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Suleiman’s proxy, pirate Khair ad-Din “Barbarossa,” bet that he could defend Tunis against Charles V’s massive invasion force. He was mistaken.

In the winter of 1533–1534, hundreds of skilled craftsmen filled the shipyards and armories of Constantinople, transforming lumber, hemp, unrefined metal, pitch, sulfur, and saltpeter into galleys, cable, guns, and gunpowder. These workers sat cross legged and stitched sails and tents, carved oar blades and gun stocks, and hammered steel into scimitars. Overseeing their work, a white-haired, barrel-chested man stomped among them, making sure that all work was done on time, on budget, and according to his exacting specifications. Khair ad-Din, called “Barbarossa” by Christendom and “King of Evil” by his Spanish enemies, was Sultan of Algiers, newly appointed kapudan pasha, admiral of the Ottoman Empire. At the request of Suleiman the Magnificent, he was creating a feet worthy of the superpower. The origin of this industrial spectacle reached back 40 years to 1492, when the grandparents of Charles V, Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, conquered the last of Muslim Spain. Many of the defeated, refusing to abjure their faith, fled to North Africa and used their knowledge of coastal Spain for piracy. Their success attracted ambitious upstarts from other areas, including, in 1512, Muslim brothers Aroudj and Khair ad-Din from the Greek island of Lesbos. In less than a decade, these two rose from being merchant sailors to minor pirates to rulers of Algiers. So successful were they that Charles had to strike back. Aroudj was killed; Khair ad-Din put Algiers under the protection of Suleiman the Magnificent and spent the next 10 years raiding throughout the western Mediterranean, but with the official imprimatur of the Ottoman Empire.

Suleiman preferred a land conquest and was happy to let Khair ad-Din hector Spanish and Italian ships on his own. Charles V was too shorthanded in the 1520s to stop the predation, but late in the decade he found two strong allies—the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, then seeking employment, and the crusading Knights of St. John, still seeking Muslim blood. Rootless since Suleiman had ejected them from Rhodes in 1522, the knights were now, thanks to Charles, established in Malta and Tripoli, and eager to get back to sea raiding.

Allowing them to do so was Charles’s great error. In 1532, the knights and Doria sailed east and stormed Coron, Modon, and other Ottoman cities in the Peloponnese. Strategically, it was a serious blunder. Charles had put his stamp of approval on what was, in effect, a smash-and-grab operation. The raids only alienated the resident Christians who otherwise might have made good allies in the fight against Islam.

Worse, these raids brought the western Mediterranean theater to Suleiman’s attention. Heretofore, he had been largely content to let the likes of Khair ad-Din and his followers trouble the Spanish. The Ottoman feet was busy policing the Levant and the Red Sea. Now, Suleiman would need to expand his navy, and to that end, he summoned Khair ad-Din, the most experienced and knowledgeable sailor in the Mediterranean, to Constantinople.

The call was a triumph for the old corsair, and he played it for all it was worth. He arrived in galleys bursting with gold and silk and slaves. The job interview was short, and within days the title of kapudan pasha had been bestowed and Khair ad-Din was building a fleet suitable for an empire. When it was completed, he sailed west.

No one had seen anything like this fleet, and no one dared oppose it. The Knights of St. John at Malta failed to step up. Doria remained at anchor. Unchecked, Khair ad-Din worked his way up the Italian coast as far north as Naples, burning villages and kidnapping people for the slave markets of Algiers.

All this mayhem, however, was a preliminary. Khair ad-Din’s real goal was Tunis. Tunis, under the rule of the fiercely independent Berber Hafsid dynasty, was a cosmopolitan city of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, all with an interest in trade, not all of it legitimate. Khair ad-Din knew the city well. Decades before, when he and his brother Aroudj were just starting out, they used its markets as their clearinghouse, handing over a fifth of their stolen goods to the Sultan. That was then. The current ruler was Sultan Muley Hassan, a man whom a Spanish witness described as given to “pleasures so vicious that they cannot be described.” In 1532 he killed his father and 40 siblings to get the throne. One surviving brother, Raschid, escaped and managed to buttonhole Khair ad-Din just as Khair ad-Din was leaving for Constantinople. Would the great corsair and even greater sultan help restore the rightful heir to Tunis? Khair ad-Din assured Raschid that they would.

