Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean
Joshua M. White



On September 13, 1614, a group of men gathered in the Ottoman court of the seaside district of Galata. Situated across the Golden Horn from Istanbul proper, Galata was the maritime nerve center of the Ottoman Empire. Housing extensive port facilities, warehouses, and associated industry, as well as the Ottoman Imperial Arsenal, it was home to a diverse population of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It played host to seamen and merchants hailing from England to India and to the European ambassadors to the Sublime Porte. The court of Galata, convened in the home of its judge (kadi), was open to all of these, whether Ottoman subject or foreigner, free or enslaved, Muslim or non-Muslim, permanent resident or brief sojourner. On that Saturday, the Ottoman judge, his scribe, and the court witnesses had assembled to hear the suit lodged by Ali bin Yusuf of Jerba against a Venetian merchant named Nicolo, who had come to the Ottoman capital to trade.

In his complaint, Ali stated that eight years earlier, his son Süleyman, a ship captain (reis), had sailed to the Greek port of Volos on the western Aegean mainland, where he had loaded a cargo of wheat on his saïque, a medium-size vessel commonly used for trade within the Ottoman Mediterranean. Süleyman Reis’s wheat was intended for the markets of the perpetually hungry city of Istanbul, but he had not traveled far from Volos before he was intercepted by a galleon captained by the defendant, Nicolo. Süleyman’s saïque was no match for the Venetian’s large, heavily armed broadside sailing ship. In the ensuing melee, Süleyman Reis and five of his sailors were killed. One survivor from the initial assault, a certain Mehmed bin Abdüsselam, was handed off to one of Nicolo’s crew members for execution, but he managed to escape and eventually made his way back to Istanbul. Eight years later, he was present in that Galata courtroom with Ali bin Yusuf; it was he who had informed Ali of his son’s fate and the identity of his alleged killer. Nicolo, Ali reiterated, had murdered his son and five others and had made off with his son’s ship, its cargo, and all of the crew’s personal property. Now he demanded that Nicolo pay the price for his crimes as the law required. He wanted restitution. And he wanted blood.1

Ali was effectively accusing Nicolo of piracy. It could be nothing else. Venice and the Ottoman Empire had been at peace since 1573, so no Venetian would have had license to attack an Ottoman merchant vessel. To those “individuals who despoil others through privately exercised force and without urgent reasons to do so,” the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius wrote in 1605, “we give the name ‘pirates’ when their activities take place upon the sea.”2 Grotius’s definition of the pirate not only fit in Nicolo’s case, it matched the Ottoman understanding of sea robbery as well. But Nicolo was identified in the court not as a pirate but as a merchant by profession. If he sidelined in piracy, he did so opportunistically. As was so often the case in the early modern Mediterranean, defining a pirate was a question not so much of who or what, but when.

Slaving was common in the early modern Mediterranean and helped meet the demand for servile labor on all sides of the sea. Muslims targeted Christians and Christians targeted Muslims for sale in distant markets. But in the eastern half of the Mediterranean the line between legal and illegal raiding was not simply religious. Due to the provisions of the Ottoman-Venetian treaty that prohibited the enslavement of either side’s subjects and Venice’s assiduous efforts to stay on the Ottomans’ good side, Nicolo would have faced execution by Venetian authorities were he caught with Ottoman captives. For the Venetian part-time pirate preying on Ottoman shipping, it was far too dangerous to take prisoners and risk leaving witnesses, even though it meant sacrificing the significant sums that could otherwise be had from their sale or ransom. It was self-preservation that motivated the Venetian galleon captain to execute the crew of Süleyman’s ship. Dead men, after all, tell no tales.

Indeed, despite the fact that at least one got away that day in 1606, a single eyewitness was one short of the two required to meet the evidentiary standards of the Ottoman courts. After Nicolo denied the accusations leveled against him, claiming that he had been in Alexandria at the time of the attack, Ali was asked to provide the court with additional evidence. Unable to produce another witness to rebut Nicolo’s denial, he requested a continuance to procure more evidence. This was duly granted by the court, but no subsequent entry appears in the surviving registers from Galata.3 Nicolo did not wait around to see if Ali could produce new evidence against him. He had probably weighed anchor before the ink from the scribe’s pen was dry.

This book is about piracy, but it is not about pirates. Rather, it is about the administrators, diplomats, jurists, and, above all, the victims—those who had to contend most with the consequences of maritime violence. For roughly a century and a half, beginning with the conclusion of the Ottoman-Venetian war for Cyprus in 1573 and continuing into the eighteenth century, the eastern half of the Mediterranean was gripped by a plague of piracy. The unchecked activities of pirates and corsairs—the particularly Mediterranean species of privateer who raided the enemy religious other with the license of a sovereign—routinely affected both Ottoman and European subjects, resulting in frequent domestic and interstate legal disputes over ships, cargo, and captives. Pirates churned up a sea of paper in their wake: letters, petitions, court documents, legal opinions, ambassadorial reports, travel accounts, captivity narratives, and vast numbers of decrees attest to their impact on lives and livelihoods throughout the Ottoman Mediterranean world.

