Piri Reis and his Place in Ottoman Maritime History

When dealing with Turkish history, whether during the Ottoman period or after, one comes across horrendous claims and errors by countless historians which utterly distort the subject. To try and write correctly Turkish history is beyond the competence of this author, nor is it his aim, nor his bother. It is up to Turks themselves to write their own history. Nobody is going to write it correctly for them.

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Figure 1. (Map on left) Surviving fragment of the second World Map of Piri Reis, 1528 (source)

Figure 2. Turkish Piri Reis Stamp

Also, whilst Western sources of Turkish history, just as of Muslim history, are a blessing, they can also be the greatest curse for whoever fails to handle them carefully. They are so full of the dire and the best at once, and whoever comes in and begins to pick blindly is just going to complete a mishmash of the best and the dire. Furthermore, many researchers these days, due to countless reasons that include laziness, search for the easy, gullibility, lack of experience, poor scholarship, and the like, quickly click on the internet, pick up the first information that hits their eyes, compile a poor paper and present it to their peers, or students, or their employer, and add their latest ‘creation’ to their cvs, and then savour the resulting rise in their emoluments. Of course, few understand that the internet is also a blessing and a huge scourge, that in regard to knowledge, it operates or does what it does to news or the truth. The internet, or the invisible hands behind it, select for you the knowledge they want you to know, and the names they want you to consider as great scholars, just as they select for you the news that tells you the truth, that is their truth. Many indeed fail to realize that there are vast amounts of true knowledge that are hidden away, that only an experienced researcher can fathom. Finally, we live in a world that is awfully corrupted by the glitzy and the urge for the latest when the glitzy and latest are just all glitz and no substance. Unfortunately, the trend amongst mediocre scholarship is to succumb to this glitz, and adopt blindly the most recent sources. Let’s remind them again: you do not adopt or trust a source, or use it because it dates from after 2000. This is utterly wrong. In respect to our subject, history, most of the best material precedes 2000, and in fact, the older the source, the better. By this, one means, history is not technology or medicine, whereby you adopt the latest source giving you the latest findings. History is the very reverse. The closer you get to the event the better. Talking about Turkish history for instance, it is better to use a war correspondent who was present during the Balkan Wars (1911-1913) or at the Gallipoli campaign (1915) than use any source of today, E.J. Erickson and Mesut Uyar, both first class historians, excepted. Always stick with the contemporaries, and if you can’t then use those who lived closer to the events, and then, finally, if you have to, which you do, use later scholars in order to get some benefit of hindsight, or to correct errors which earlier sources might have made in regard to names, or some dates, and the like.

Figure 3. Painting of Sultan Ahmed III and Ottoman bastardas (small war galleys) in Surname-i Vehbi. (Source)

Now, why is one reminding of all this? The reason is simple: one has read some dreadful stuff, including by countless Turkish scholars, some going even further than their Western colleagues or masters, in seeing in their ancestors involved in maritime activities only corsairs who loot Christian wealth and slay their victims in most atrocious manners. The Anti Turkish propaganda in historical narrative is in fact the mother of all propagandas, with perhaps not more than 10% written about Turks being of any historical veracity whatsoever. This author has discussed this issue to great length in his other works, and is not a liberty to go into such a matter here. In regard to our particular subject, reading through most works, it would seem, every Turk who set sail, or just approached the sea, was a sanguinary pirate. This is a serious error committed by many. Turkish navy commanders, especially the two Barbarossa Brothers, Piri Reis and other admirals were never corsairs. This is a legend, a myth, a distortion, a dreadful exploitation of history which hides, or in fact reflects, the centuries old hostility to the Turks, and which expresses itself in distorted writing.