This was no mere act of compassion. Ottoman chroniclers cite Khair ad-Din’s note to Suleiman: “If the domain of Tunis is devolved on Rashid and the harbor of Goletta…taken and protected by the [Ottoman] sovereign, the imperial feet could be stationed in it most of the time. In that case, with the help of God the Sublime, it would become feasible to conquer and subdue Spain from there.”

From a military perspective, the plan had a great deal to offer. Geography favored defense. Tunis lay at the far end of a wide salt marsh, the narrow approach of which was guarded by a strong two-towered fortress called La Goletta. Nothing could get in or out without passing under the watchful gunners of that fort, certainly not the massed ships of the Ottoman feet.

Khair ad-Din made certain word reached Tunis that the rightful heir had Suleiman’s backing. The commanders at La Goletta permitted the admiral’s armada into the harbor, and only then learned that Rashid was, in fact, safely back in Constantinople (imprisoned or possibly assassinated, said the Spanish chroniclers; happily pensioned of, according to the Ottomans—the truth is unknowable) and would remain there until things settled down. In the meantime, Khair ad-Din would be in charge. Tis did not go down well in Tunis. Muley Hassan may not have been a local favorite, but he was at least a native. Allegiance shifted back to him, and as the invaders marched from La Goletta into Tunis proper, they met fierce resistance. Although local knowledge initially gave the Tunisians the upper hand, numbers eventually told. Muley Hassan and his family fed across the desert, and on August 16, 1534, the city fell.

It was not only the native Tunisians who were unhappy with the new order. Christian Europe was also alarmed. Tunis may have had a record of abetting light piracy, and even had a number of Christian prisoners languishing in prison cells, but that was purely business. Unlike the Ottoman sultan, Muley Hassan had no territorial ambitions. So long as he, or another traditional Hafsid ruler remained, as they had for over 300 years, the city was not a threat to the Spanish empire.

The Ottomans, however, were a different story. In the previous hundred years, their empire had tripled in size and was still growing, and the Spanish king could read a map just as well as Khair ad-Din. Little surprise then that Muley Hassan and Charles V should make common cause. In this case, geo politics trumped religion for Charles, and when the exiled sultan wrote to the Spanish monarch for help, Charles cordially addressed Muley Hassan as king and referred to Khair ad-Din as a hostis humani generis, “enemy to all people”—a distinction that classified him as a pirate and therefore beyond legal protection.

Initially, Charles wanted to take the city on the cheap by making an alliance with Khair ad-Din, or, failing that, assassinating him. An envoy was instructed to try one, and then the other, but he failed at both and was executed, leaving a more expensive plan B: full scale invasion.

Amphibious assaults are always risky and Charles was taking no chances. From Genoa, from Naples, from Sicily, he gathered a fleet of 400 ships and an army approaching 27,000 men and horse. On June 17, 1535, they landed near the twin towers of La Goletta. Men wrestled the guns—“large, very beautiful, and in great number,” according to Guillaume de Montoiche, who accompanied Charles’s expedition—of the boat and toward the fort.

The corsair Aydin Reis, called Caccia Diavolo, or “Devil Hunter,” for his ferocity, and Synan of Smyrna, Khair ad-Din’s chief lieutenant, directed all active defense. They dispatched raiders to trouble the offloading and later fired cannons back on their besiegers. Montoiche described the grisly results:

Many soldiers were wounded, some burned with powder, others cut down by gunfire from harquebuses and large and small cannon who were taken from the fight at [La Goletta]. Their arms, hands, legs, and feet were broken and crushed; some had all their limbs torn of entirely, others had limbs hanging from the body by a scrap of skin or attached only by nerve tissue, such that as surgeons cut and seared with glowing hot iron one could only gaze on such misery that arises from such a fall in fortune with pity, compassion, and sorrow.