The appellation “Ottoman Mediterranean” has long been used by scholars to describe the eastern half of the Mediterranean basin. By 1574, the mainland coasts from Venice’s Adriatic frontier to the borders of Morocco formally acknowledged the authority of the sultan in Istanbul, as did all the major islands east of Sicily except Crete, until 1669, when it too joined the fold. Sometimes the term has been deployed with additional implications, for instance, that the defining feature of the seventeenth-century Ottoman Mediterranean was its reunified Greek Orthodox ecumene.4 This book argues that what made the eastern half of the basin the “Ottoman Mediterranean” was that it was a unified legal space.

Imagine a line emerging from the southeastern Adriatic seaboard that cuts south through the narrow entrance—a pirate gauntlet in this period—of that formerly Venetian lake and across the Ionian Sea before curving gently toward the Egyptian coastline, terminating to the west of its ports. Such a line encompasses the waters of the Levant, the southern shores of Anatolia and Cyprus, the tesserae of the Aegean’s archipelagic mosaic and its rugged mainland coast. What this line excludes are the North African port cities of Tripoli, Tunis, and, farthest west, Algiers.

The borders of the Ottoman Mediterranean were dictated by the legal institutional limits of Istanbul’s reach within the greater empire and were thus decoupled from Ottoman sovereignty. Istanbul did not appoint judges in North Africa as it did for the rest of the Ottoman Mediterranean, and the North Africans followed the opinions of their own jurists above those of the Ottomans’ chief jurist in Istanbul, whose opinions were supposed to have the force of law throughout the empire.5 By the late sixteenth century, the North African port cities hardly respected the diplomatic agreements Istanbul concluded with foreign powers; by the 1620s, they were openly pursuing their own foreign policies. Unbridgeable differences over what constituted legal raiding contributed to North Africa’s placement outside the bounds of the Ottoman Mediterranean.

This book tells the story of the emergence of the Ottoman Mediterranean legal space and the role piracy played in shaping it. By 1670, we can speak of an Ottoman Mediterranean defined not so much by Ottoman political control of the islands and coasts or naval supremacy in the waters in between, but by the reach of Ottoman law as it was formulated by the empire’s chief jurists and applied by its centrally appointed judges. The book’s six chapters chart the Ottoman experience of piracy within this space and detail the Ottoman response to it, which came primarily in the spheres of law, diplomacy, and administration. The reasons for this, and for the absence of a robust military response, lie in the Ottomans’ long and complicated history with private naval contractors and the confluence of a variety of political and military challenges in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

The activities of corsairs and naval irregulars, some loosely affiliated with the Ottoman state, played an important role in the warfare of the early modern Mediterranean. In the Western Mediterranean, the fall of Nasrid Granada in 1492 to the combined forces of Aragon and Castile and the subsequent Iberian invasions of North Africa triggered a corsair war. North African rulers welcomed both Iberian Muslim refugees and adventurers from the Eastern Mediterranean and gave them license to raid Spanish ships and shores in exchange for a share of the booty. The Ottoman Empire was soon pulled into the conflict in North Africa, and Ottoman adventurers like the Barbarossa brothers and their acolytes were instrumental in realizing the littoral’s incorporation into the empire over the course of the sixteenth century.6

After shunting aside the local Muslim dynasts who had recently employed them, these corsairs became foreign usurpers only marginally more welcome to the local populations than the Spanish whom they had expelled from Algiers and whose vigorous efforts at expansion they continued to fight on land and sea. Oruç Barbarossa thus turned to Istanbul, seeking the legitimacy that Ottoman sovereignty would bestow on his rule. Sultan Selim I’s conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate in 1517 brought Syria, Egypt, and the Hijaz under his authority, making the Ottoman sultans Protectors of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina and reuniting the north and south of the Eastern Mediterranean for the first time in nearly a millennium. As the preeminent dynasty in the Islamic world, the Ottomans were the perfect patrons: rich, powerful, respected, and distant. And so, in 1519, Algiers joined the Ottoman fold by request rather than conquest. It was at first a paper acquisition that cost Istanbul little and gained it less, but it inextricably drew the empire into North African affairs. The brewing imperial conflict with the Habsburg dynasty, the Ottomans’ bête noire in both Central Europe and the Mediterranean thanks to the temporary unification of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in the person of Charles V, thus sparked a half-century battle for supremacy over North Africa. Corsairs played a critical role on both sides, not just as auxiliaries but as admirals, leading huge fleets both in battle and on massive slave-raiding expeditions.7

