves with the increasingly hostile government. Instead, they joined the region’s various kingdoms fighting against against Spain.  

Northern Africa & Ottoman

The Barbarossa brother pirates attacked forces in Algiers which is located in Northern Africa, and the Ottomans responded in 1516 by expanding their influence by providing political support to the brothers. The Ottomans also bestowed nominal titles of governor of Algiers to Arūj, and Khiḍr was titled Chief Sea Governor of the western Mediterranean.  In 1518 when Arūj died in battle fighting against the Spanish, the Spanish were then able to consequently recapture Algiers afterwards. Khiḍr then took over the title Barbarossa had formerly held, and continued the fight with help from the Ottomans. Throughout the next decade, the region wavered between control and the Ottomans would later use Algiers as their primary base of western Mediterranean operations.

Famous Battle In 1538: Preveza, Greece

Did you know that one of the Barbarossa pirate’s most famous battle was in 1538 with his victory at Preveza, Greece?  Barbarossa used a combined fleet to successfully fight using ships from Venice, Genoa, Spain, Portugal, Malta, and the Papal States.  The key to his victory was to use galleys instead of sailing ships as galleys are driven by oars and did not require wind power to operate which made them easy to maneuver.  Barbarossa was able to defeat the powerful combined force using only 122 galleys up against an impressive 300 sailing ships. As a result, Barbarossa’s victory opened Tripoli and the eastern Mediterranean to Ottoman rule. Many years later, Barbarossa lead additional military campaigns and even overtook the Habsburgs alongside French forces in 1543 and 1544. The end to Barbarossa’s lucrative pirate career occured in 1546 when he died in Constantinople.

The Barbarossa brothers are two of history’s most famous pirates who together became legends in their own right.