Some days in, Muley Hassan appeared at Charles’s camp, “of good stature, thick torso, yellow in color, truly manly,” a Spanish observer noted. Assuring the emperor of his good faith, he abased himself before Charles, kissing his hand and offering help. Not that he had much to give, and in the event, he gave very little. Charles was gracious, but material assistance would be superfluous—Charles had other plans for his new ally.

It took four weeks, but the Spanish guns eventually created breaches large enough to exploit. On July 14, Charles ordered a two-pronged attack by the Knights of St. John by sea, all others by land. The knights advanced in their galleys, then climbed onto fat-bottomed skiffs for the final approach. Small-arms fire punctured the surface of the water and bullets rang against their armor. The skifs ran aground on sandbars, forcing the men to jump of and slog their way toward the rubbled wall and engage the enemy.

German and Spanish troops, meanwhile, attacked by land. The Muslim forces put up a stout resistance for some hours, but in the end the fort fell. Though the two corsair commanders escaped, Charles captured 300 cannons and 82 galleys of Suleiman’s new feet—a triumph all around. It remained only to finish the job. The troops now marched on Tunis proper. Khair ad-Din watched them from the high walls, affecting unconcern: “If they see my turban on a hill, they will run for a month.” Perhaps they didn’t see him. They certainly did not fee. His determination notwithstanding, Khair ad-Din was in an awkward situation. The walls of Tunis were not strong. The citizens of Tunis did not love him. Ten there were the 12,000 Christian slaves locked inside the bagnios of Tunis, who would see Charles as a liberator. If they got loose, Khair ad-Din would be between two forces. To be on the safe side, he considered a quick mass slaughter—gunpowder and immolation were discussed—but was talked out of it. These prisoners, after all, had market value; to slaughter them would be a significant capital loss.

Khair ad-Din turned his attention to the battle. He still had a few advantages. The road from La Goletta to Tunis was nine miles, and marching that distance under the high sun, Charles’s men would be thirsty, tired, and hot; they would surely drink from the cisterns Khair ad-Din had poisoned on their route. It would be a quick matter for native soldiers, in greater numbers and better rested, to overwhelm the enemy at a spot of Khair ad-Din’s own choosing. As Charles approached, Khair ad-Din brought his troops outside the wall and ordered a contingent of Berber horsemen to charge the enemy.

In theory, and by all rights, the battle should have been a walkover for Khair ad-Din. The Berbers however, had never faced the trained harquebusiers and pikemen who, when combined in tripartite units, formed the all but unbeatable configuration of the Spanish tercio. Heat and fatigue and even poison had not slowed them, and neither would the enemy cavalry charge. Between a gleaming hedge of pikes and a volley of gunshot, the Berber attack was broken, leaving maimed and dying men and horses shrieking on the sand.

Now Khair ad-Din’s infantry took its turn. Charles V described what followed to his sister in remarkably simple prose for such a florid age: “They fired their artillery. We responded in kind. They fired their harquebuses. We fired back in equal measure. They fell back. We did not stop advancing until we had reached their guns and taken them.”

Khair ad-Din’s only chance was to defend the city and outlast a siege, but he found new and unexpected complications.

While the battle had raged outside, Christian prisoners sat in their prison, listening to muffled gunfire, waiting for news. One citizen, perhaps anticipating the battle’s outcome, hurried down to the prison and sprang the locks. If there were any guards—and the record is unclear—they were quickly overpowered. Among the inmates was Paolo Simeoni, a Knight of St. John and a natural leader of men. He roused the prisoners, broke into the armory, and led them to the city walls. Let Khair ad-Din return if he would. Tunis was now in their hands.