In 1532, Sultan Süleyman summoned Hayreddin Barbarossa from Algiers and appointed him kapudan pasha, imperial admiral, tasking him with reversing the conquests in the Morea (as the Peloponnese was then known) that Charles V’s own corsair-admiral, the Genoese Andrea Doria, had made earlier that year. With Barbarossa at the helm, the Ottoman navy took back in 1534 all that had been lost to Doria two years earlier; besieged Venetian Corfu in 1537 and, after being repulsed, captured many of the smaller Venetian-held Aegean islands in 1537–1538; shattered an allied Catholic fleet commanded by Doria at Preveza in 1538; conducted joint operations with the French against Nice in 1543; and raided the islands of the central and western Mediterranean in 1544 and 1545, carrying off thousands of Christians into captivity. When Hayreddin Barbarossa finally retired to the Bosphorus in 1545 to relax and dictate his memoirs, other North Africa–based corsairs who had risen under his command were ready to take his place.8

Charles V and his son and successor in Spain, Philip II, enjoyed the support of their own, Catholic corsairs. Among these, the Knights of Saint John, or Knights Hospitaller, a Crusader-era military order turned anti-Muslim corsairing enterprise, were of lasting importance. Evicted from their base on Rhodes by Sultan Süleyman in 1522, they became a far more serious threat to the security of the Ottoman Mediterranean after Charles V permitted them to settle on Malta in 1530, for which they were expected to provide one falcon annually and defend Spanish-occupied Tripoli. Although the Knights lost Tripoli to an Ottoman fleet commanded by Barbarossa’s protégé Turgud Reis in 1558, Malta itself successfully withstood an Ottoman siege in 1565, marking the logistical limits of the Ottomans’ naval power. From that point on, Maltese corsairs—both the Knights themselves and the many Catholic entrepreneurs who sailed under the Order’s flag—would plague Ottoman waters, carrying out regular cruises into the Levant until the early eighteenth century, when French pressure forced them to restrict their activities to the central Mediterranean.9

Both Catholic and Muslim corsairs thus played pivotal roles in the Habsburg-Ottoman struggle for Mediterranean supremacy. Ultimately, through Istanbul’s mutually beneficial military alliance with Muslim corsairs, Ottoman sovereignty was extended to all of North Africa east of Morocco. But piracy and amphibious slave raiding proved to be an enduring aspect of Mediterranean life in peacetime as well, and they frequently exposed the limits of Ottoman power. Never was this truer than in the period following the Ottoman defeat at Lepanto on October 6, 1571. Two months after the Ottomans completed their conquest of Venetian Cyprus—precipitated in part by the Venetians’ inability to prevent the predations of the Maltese corsairs in the area—the allied naval forces of the Holy League (chiefly comprised of Venice, Spain, the Knights of Saint John, and the papacy) met the Ottoman fleet at the entrance to the Gulf of Patras and smashed it. Ottoman losses of ships and, more importantly, men, were staggering. Although no territory changed hands and the Ottoman fleet was rapidly reconstituted afterward—indeed larger than it had been before—that battle, “the greatest naval engagement between Actium and Trafalgar,” proved to be the last major maritime confrontation in a century that had witnessed numerous decisive engagements between corsair-augmented fleets.10 In 1574, the Ottomans cemented their conquest of the North African littoral when they retook La Goletta, the fortress at the entrance of Tunis, from its Spanish garrison, and with that, the age of large-scale galley conflict in the Mediterranean was over.11

The Ottoman defeat at Lepanto was not, as some popular histories would have it, the turning point in an “epic” battle between Islam and Christendom.12 In fact, Ottoman military capacity remained high and expansion continued, albeit irregularly, for another century. But neither the Ottomans nor the Habsburgs were especially interested in continuing the conflict at sea. The multidecade naval arms race between Spain and the Ottoman Empire had led to the annual construction of enormous armadas of ever larger galleys bearing more and heavier cannon that required seemingly endless numbers of men (paid, purchased, or imprisoned) to row them and vast quantities of hardtack to feed their swelling crews. The exponentially inflating cost of the escalating conflict had contributed to the first of several Spanish bankruptcies in 1575 and stretched the limits of the Ottomans’ financial, natural, and human resources. Large-scale naval warfare had simply become too expensive.13

The Ottomans accomplished all of their strategic objectives in the war despite the tactical reversal at Lepanto. Once the Venetians pursued a separate peace in 1573 and the Spanish were finally expelled from Tunis in 1574, there was little reason to continue with the outrageous and unsustainable expense of maintaining the imperial fleet on war footing each year. Although both the Ottoman Empire and Spain continued to mount desultory annual patrols of their maritime domains, other political and military priorities, not to mention fiscal necessity, dictated a new policy.

Both sides thus turned to more pressing affairs on the frontiers of their empires—Spain to the resurgent Dutch revolt and the Ottomans to renewed war with Safavid Iran—eventually agreeing to a truce in 1580.14 This coincided with what Fernand Braudel termed the “Northern Invasion”: the penetration of the Mediterranean by heavily armed English and Dutch merchant ships, fitted for piracy as much as for trade.15 It also permitted the growing independence of the corsairs of North Africa. Thus, at this point of naval disengagement, of reestablished relations with Venice and détente with Spain, the sea did not become a safer place. On the contrary, incidents of piracy increased dramatically, as both Mediterranean corsair proxies and Atlantic entrepreneurs filled the power vacuum at sea, undisturbed by the once dominant Mediterranean superpowers. By 1580, the age of the corso—the simmering, low-intensity pirate warfare that persisted into the early eighteenth century—had begun.

