Everybody knows a pirate is supposed to have a peg leg, a patched eye and a parrot perched on his shoulder.
But a real Barbary Coast buccaneer of the 16th century was known as “Silver Arm” for his shiny metal limb.
Reign of power
Yet even an enemy lauded Aruj Barbarossa, however grudgingly, upon his death.
“He was a man excessively bold, resolute, daring, magnanimous, enterprising, profusely liberal and in no wise bloodthirsty, except when in the heat of battle, nor rigorously cruel except when disobeyed,” Ernle Bradford quoted a Spanish cleric in The Sultan’s Admiral: the Life of Barbarossa. “He was highly beloved, feared and respected by his soldiers and domestics and when dead was by them all in general most bitterly regretted and lamented. He left neither son nor daughter. He resided in Barbary 14 years; during which the harms he did to the Christians are inexpressible.”
Based in North Africa, Muslim privateers like Barbarossa were known as Barbary Pirates. The corsairs, whose power was not broken until the 19th century, attacked ships in the Mediterranean. The pirates also forced countries to pay tribute to keep their vessels from being plundered.
The Barbary corsairs competed with Christian European pirates for booty on the high seas. Both groups used galleots, fast ships powered by sails and oars.
The buccaneers would swoop on unsuspecting vessels, grabbing crews, passengers and freight. If the captives could not pay a ransom, they were sold as slaves or forced to become oarsmen on the galleots.
Aruj was born about 1473 on the Greek island of Lesbos. His father was reportedly a Turkish Muslim knight, his mother a Greek Christian.
Ultimately, Aruj and his three brothers became sailors, then buccaneers. Christian knights freelancing as pirates killed one of them in a sea battle. Aruj was wounded, taken prisoner and held captive in their castle on Rhodes, another Greek island.
Barbarossa was imprisoned for 3 years until his brother Khizr helped him get away. Afterwards, Aruj, Khizr – later known as Khayrad’din– and their brother, Ishak, became one of the most feared pirate trios in history.
They not only captured ships, they also boldly raided European ports on the Mediterranean, including Spanish coastal towns. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove the Muslim Moors out of Spain, Barbarossa helped them escape to North Africa. As a result, was dubbed “Baba Aruj,” or “Father Aruj.”
To Europeans, “Baba Aruj” sounded like “Barbarossa,” which means “Red Beard” in Italian. Aruj had a red beard, so he became known as “Aruj Barbarossa.”
Reclaim the city
Meanwhile, in retaliation against the Barbary Pirates, Spanish troops captured the Algerian seaport of Bougie and forced its ruler to flee. In 1512, he called on Aruj and his brothers to lead their pirates and other Muslim forces in a campaign to retake the city.
Aruj and his army of Turks and North Africans besieged the fort at Bougie for 7 days with no success. On the eighth day, the besiegers breached the bastion’s outer walls, according to Bradford. Even so, the Spanish refused to submit.
“Aruj, whose bravery could never been questioned (even if his impetuosity was to lead him into trouble), was not prepared to wait for a further day’s cannonading which would certainly have opened a wide breach, and possibly demoralised the defenders,” Bradford wrote. “As soon as he saw that there was room enough for a determined group to launch a frontal assault, he gave the order for the attack and stormed in at the head of his men.”
The Spaniards held their fire until the attackers started scrambling up the rubble toward the hole in the wall. Then they blasted Aruj and his men, Bradford wrote.
“In those first few volleys, the front ranks of the advancing attackers were decimated … ‘As Aruj was leading his men to the attack, a shot took away his left arm, above the elbow,’” he added.
Aruj’s fall doomed the attack. His men fled after carrying away their wounded, including their leader. “This was the first big setback experienced by Aruj in his career on the North African coast,” Bradford wrote.
No surgeons were aboard Aruj’s ships.
“But at Tunis there were skilled Arab physicians (as skilled as any in the world at that time),” Bradford explained. “While the rest of the fleet embarked the soldiers and siege train, one galleot, with a picked crew of Turkish oarsmen, sped back along the coast to Tunis. It carried the unconscious Aruj, with the stump of his left arm constricted by a primitive tourniquet.”
Surgeons amputated the shattered limb, and Aruj recovered to fight again, but with his special prosthesis. He was dubbed “GümüS; Kol,” which means “Silver Arm” in Turkish.
Eventually, Aruj became Sultan of Algiers. To safeguard his sultanate from Spanish attack, he offered the city and its surrounding territory to the Sultan of the powerful Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey.
Aruj was named governor of the new Ottoman province. But in 1518, the Spanish sent a powerful army to wipe him out. Aruj and Ishak waited with an army in the city of Tlemcen, near Algiers.
Though far outnumbered by the foe, the brothers and their troops held out for 20 days. The Turks made their last stand on a small hill, “turning their faces and breasts to the enemy, like men determined to die bravely,” Bradford wrote.
Aruj and Ishak were among the slain.
“Aruj, ‘though he had but one arm, fought to the last gasp like a lion,’” Bradford wrote.
Some of the Turks escaped to Algiers before the Spanish seized Tlemcen. They handed it over to a local ruler on condition he pay “an annual fee of vassalage of 12,000 golden ducats, 12 Arab horses, and six falcons to the king of Spain,” according to Bradford.
Coat of arms
Aruj’s crimson cloak ended up in Cordova, Spain. The garment was draped on a statue of Saint Bartholomew in the city cathedral, Bradford wrote.
He also wrote that a Spanish lieutenant allegedly finished off Aruj with a pike thrust. Afterwards, he cut off the pirate’s head. The officer’s family was “subsequently allowed to incorporate the head of Aruj in their coat of arms,” Bradford added.
Aruj’s enemies honored him in other ways, according to Bradford.
“He was the subject of an eighteenth-century Spanish heroic poem, and as late as the nineteenth century, of a stage tragedy.”
After the death of Aruj and Ishak, Khizr carried on in Aruj’s name. Though his beard was brown, He became known as Khayrad’din Barbarossa. Khayrad’din ultimately recaptured Tlemcen.
Aruj’s name has lived almost 500 years after his death. On the eve of World War II, the Turkish navy named a class of submarines for him. In the 2003 movie Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the Captain Hector Barbarossa character, played by Geoffrey Rush, was partly inspired by Barbarossa.