Great Muslim Admirals: Baba Aruj

Charles Etienne Pierre Motte / Public domain

Forget Jack Sparrow and Captain Flint. Their daring and gallantry fade compared to the true masters of the seas in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Muslim corsairs and Admirals of the Ottoman Empire after whom ships of the modern Turkish Navy would later be named.

One of these corsairs and admirals was Aruj Barbarossa, one of the most famous captains of the Ottoman Empire. Legends were made about him. The Europeans referred to him as Barbarossa (Red Beard), and the Ottomans called him Baba Aruj (Father Aruj). It was he who became the prototype for the pirate Hector Barbossa in the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Three submarines of the Turkish Navy are named after him. But first things first.

Aruj was born in 1474 on the island of Lesvos, which had been conquered ten years earlier from the Genoese. He had four brothers and two sisters. His origin was not the most brilliant one for a Muslim state, rather the opposite. His father was Albanian. When the Ottoman Empire launched an offensive against Albania in the middle of the 15th century and the Albanians united against the Ottomans under the leadership of Skanderberg, Yakup-aga judged that he would be more successful in the Ottoman camp than eking out a half-impoverished existence in his homeland. He converted to Islam and joined the ranks of the Ottoman mercenaries. His military services were rewarded. After the capture of Lesvos, he received a land allotment and the position of ‘aga’ (lotd of the village). Here he met a Christian widow named Catherine, whom he married.

Yakup-aga started a successful pottery business, and his sons worked by his side. The eldest son Ishak headed the family business in Lesvos, the third son Hizir opened a branch in Thessaloniki, and the second son Aruj and the youngest Ilyas were in charge of trade in Palestine and Syria, and were also responsible for sea transportation: Yakup-aga purchased a ship that transported goods between different countries. One day, when Aruj was 20 years old, their ship was returning from Tripoli and was attacked by a galleon of the Hospitaller Knights. Ilyas was killed, Aruj was wounded and captured. He spent 3 years in captivity with the Hospitaller Order on the island of Rhodes.

His brother Hizir found out where his brother was held, and, abandoning the family business, equipped a ship to help him. He managed to free Aruj. They vowed to take revenge on the Christians who ruled the Mediterranean. But with one ship, it was impossible to fight the Hospitallers. Then Aruj went to the governor of Antalya, the son of Sultan Bayazid Shehzade Korkut, who gave him a fleet of 18 galleys and ordered to attack the coast of the Kingdom of Naples. Aruj successfully carried out military operations and even captured two military galleys of Pope Julius II.

In 1503, Aruj entered into an agreement with the Sultan of Tunisia that he would give him the island of Djerba as a military base, and Aruj undertook to pay the Sultan a third of his booty. Djerba became the main island of the Mediterranean corsairs. Aruj’s fleet grew and became a formidable force, capturing the ships of the Christian kings of the Mediterranean and constantly ravaging their possessions. Military expeditions were organized against him, which returned with nothing.

Algeria became the main acquisition of Aruja. In 1516, Aruj and his brother Hizir (known as Hayreddin) recaptured Algeria from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had captured it shortly before, but did not return it to the former sultan. Aruj himself became the ruler of Algeria. And the next year he recognized the supremacy of the Ottoman Sultan, after which Algeria became part of the Ottoman Empire, the province of which it remained until 1830, when it became a French protectorate.

Aruj died a year later, in 1518, defending Morocco from the Spanish invasion. In one of the battles he could escape, he already ferried over to the other bank of the river, but seeing that his comrades were dying, he crossed back to die with them.

The title of the Sultan of Algeria passed over to his brother Hayreddin, who continued his brother’s glory and became the great Muslim admiral of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.