Previously, Ottoman naval strength had safeguarded merchant traffic in the Eastern Mediterranean while the imperial rivalry with Spain had provided the impetus for dispatching successive fleets into the western Mediterranean to pillage Spanish dependencies. After 1580, however, the corsairs of North Africa and Malta were left to pursue their two-sided holy war at sea, while well-armed English and Dutch broadside sailing ships drove their Venetian competition from the waves, rapidly taking over much of the intra-Mediterranean carrying trade.16 Corsairs from the North African city-states of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli—equipped with the latest sailing technology thanks to an influx of English and Dutch renegades left unemployed by the end of England’s war with Spain (1604) and the Spanish-Dutch “Twelve Years’ Truce” (1609) and buoyed by the arrival of thousands of Morisco refugees from Iberia after their expulsion in 1609—ranged the Mediterranean and beyond, staging dramatic raids as far as Ireland and Iceland in the 1620s and 1630s.17 Meanwhile, Catholic corsairs—including the Knights of Saint John of Malta and their compatriots, the Tuscan Knights of Saint Stephen—wreaked havoc on the vital sea lanes connecting Istanbul and the Aegean ports to Egypt and ravaged the Levantine coastline. Both sides took a significant cut of the wealth from passing shipping and carried thousands into captivity, leading to the establishment of a thriving, trans-Mediterranean ransoming industry that supported a plethora of lenders, brokers, and investors in captive bodies, not to mention the many more who worked to clothe, feed, and house slaves held for ransom in Algiers, Malta, Tunis, and Livorno.18

However opportunistic piracy sometimes was, it was not random; it flourished along well-trafficked routes in areas with favorable geography, seascapes embroidered with small islands and cove-filled coastlines that offered myriad hiding places, choke points that funneled merchant vessels through narrow corridors where pirates could lie in wait. Nowhere was more inviting than the Ottoman Mediterranean, which attracted the big players from the corsairing capitals and sustained local small-fry as well. Weak defenses and permissive politics made piracy possible, but robust trade was what made it profitable; all three abounded in this bustling, diverse maritime ecosystem.19

The Ottoman Empire was a source of and a market for a wide variety of raw and finished goods in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even as the spice trade declined toward the end of the sixteenth century (thanks to Portuguese and later Dutch efforts in the Indian Ocean) Ottoman markets continued to provide Europe with sundry luxury goods; raw wool, linen, cotton, and silk; coffee, olive oil, wine, and especially grain. Imperial authorities tried in vain to control the grain trade to preserve the supply for domestic markets, but smuggling was constant in war and in peace. For their part, European merchants brought finished cloths, lead, tin, tobacco, paper, and specie.20

But long-distance “international” trade was only part of the picture. The Ottoman Mediterranean supported a vast internal trade which, if not disconnected from the vicissitudes of the global economy, of necessity persisted through its ups and downs. The enormous, insatiable capital itself sustained a vigorous shipping industry, which worked constantly to provision it. After the conquest of Mamluk Egypt in 1517, the north and south of the Eastern Mediterranean became politically linked and economically integrated to a great extent. Wheat, corn, rice, lentils, sugar, linen, coffee, oil, honey, slaves, and gold flowed north to Salonica and Istanbul, while southbound traffic carried not only goods and raw materials like wood but wealthy pilgrims to the Hajj and Ottoman officials to their posts.

All this meant that, although the Mediterranean as a whole no longer commanded the central role in Europe’s increasingly global economy, the Ottoman Mediterranean remained an arena of tremendous, constant internal and external shipping activity. And even as the cast of characters expanded in the second half of the sixteenth century to include the French, English, and Dutch alongside the formerly dominant Italians, much intra-Ottoman shipping and trade remained in Ottoman—Greek, Armenian, Muslim, and Jewish—hands.21 For the piratically inclined, then, there was never a lack of potential targets in the Ottoman Mediterranean, from small fishing vessels and coastal traders on up to long-haul merchantmen, all of which might be profitably supplemented with the human bounty to be found on shore.

The Ottoman sultans’ failure to effectively defend their vast maritime frontier in the century and a half following the Battle of Lepanto has been variously interpreted as evidence of their turning away from the sea, their indifference to or outright complicity in the “Muslim” piracy that preyed on European shipping, or sheer administrative incompetence and military decline.22 Each of these interpretations contains a grain or more of truth, but they vastly oversimplify the situation, precluding discussion of regional variation or change over time. The Ottoman Empire was not a monolithic entity possessed of unlimited coercive capacity, but rather a massive, complex polity comprised of multiple layers of authority knit together over long distances.

The options available to Ottoman policy makers in Istanbul who might otherwise be inclined to suppress homegrown piracy were limited by the need to maintain frontier defense and access to experienced auxiliary forces, which naval irregulars along the Adriatic-Ionian and North African coasts provided in times of conflict. They were further constrained by the severe financial difficulties that gripped the Mediterranean throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, successive land wars, multiple serious rebellions, famine and pestilence, and severe dynastic turmoil through the first decades of the seventeenth century. It was not a coincidence that the period of the guerre de course’s greatest ferocity and the North African corsairs’ most audacious activities—the 1620s and 1630s—occurred during an era of profound domestic challenges for the Ottoman central government, and indeed for much of Europe as well.