Trapped between two forces, Khair ad-Din and his remaining soldiers fed for the hills. Charles was confident that the corsair would not get far. Andrea Doria was in charge of the imperial feet both outside of La Goletta and a little farther down the coast at Bona to the west, where some 15 of Khair ad-Din’s ships were still stationed. As far as the Charles V was concerned, the campaign was over. His men now abandoned the fight, rushed the open wooden gates, embraced the liberated prisoners, then turned their attention to their traditional rights—three days of unrestricted pillage. Guillaume de Montoiche reported that “they looted shops and mosques, from which they tore apart and ruined many beautiful books…decorated and written in Arabic script, in gold and azure. They prized gray jasper and other precious stones from the pillars in mosques, though they did not touch a small Christian church.”

Charles took it all in stride, but Muley Hassan watched with grim satisfaction—he felt his people had betrayed him. Tunis was again his to rule, but now as a vassal of Spain, and on Spain’s terms. There would be no more slaves from Charles’s empire. There would, however, be Spanish troops in charge of La Goletta, with Muley Hassan picking up the tab. The list went on, sounding very much like formal treaty of surrender, and Muley Hassan had no choice but to accept. In the Muslim world, he was all but friendless. (He would later be overthrown, blinded, and exiled to Italy.)

By late afernoon, pillaging and celebrations in the city were winding down. Charles visited his men in their camps and played the part of king as fellow soldier. That evening he dined aboard the flagship of the Knights of St. John, the Santa Anna, where knights and soldiers were said to have danced Moorish dances to the music of the ship’s orchestra. The city was safely in Spanish hands, even if Khair ad-Din was not.

Khair ad-Din did indeed head toward the port of Bona and found his 15 galleys intact and managed to sail away just as Doria’s feet arrived. For reasons still unclear—some chroniclers claim it was fear, others that money changed hands—the commanders of the fort did nothing to stop the admiral from heading back to Algiers in his ships. Doria showed up at Bona shortly thereafter and expressed anger—again, unclear if genuine or feigned. Many believed that the two men had tacitly agreed never to attack one another.

All Spain cheered. In Minorca, a favorite target of the corsairs, the locals gathered at the port of Mahon to celebrate, and included a bit of stagecraft: a condemned criminal dressed up as Khair ad-Din was cheerily beaten as prologue to his eventual execution. When unfamiliar ships with Spanish pennants eased into the harbor of Mahon, they were welcomed. Only as the real Khair ad-Din and his men debarked with guns and scimitars did the celebrators understand just how limited Charles’s victory had been. Too late. After a brief fight, the entire population of Mahon was carried back to the slave markets of Algiers, an event that seems to have mollified Suleiman against the loss of Tunis and his feet. God’s will was inscrutable. There would be other opportunities to expand the empire.

For Charles, the incident in Minorca did not greatly detract from his North African triumph, perhaps his greatest. He went to considerable expense to have broadsides printed, songs composed, paintings commissioned, and even tapestries woven commemorating his success. In time, all these would fade or be forgotten, as history robbed his achievement of any long-term significance.

It was in fact a missed opportunity to crush the Barbary corsairs and cripple the incipient Ottoman navy, perhaps even to retake the undermanned city of Algiers. Had both cities been taken (Charles would suffer a catastrophic defeat at Algiers in 1541), pliant sheiks and sultans and kings all along the coast and in Europe might have swung his way and Islam would have lost the 11 remaining years of the old corsair’s life, years in which he trained a new generation of corsairs who would trouble Christendom far more than Khair ad-Din ever had. The Barbary corsairs, all in a direct line from Khair ad-Din, would terrorize the Mediterranean for the next 300 years.


Bruce Ware Allen’s article on the 1521 Siege of Rhodes appeared in the Autumn 2006 issue of MHQ. He is currently writing a book on the 1565 Siege of Malta.

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.