Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa

Barbarossa led the Ottoman navy to victory in the Battle of Preveza, 1538.


He began his naval career as a Barbary pirate, alongside his brothers, raiding Christian coastal villages and seizing ships across the Mediterranean. Khair-ed-Din, also known as Hayreddin Barbarossa, was so successful as a corsair that he managed to become the ruler of Algiers, and then the chief admiral of the Ottoman Turkish navy under Suleiman the Magnificent. Barbarossa started life as a simple potter's son and rose to lasting piratical fame.

Early Life

Khair-ed-Din was born sometime in the late 1470s or early 1480s in the village of Palaiokipos, on the Ottoman-controlled Greek island of Midilli. His mother Katerina was likely a Greek Christian, while his father Yakup is of uncertain ethnicity - different sources state that he was Turkish, Greek, or Albanian. In any case, Khair was the third of their four sons.

Yakup was a potter, who purchased a boat to help him sell his goods all around the island and beyond. His sons all learned to sail as part of the family business. As young men, sons Ilyas and Aruj operated their father's boat, while Khair bought a ship of his own; they all began operating as privateers in the Mediterranean. 

Between 1504 and 1510, Aruj used his fleet of ships to help ferry Moorish Muslim refugees from Spain to North Africa after the Christian Reconquista and the fall of Granada. The refugees referred to him as Baba Aruj or "Father Aruj," but Christians heard the name as Barbarossa, which is Italian for "Redbeard." As it happened, Aruj and Khair both had red beards, so the western nickname stuck. 

In 1516, Khair and his older brother Aruj led a sea and land invasion of Algiers, then under Spanish domination. The local amir, Salim al-Tumi, had invited them to come and free his city, with assistance from the Ottoman Empire. The brothers defeated the Spanish and drove them from the city, and then assassinated the amir. 

Aruj took power as the new Sultan of Algiers, but his position was not secure. He accepted an offer from the Ottoman sultan Selim I to make Algiers part of the Ottoman Empire; Aruj became the Bey of Algiers, a tributary ruler under Istanbul's control. The Spanish killed Aruj in 1518, however, at the capture of Tlemcen, and Khair took on both the beyship of Algiers and the nickname "Barbarossa." 

Bey of Algiers

In 1520, Sultan Selim I died and a new sultan took the Ottoman throne. He was Suleiman, called "The Lawgiver" in Turkey and "The Magnificent" by Europeans. In return for Ottoman protection from Spain, Barbarossa offered Suleiman the use of his pirate fleet. The new bey was an organizational mastermind, and soon Algiers was the center of privateer activity for all of North Africa. Barbarossa became the de facto ruler of all the so-called Barbary pirates and began to build up a significant land-based army as well.

Barbarossa's fleet captured a number of Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with gold. It also raided coastal Spain, Italy, and France, carrying off loot and also Christians who would be sold as enslaved people. In 1522, Barbarossa's ships assisted in the Ottoman conquest of the island of Rhodes, which had been a stronghold for the troublesome Knights of St. John, also called Knights Hospitaller, an order leftover from the Crusades. In the fall of 1529, Barbarossa helped an additional 70,000 Moors flee from Andalusia, southern Spain, which was in the grips of the Spanish Inquisition.

Throughout the 1530s, Barbarossa continued to capture Christian shipping, seize towns, and raid Christian settlements all around the Mediterranean. In 1534, his ships sailed right up to the River Tiber, causing panic in Rome.

To answer the threat he posed, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire appointed famed Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, who began to capture Ottoman towns along the southern Greek coast. Barbarossa responded in 1537 by seizing a number of Venetian-controlled islands for Istanbul. 

Events came to a head in 1538. Pope Paul III organized a "Holy League" made up of the Papal States, Spain, the Knights of Malta, and the Republics of Genoa and Venice. Together, they assembled a fleet of 157 galleys under Andrea Doria's command, with the mission of defeating Barbarossa and the Ottoman fleet. Barbarossa had just 122 galleys when the two forces met off of Preveza.

The Battle of Preveza, on September 28, 1538, was a smashing victory for Hayreddin Barbarossa. Despite their smaller numbers, the Ottoman fleet took the offensive and crashed through Doria's attempt at encirclement. The Ottomans sank ten of the Holy League's ships, captured 36 more, and burned three, without losing a single ship themselves. They also captured about 3,000 Christian sailors, at a cost of 400 Turkish dead and 800 wounded. The following day, despite urging from the other captains to stay and fight, Doria ordered the survivors of the Holy League's fleet to withdraw.

Barbarossa continued on to Istanbul, where Suleiman received him at the Topkapi Palace and promoted him to Kapudan-i Derya or "Grand Admiral" of the Ottoman Navy, and Beylerbey or "Governor of governors" of Ottoman North Africa. Suleiman also gave Barbarossa the governorship of Rhodes, fittingly enough.

The Grand Admiral

The victory at Preveza gave the Ottoman Empire dominance in the Mediterranean Sea that lasted for more than thirty years. Barbarossa took advantage of that dominance to clear all of the islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas of Christian fortifications. Venice sued for peace in October of 1540, acknowledging Ottoman suzerainty over those lands and paying war indemnities.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, tried in 1540 to tempt Barbarossa to become the top admiral of his fleet, but Barbarossa was not willing to be recruited. Charles personally led a siege on Algiers the following fall, but stormy weather and Barbarossa's formidable defenses wreaked havoc on the Holy Roman fleet and sent them sailing for home. This attack on his home base led Barbarossa to adopt an even more aggressive stance, raiding throughout the western Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Empire was allied with France by this time, in what the other Christian nations called "The Unholy Alliance," working in opposition to Spain and the Holy Roman Empire.

Barbarossa and his ships defended southern France from a Spanish attack several times between 1540 and 1544. He also made a number of daring raids in Italy. The Ottoman fleet was recalled in 1544 when Suleiman and Charles V reached a truce. In 1545, Barbarossa went on his last expedition, sailing to raid the Spanish mainland and offshore islands.

Death and Legacy

The great Ottoman admiral retired to his palace in Istanbul in 1545, after appointing his son to rule Algiers. As a retirement project, Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha dictated his memoirs in five, hand-written volumes.

Barbarossa died in 1546. He is buried on the European side of the Bosporus Straits. His statue, which stands next to his mausoleum, includes this verse:

Whence on the sea's horizon comes that roar? / Can it be Barbarossa now returning / From Tunis or Algiers or from the isles? / Two hundred ships ride on the waves / Coming from lands the rising crescent lights / O blessed ships, from what seas are you come?

Hayreddin Barbarossa left behind a great Ottoman navy, which continued to support the empire's great power status for centuries to come. It stood as a monument to his skills in organization and administration, as well as naval warfare. Indeed, in the years following his death, the Ottoman navy ventured out into the Atlantic and into the Indian Ocean to project Turkish power in distant lands.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).