The Sublime Porte’s lack of a robust military response to the growing pirate threat must be considered in its historical context. In 1578, the Ottoman Empire initiated a war with Safavid Iran—during which the truce with Habsburg Spain was secured—that dragged on until 1590. Prosecuting the war in the distant and difficult terrain of the Caucasus demanded tremendous military and financial resources that left little room for Mediterranean adventures, and so the neglected imperial fleet was allowed to molder on the shores of the Golden Horn. With the end of the war, some Ottoman officials, egged on by their English allies who hoped to see the conflict with Spain rekindled, began to seriously explore what it would take to bring the navy back onto war footing. These embryonic efforts had to be abandoned, however, when the Ottoman governor of Bosnia’s bellicose posturing and independent raiding into Habsburg territory in 1591 set off a tit-for-tat pattern of reprisals that escalated into full-scale war in 1593.23 With barely a break from the twelve years of war with Iran, the Ottoman Empire now faced a much more potent foe in the Austrian Habsburgs. Thanks to advances in fortress design that led to long sieges replacing the massive pitched battles of earlier conflicts, the “Long War,” as it came to be called, rapidly settled into a stalemate that continued until 1606.

This all took place in an era of extreme economic distress. The empire had been gripped by severe inflation since the 1580s, driven by the influx of New World silver and exacerbated by the Ottomans’ repeated debasement of the silver coinage to meet salary payments. The treasury further suffered from the decline in customs receipts from the spice trade, which no longer flowed through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf. More ominously, the slowing of conquest, dating to the latter decades of Süleyman’s reign, rendered unsustainable the system of revenue assignment in lieu of direct payment on which the empire had relied for centuries to supply the bulk of its fighting forces and administer its lands. Changes in war fighting also meant that the cavalry that system had supported were no longer useful. The need for greater numbers of infantry in the new siege-based warfare meant more janissaries and contract irregulars, who would all have to be paid in cash. Transitioning from a military that provided administrative service and was compensated in kind to one paid in specie led to seemingly endless cash-flow problems. It also destabilized provincial society; tax-farming and confiscations from disgraced officials provided short-term solutions to the pressing need for coin, but inevitably led to abuses of the peasantry and declining productivity, as revenue raisers squeezed as much as they could from their assignments.24

The consequences of war, compounded by rampant inflation and the cumulative effects of the “Little Ice Age”—the centuries-long period of longer, harsher winters that hit Anatolia especially hard in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries—reverberated far from the battlefield. Istanbul’s efforts to provision and pay its army in the field led to demands for grain and meat that the Anatolian peasantry were unable to bear, culminating in open revolt in 1596.25 Known as the celali revolts, the uprising kicked off a vicious cycle of banditry that caused massive peasant flight and forced many of the dispossessed to join the brigands to survive. For many of the same reasons—famine, war, the growth of the armed unemployed class, population dislocation—the banditry that gripped Anatolia was mirrored in Rumeli as well. In coastal areas, this activity often spilled onto the sea, manifesting as piracy.26 As European diplomats began to complain with greater frequency about North African corsairs at the Sublime Porte, many Ottoman district governors were facing a plague of local piracy which some, unprepared to beat, joined.

In 1603, the Safavids under Shah Abbas decided to take advantage of the disarray among the Ottomans and invaded the territories lost in the last war. Fighting on two fronts and with most of Anatolia convulsed in rebellion, the Ottoman center’s ability to communicate with its provincial leadership and enforce its will was severely weakened. Frontier auxiliaries, including the naval paramilitaries the Ottomans relied on for coastal defense, and the local officials responsible for their oversight had often tested the limits of legality in the past, but they now discovered that contumaciousness might go unpunished to an extent unthinkable decades earlier. Paid in debased, nearly worthless coin at rates unchanged despite decades of inflation—if paid at all—many of the rank and file turned to piracy out of financial necessity. At the same time, European pirates and Catholic corsairs established themselves on the smaller, underpopulated but strategically located Aegean islands, which had always had a light Ottoman administrative footprint. The resulting situation was not dissimilar from that facing the Spanish in the Caribbean around the same time: a permanent pirate gauntlet astride the empire’s most critical sea corridor.

And the wars raged on. Only after peace was concluded with the Habsburgs in 1606 were Ottoman forces able to turn their attention to stamping out the rebellion in Anatolia, which was finally accomplished with tremendous bloodshed in 1609. Peace with the Safavids was more difficult. Concluded in 1612, war resumed again in 1615, ended in 1618, and then resumed yet again in 1623. At the same time, Cossack pirate attacks on the Anatolian Black Sea coast and even the environs of Istanbul forced Ottoman authorities to redirect the entire fleet to the Black Sea through much of the 1620s and 1630s, leaving the Ottoman Mediterranean almost completely undefended.27 Even the North African corsairs could not pass up the opportunity presented by the navy’s absence, repeatedly sacking the defenseless Mediterranean port of Iskenderun and making prizes of European merchantmen which would otherwise have paid much-needed customs dues.

