Piracy and Law in the Ottoman Mediterranean
Joshua M. White



In March 2011, the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi warned a French journalist that, if his regime fell, “There will be Islamic jihad in front of you in the Mediterranean . . . there will be acts of piracy here, at your doors, 50 km from your borders. [Osama] bin Laden’s people will come to impose ransoms on land and sea. We will return to the time of Barbarossa, of pirates, of Ottomans imposing ransoms on ships.” As Qaddafi’s remarks make clear, the legacy of piracy lives on in the historical memory of the Mediterranean. His reference to Tripoli’s past as a hub of corsairing—effectively state-sponsored piracy—spoke directly to interpretations of Mediterranean history that view piracy within the frame of a perpetual holy war between Islam and Christianity, with the Muslim corsairs of North Africa lined up against those of Catholic Malta and Livorno. Qaddafi conjured the image of the North African pirate as scourge of Christendom and, drawing an analogy with al-Qaeda, constructed a genealogy of violence that made contemporary terrorism its latest incarnation.

The subsequent chaos in Libya may have made Qaddafi’s desperate warning appear prescient, but if he was correct that economically marginalized, strategically located weak states are ideal breeding grounds for piracy, his understanding of the history of Mediterranean maritime violence was fundamentally flawed. Although the famous corsair admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa (d. 1543), the “Red Beard” Qaddafi referred to, and his acolytes were instrumental in the extension of Ottoman sovereignty to Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli over the course of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman central government exercised little control in those places during the seventeenth-century halcyon days of Mediterranean piracy. Nor were religious motivations paramount, although the rhetoric of holy war was omnipresent in the early modern Mediterranean. In the 1620s, as fleets from North Africa were staging raids as far away as Iceland, they were also sacking Ottoman Mediterranean ports and attacking Ottoman shipping, casting a dark shadow on their holy warrior credentials. The North African corsairs—most of them European “renegades,” or converts—were hardly alone in their predations. A whole host of Christian and Muslim pirates terrorized the Ottoman Mediterranean between the 1570s and the first decades of the eighteenth century. The Ottomans were not simply perpetrators or enthusiastic supporters of piratical violence as they have usually been portrayed, but rather its most prominent victims.

This book, the first on Mediterranean piracy to make extensive use of a wide range of Ottoman sources, tells some of those victims’ stories. It traces the causes and consequences of the early modern Ottoman Mediterranean’s pervasive piracy and follows the individuals, institutions, laws, and customs involved in sorting out the personal, legal, and diplomatic predicaments pirates left behind. From the realm of high diplomacy to the provincial courtroom, it addresses the Ottoman experience of and response to piracy in Ottoman waters.

Law is what defines piracy, distinguishing it from the legitimate violence of war, and law is what makes it legible to the historian. Piracy generated paper trails that crisscrossed the seas, often for years after an attack, as rulers and diplomats sought redress, owners the return of stolen property, and captives their freedom. The legal lens makes a fuller spectrum of piracy visible. It brings the considerable effects of piracy on Ottoman foreign and domestic policy and on Ottoman legal theory and practice into relief.

Where was the line between acceptable and illegal raiding, and who had the right to set it? Debates surrounding this question had a dramatic impact on the Ottoman center’s relationship with its overseas provinces, in particular driving a wedge between Istanbul and North Africa in the seventeenth century. What made the eastern half of the Mediterranean “Ottoman” after the 1570s, this book argues, was not so much Ottoman control of the land nor Ottoman mastery of the sea—which was ephemeral—but the fact that it was an Ottoman legal space. Over the course of the seventeenth century, the challenge of piracy helped define its contours.

Scholars’ overreliance on European-language sources and myopic focus on the major corsairing operations have obscured the diversity of Mediterranean piracy and its far-reaching effects on the Ottomans. The so-called Barbary Corsairs and their Catholic counterparts have received ample attention, the former more so than the latter. Much of the scholarship is based exclusively on European documentary evidence, especially captivity narratives and diplomatic correspondence. Studies focusing on various national groups of Europeans in North African captivity abound, but the stories of Ottoman-subject captives and victims of piracy have rarely been told.

The fact that nearly every study of piracy and captivity in the early modern Mediterranean has focused on the activities of the parallel organized raiding enterprises based out of North Africa, Malta, or Livorno is unsurprising. The institutional support these corsairs received increased the political, diplomatic, and military significance of their activities and, crucially, increased the quantities of source material available to the modern historian. Whereas the Maltese left behind archives, the local pirate operating out of a small frigate on the Anatolian coast left none. But that focus conceals the chaotic and ambiguous reality of the Ottoman Mediterranean and the wider range of local and long-distance piratical actors it hosted.

What is more, the neglect of Ottoman sources has resulted in the near-total absence of Ottoman administrative and legal institutions and their representatives from the historiography of Mediterranean piracy. The Ottomans, if mentioned at all, are presented as complicit, impotent, or simply absent. The Ottoman Empire, sovereign in fully half of the Mediterranean, has been almost completely left out of the story. By reinserting the Ottomans, this book offers a revised appraisal of the shape and impact of maritime violence in the early modern Mediterranean.