In those years, the future of the dynasty itself was brought into question. Sultan Ahmed I died unexpectedly in 1617, leaving behind a “soft in the head” brother, Mustafa, and minor children.28 Mustafa reigned for only three months before palace officials replaced him with Ahmed’s son Osman II. His efforts to live up to the legacy of his namesake, the eponymous founder of the dynasty, collided with the reality of an entrenched, privileged military elite no longer suited to the nature of contemporary warfare. His brief reign (1618–1622) ended in tragedy when those elites, fearful of rumored plans to move the imperial capital to Cairo and replace them, rose up and murdered their young sovereign.29

In the turbulent aftermath, Sultan Mustafa I was re-enthroned, then deposed again sixteen months later, and replaced by the eleven-year-old Sultan Murad IV in 1623, with the queen mother (valide sultan) Kösem serving as regent. Meanwhile, the governor of Erzurum in eastern Anatolia declared his intention to march on the capital to seek justice for Osman II, building an army of the disaffected, mercenaries, and brigands as he marched westward. Abaza Mehmed Pasha’s revolt, which continued until 1628, marked the start of a pattern of so-called celali governors—statesmen who acquired private armies and led them against the center to advance their interests—that persisted into the 1650s.30

Taking advantage of the ongoing disorder in Istanbul and Anatolia, Shah Abbas again invaded Ottoman territory in 1623, this time taking Baghdad. The entirety of Sultan Murad IV’s reign would be devoted to reversing the Safavid advance, a task that was finally accomplished in 1639. Sultan Murad IV’s majority had been a period of recovery that augured well for the future, but he died childless the following year, having previously executed, in the old Ottoman tradition, all but one of his brothers: the mentally unstable Ibrahim (r. 1640–1648), who had been spared owing to the pleas of their mother and his apparent lack of fitness to rule. Thus, in 1640, the survival of the dynasty lay solely with a man known to posterity as Deli “Crazy” Ibrahim. He was, fortunately, capable of reproducing. Finally, in 1648, as his behavior became more erratic and dangerous to the circle around him, he was deposed in favor of his eight-year-old son, Mehmed IV (r. 1648–1687), and subsequently executed—but not before he had ordered the invasion of Crete, inaugurating a generation-long war (1645–1669) with Venice.

In short, whereas maintaining maritime security and policing Ottoman corsairs in the 1570s and 1580s was difficult due to the military and financial strains of over a decade of continuous combat in the Caucasus, by the first decade of the seventeenth century, it would not have ranked highly on any administrator’s priority list. That would begin to change in the mid-1650s, with the program of reforms enacted by the grand vizier Köprülü Mehmed Pasha (r. 1656–1661) and his son and successor, Fazıl Ahmed Pasha (r. 1661–1676), but by then North Africa was operating largely independently of Istanbul, engaging in foreign relations on its own account; European pirates had colonized the nominally Ottoman Aegean archipelago; and the Ottoman government was forced to hire European carriers to safely transport men and material between its coastal and insular possessions.

Characterizing the Ottomans’ inability to prevent piracy as a matter of complicity or weakness would be missing the point. Just as King James I of England could not put a stop to English piracy after peace was reestablished with Spain in 1604, despite threats, offers of amnesty, and dozens of executions, so too Ottoman authorities had to contend with a problem which could hardly be realistically contained militarily in light of the economic constraints and competing local interests facing them.31 Certainly King James’s Ottoman contemporary, Sultan Ahmed I, shared his fellow monarch’s contempt for pirates. In 1605, he personally ordered that a group of pirates captured by an Ottoman patrol “be dashed head foremost on the ground and then flung into the sea” in full view of the palace and the city. The immediate result—“everyone is terror-stricken” wrote Ottavio Bon, the Venetian ambassador (bailo)—was as intended, but it had no more a deterrent effect in the long run than James I’s efforts.32

Whereas French and English diplomats advocated military action against North Africa at the Sublime Porte in the first decades of the seventeenth century before adopting a policy of direct negotiation and direct bombardment, the Venetians understood that confronting the pirates head-on was not a viable solution for the eastern half of the Mediterranean. For the maritime neighborhood the Venetians and the Ottomans together shared, the root problem was not the unrestrained predations of the North African corsairs. Rather, what needed to be done was to deprive pirates of markets to sell their stolen merchandise and to crack down on the local officials who looked the other way or supplied them with provisions, safe harbors, and information.33 The Venetians advocated this approach throughout the seventeenth century’s periods of peace.

Easier said than done. Many people, including Muslims, Christians, Jews, Ottoman subjects, English, French, and Dutch, profited immensely from the black market trade in pirate booty, which sustained whole economies in increasingly marginalized ports like Avlonya (Valona, present-day Vlorë in Albania) in the Adriatic and islands like Milos in the Aegean, not to mention Malta, Livorno, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli. Shifts in the world economy made maritime predation the only growth industry for those Mediterranean ports that enjoyed strategic locations but were increasingly excluded from participation in other avenues of legitimate commerce.34

Without significant military involvement, the occasional Ottoman attempts to crack down on this activity on the frontier could end in tragedy for the unfortunate officials sent to carry out such unpopular orders. Besides, as the Venetian bailo Sebastiano Venier noted in 1627, in spite of the pirate threat, the European merchant ships that provided the Ottomans with much needed customs revenue continued to call in Ottoman ports.35 So long as they reliably did so, the Ottoman government had little reason to commit precious and scarce resources to what would likely be a futile, costly effort with what must have seemed to be little upside, considering the fact that their European treaty partners—with the notable exception of Venice—were doing no better in restraining their own subjects’ predations in Ottoman waters.

Ottoman trade and Ottoman subjects suffered greatly from the pervasive piracy in the Ottoman Mediterranean, which Ottoman officials ascribed principally to Europeans, friend and foe alike. Particularly galling was the fact that Catholic corsairs were annually exporting hundreds of Ottoman Muslims to Malta and Livorno to be held for ransom or sold as slaves, often as oarsmen for French or papal galleys. At any given moment there were dozens of Ottoman functionaries, picked off en route to their coastal postings, awaiting redemption in Maltese dungeons. Their plaintive letters arrived regularly at the Sublime Porte. This fact, alongside the English and Dutch introduction of Atlantic sailing technology into the Mediterranean, colored Ottoman views of and reactions to Mediterranean piracy. In 1612, during one of the Venetian bailo’s regular discussions with the grand vizier about the pirate scourge, Nasuh Pasha recalled wistfully that “in the old days a caramursale [karamürsel, a common medium-size Ottoman cargo vessel] without artillery went and returned alone from Alexandria; now the galleons must sail fully armed and in company, nor is that enough, they must have an escort of galleys too.” As far as the Ottoman center was concerned, the Mediterranean piracy problem—from the European renegade captains who commanded most of the vessels of Algiers and Tunis to the English merchant-pirates and the Maltese-flagged French corsairs—was one of the European trading nations’ creation and one which they, together, ought to resolve.36

From the naval perspective, the galleys and other oared vessels on which the Ottomans relied until the late seventeenth century had several distinct advantages in Mediterranean warfare—maneuverability, speed, and the ability to operate close to shore and without wind—but were costly to man and provision and limited to operating during the “sea season” (roughly late March to October). Pirates could simply disperse upon learning that the kapudan pasha’s fleet was approaching on its annual cruise through the Aegean and return after it had passed, enjoying extensive freedom for the rest of the year. “Control of the sea,” in the sense originated by the naval captain and historian Alfred Mahan (d. 1914), was not an option for a fair-weather, oar-craft-based navy.37

The Ottomans maintained several permanent galley squadrons that provided coastal defense, but a permanent, year-round system of patrols in their maritime empire would have required a colossal investment in new types of ships and a significant expansion of the Ottoman administrative presence on the Aegean islands, the smaller of which were essentially self-governing.38 Ottoman observers like the polymath and naval historian Katib Çelebi (d. 1657) were well aware that an Ottoman galley could not hope to win in a head-to-head fight with a well-armed galleon.39 However, it has been estimated that the cost for the Ottomans of building, equipping, and operating a galleon fleet in the mid-seventeenth century would have been as much as five times that of an equivalent galley fleet.40 The price of making the switch completely from oar to sail was thus too much for the cash-strapped state to bear so long as some of the Ottomans’ naval needs could be semi-reliably outsourced to irregulars based on the North African and Adriatic-Ionian coasts. Notably, the other Mediterranean powers had not abandoned the galley either: Venice and Spain both relied heavily on galleys throughout the seventeenth century and the French continued to maintain a fleet of galleys at Marseilles well into the eighteenth century, for aesthetic as much as military purposes.41 That the Ottomans’ failure to develop an all-season fleet before the late seventeenth century would prove so costly in the long run—so much so that they could not operate safely in their own maritime backyard—could hardly be predicted in the early years of the century when far more pressing concerns loomed.

The inherent ambiguity of much seventeenth-century piracy was a more serious problem than the qualitative deficiencies of the Ottoman navy. Unless caught in the act or identified through reliable intelligence, a galleon flying the flag of a friendly state might appear to an Ottoman patrol to be nothing more than a well-armed merchant, like the Venetian merchant-pirate Nicolo. Though the corsairs of Malta and North Africa deployed distinctive, highly recognizable ensigns bearing cross and crescent, respectively—the better to terrorize their quarry—many more pirates large and small relied on disguise and surprise to corner their victims and would never allow themselves to end up in a battle with the Ottoman fleet.