To reconstruct the Ottoman experience of and response to piracy in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this book draws on research in archives and libraries in Istanbul, Venice, Crete, London, and Paris across a wide range of sources, including Ottoman administrative documents, European ambassadorial dispatches, Ottoman court registers, manuscript collections of Islamic legal opinions, Ottoman chronicles, and captivity narratives. For granting access and fulfilling my many requests, I am grateful to the librarians, archivists, and staffs of the Prime Ministry’s Ottoman Archives, the Süleymaniye Library, and the Islamic Research Center (İSAM) in Istanbul; the State Archives of Venice; the UK National Archives in Kew (London); the Vikelaia Municipal Library in Heraklion, Crete; and the National Library of France in Paris. My thanks go as well to the staffs of the Hatcher Library at the University of Michigan, the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia, and the Butler Library at Columbia University, and to Chris Gist at the UVA Scholars’ Lab for his help with the map.

Over the years spent researching and writing this book, I benefited from the generous support of many institutions, mentors, colleagues, and friends. It is a great pleasure to finally acknowledge them here. I thank first my mentors. Rudi Lindner is a true mensch—humane, patient, generous with his time, and endlessly supportive—and the model I try to emulate as a teacher and a scholar. I will always be grateful to him for his kindness and good humor. Gottfried Hagen, to employ the old cliché, has forgotten more than I will ever know. He inadvertently spurred me toward this project and, later, pointed me in directions I never would have thought to look; his influence is on every page. John V. A. Fine and Diane Owen Hughes kindly shared their wisdom with me and offered valuable comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Leslie Peirce has been an inspiration and a friend to me and this project for many years now. Elizabeth Thompson gave me a wonderful opportunity and has helped me make the most of it.

Many thanks go to the colleagues and friends who read and commented on the manuscript. The book you have before you is far better thanks to the efforts of Emrah Safa Gürkan, Will Smiley, Molly Greene, and Judith Tucker. Ananda Burra, Zoe Griffith, Sharon Kinoshita, Erin Lambert, and Michael Talbot offered invaluable feedback on individual chapters. Needless to say, the errors of fact or interpretation that remain are entirely my own.

For helping facilitate my research across many countries and more trips, for giving generously of their knowledge and often their hospitality, I thank Guy Burak, Antonis Hadjikyriacou, Colin Heywood, Wolfgang Kaiser, Alexandros Katsigiannis, Elias Kolovos, Tijana Krstić, Hayri Gökşin Özkoray, Natalie Rothman, Marinos Sariyannis, Nur Sobers-Khan, Katerina Stathi, Yannis Spyropoulos, and Nicolas Vatin. For moral support and welcome distractions over the years of research and writing, I thank my friends and fellow travelers, especially Richard Antaramian, Sheree Brown, Ian Campbell, Lale Can, Alison DeSimone, Matt Ellis, Kelly Ferneding, Tobias Graf, David Gutman, Piotr Kosicki, Vjeran Kursar, James Meyer, Nevila Pahumi, Emily Price, Will Smiley, and Eric and Rachel Snead.

The research and writing of this book were supported with generous fellowships and grants from the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, the US Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays Program, the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia.

ARIT, in the beautiful Bosphorus-side neighborhood of Arnavutköy, was my home in Istanbul for more than two years and the place where this project first took shape. I thank Tony Greenwood and Gülden Güneri for making ARIT a warm and hospitable environment. I am grateful to my colleagues in and beyond the Department of History at the University of Virginia for their encouragement and the robust trade in ideas. I especially want to thank Paul Halliday, Paul Kershaw, Erin Lambert, Erik Linstrum, Amanda Philips, Ahmed al-Rahim, Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, Robert Stolz, Melissa Thomas-Hunt, and Elizabeth Thompson (now at American University). This book was completed during a yearlong residency at the Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University under the auspices of the ACLS; I thank the staff and fellows for making it a genial place to write and my New York friends and my aunt for keeping me from spending too much time there. Kate Wahl, editor-in-chief at Stanford University Press (SUP), guided this book to press with breathtaking efficiency. I am indebted to her and the entire SUP staff.

Above all, I thank my family: my parents, Perrin White and Marjorie Boeck; my brother, Ben, and his wife, Matan; my nephew, Noah; my aunt, Marjorie White; and my late grandparents. My mother is the source of my curiosity and my wanderlust. With her as my inspiration, it is little surprise that I indulge both for a living. My father has immersed himself in every aspect of my work from the beginning. My most dependable editor, he has read every page of this book multiple times and saved you, the reader, from some of my worst prolix tendencies. My parents’ boundless support made all things possible. This book is for them.


1. Laurent Valdiguié, “Kadhafi: ‘J’en appelle à la France,’Le Journal du Dimanche, March 6, 2011,

2. Hastings, “Understanding Maritime Piracy.”

3. See, for example, Tinniswood, Pirates of Barbary; Matar, Britain and Barbary; Bono, Lumi e corsari; Bono, I corsari barbareschi; Fisher, Barbary Legend; Lane-Poole, Barbary Corsairs; Tenenti, Piracy and the Decline of Venice; Fontenay, La Méditerranée entre la croix et le croissant; Earle, Corsairs of Malta and Barbary.

4. For example, Weiss, Captives and Corsairs; Friedman, Spanish Captives; for Ottoman Greek victims of the Maltese, see Greene, Catholic Pirates and Greek Merchants.