1. Galata 36, 163v (8/Ş/1023).

2. Grotius, De Jure Pradae, 325–326.

3. Galata 36, 163v (8/Ş/1023).

4. Greene, Shared World, 11.

5. Largueche, “Origins of Beylical Sovereignty,” 111; in Tunis, the pre-Ottoman practice of having four muftis representing the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence persisted through the Ottoman period, with the muftis and judge attending the meetings of the ruling council. See Abun-Nasr, “Beylicate,” 72.

6. Hess, Forgotten Frontier; on the origins of the Barbarossa brothers, see Vatin, “Comment êtes-vous apparus, toi et ton frère?”

7. Soucek, “Rise of the Barbarossas”; Gürkan, “Centre and the Frontier.”

8. Gürkan, “Centre and the Frontier”; for Barbarossa’s memoirs, see Düzdağ, Hayreddin Paşa’nın Hatıraları; on the Nice expedition, see Isom-Verhaaren, “Ottoman and French Views.”

9. Vatin, L’ordre de Saint-Jean-de-Jérusalem; Mallia-Milanes, Hospitaller Malta; Earle, Corsairs; Cavaliero, Last of the Crusaders.

10. This in the estimation of Norwich, History of Venice, 487. Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys.

11. Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys.

12. See, for example, Hopkins, Confrontation at Lepanto.

13. Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys; on oarsmen, see also Williams, Empire and Holy War.

14. This is the scenario proposed by Hess, Forgotten Frontier; cf. Williams, Empire and Holy War.

15. Braudel, Mediterranean, 1:615–642. The “Northern Invasion” paradigm has since undergone some recalibration, first in a critique by Greene, “Beyond the Northern Invasion”; and most recently in a response by Heywood, “The English in the Mediterranean”; Tenenti, Piracy and the Decline of Venice, 56–86.

16. See Tenenti, Piracy and the Decline of Venice; Braudel, Mediterranean; Bono, Corsari nel Mediterraneo.

17. De Groot, “Ottoman North Africa and the Dutch Republic.” On the 1627 Iceland raid, see Lewis, “Corsairs in Iceland”; on the 1631 sack of an Irish village in Cork, see Barnby, “Algerian Attack on Baltimore.”

18. See Chapter 2, this volume.

19. Hastings, “Understanding Maritime Piracy Syndicate Operations”; López Nadal, “Corsairing as a Commercial System”; Prange, “A Trade of No Dishonor”; Prange, “Outlaw Economics.”

20. Rapp, “Unmaking of the Mediterranean Trade Hegemony”; Wood, Levant Company; Agoston, “Merces Prohibitae”; Bulut, “Role of the Ottomans and Dutch”; Masson, Histoire du commerce français; Masters, Origins of Western Economic Dominance; Goffman, Izmir and the Levantine World.

21. Hanna, Making Big Money in 1600; Faroqhi, “Coffee and Spices”; Ginio, “When Coffee Brought about Wealth”; Greene, “Beyond the Northern Invasion.”

22. Brummett, “The Ottomans as a World Power.”

23. Fodor, “Between Two Continental Wars”; on failed efforts to reorient the Ottomans toward the Mediterranean in the 1580s, see Gürkan, “Fooling the Sultan.”

24. Inalcik, “Military and Fiscal Transformation”; Barkan and McCarthy, “Price Revolution”; Pamuk, Monetary History; Darling, Revenue-Raising and Legitimacy; Murphey, Ottoman Warfare.

25. White, Climate of Rebellion.

26. Adanır, “Heiduckentum und osmanische Herrschaft”; there has been a tendency to read nationalist motivations into bandit activity in the Balkans, for example, Cvetkova, “Bulgarian Haiduk Movement”; Vasdravellis, Klephts, Armatoles, and Pirates.

27. See Chapter 4, this volume; on the Cossacks, see Ostapchuk, “Human Landscape of the Ottoman Black Sea.”

28. Finkel, Osman’s Dream, 197.

29. See Tezcan, Second Ottoman Empire.

30. Finkel, Osman’s Dream, 197–228.

31. Venetian ambassadors to the English court reported on James I’s hatred of English pirates and the spate of executions he had ordered, CSP, 11:480 (February 25, 1610).

32. CSP, 10:211 (January 20, 1605). On the bailo, see Dursteler, “Bailo.”

33. CSP, 18:397 (July 20, 1624).

34. Nadal, “Corsairing as a Commercial System,” 125–136; Fodor, “Piracy, Ransom Slavery and Trade,” 120–121.

35. CSP, 20:221 (May 15, 1627).

36. CSP, 12:309 (March 10, 1612). On renegades, see Bennassar, Chrétiens d’Allah; Graf, “Half-Lives.”

37. This is one of the primary arguments in Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power.

38. On Ottoman naval organization in the sixteenth century, see Imber, “Navy of Süleyman”; for institutions and structures, see Uzunçarşılı, Merkez ve Bahriye Teşkilâti; for the navy and shipbuilding in the seventeenth century, see Bostan, Osmanlı bahriye teskilâtı.

39. Kâtib Çelebi, Gift, 144, 149.

40. Murphey, “Ottoman Resurgence,” 189–190.

41. On French galleys and their manpower needs, see Weiss, “Infidels at the Oar.”