In this article we begin by addressing distortions related to the subject, first, before we deal with Piri Reis and other aspects of Ottoman maritime history. This is necessary not just because the distortions need to be addressed, it is also for another simple reason: unless we deal with these distortions we understand nothing whatsoever about Ottoman naval history. Also, as stated above, this author is not going to substitute himself to Turkish scholarship and start lecturing the Turks about their history. They are better placed than him to do it. So, he deals with this issue here because this is necessary, and also because he is not going to devote to it any further interest or energies any time in the future as the whole Muslim history is in urgent need of salvation from the onslaught unleashed on it for more than a century under the complacent or culpable Muslim eye.

1. Turkish/Ottoman Maritime History: A Casualty of Bad History

There are three main aspects to the distortions of Turkish/Ottoman maritime history:

1. Attributing to Ottoman seamen the title of corsairs/pirates.

2. Attributing Ottoman accomplishments to others.

3. Hiding away/suppressing from knowledge sources and information that tell the real story.

Figure 4. Exquisite drawing of a Goke, an Ottoman war ship. Miniature taken from Katip Celebi's manuscript Tuhfetü 'l-kibar (Topkapi Palace Library, MS R1192). (Source)

1.1 Turk and Corsair

We begin with the practice of assimilating Ottoman seamen to corsairs.

Soucek, who straight, in the abstract of his article on Piri Reis, informs us:

Piri Reis (ca 1480-1553) was an ottoman-Turkish corsair, admiral in the imperial navy, and, most importantly, author of portolan charts and sailing directions as well as of two world maps. His early life as a gazi-corsair, approximately from 1490 to 1510, was spent by the side of his uncle Kemal Reis, a renowned corsair with whom he criss-crossed the Mediterranean, gaining unparalleled knowledge of this sea.[1]

The same author in another article:

Piri Reis (ca 1481-1552) he is believed to have sailed with his uncle Kemal Re'is, the corsair who took part in the Ottoman capture of Euboea (874/1470)."[2]

Dimitris Loupis makes sure Kemal Reis is both corsair and pirate at once.[3] He writes:

During Bayazid's reign, Pïrï Reis (ca. 1470-1553/4) grows mature in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas next to the 
famous pirate and corsair, his uncle Kemäl Reis."[4]

Imber states:

In the first decade of the sixteenth century, two brothers, Hayreddin Barbarossa and Uruj, had been active in piracy off the southern and western shores of Anatolia, enjoying the patronage of Bayezid’s son, Korkud. Selim I’s execution of Korkud and pursuit of his followers in 1513 forced the brothers to flee to the North African coast, where they established themselves not simply as pirates, but eventually as rulers of Tunis and Algiers."[5]

Andrew Hess, likewise, says:

Responding to an appeal for aid from the Muslims of Granada, Bayezit II outfitted a corsair squadron under the command of Kemal Reis for operations in Iberian waters."[6]

Hess also writes:

Figure 5. Portrait of Piri Reis (Source)

Ottoman imperial activity within North Africa started shortly after the seizure of Egypt when Selim the Grim (1515-20) sent military units westward as far as the borders of Tunisia.[7] In approximately the same period, Muslim corsairs from the eastern Mediterranean, the Barbarossa brothers, petitioned the Ottoman sultan for military assistance in order to protect the privateering bases they had established along the coast of the Central Maghrib."

When Suleyman the Lawgiver (1520-66) supplied arms, ammunition and men to these frontiersmen and in 1534 appointed their leader, Hayreddin Barbarossa, to the post of admiral, he projected the boundaries of the Ottoman empire into the western Mediterranean basin.[8]

We will deal with the Ottoman corsair concept further down. Let’s first address the shortcomings of Western scholarship, by making few comments on Hess’s preceding statement. It is full of errors; in fact the whole of Hess’s essay shows his utter poor understanding of the North African and Spanish scene. It is not our remit here to deal with the work, but only focus on the statement made a few lines above. Hess messes his dates as rarely historians do. We bring to attention that Selim ‘The Grim’ (as in his words) was sultan in 1512, not 1515; he descended on Egypt late in 1516, captured it in 1517. The Barbarossas had by then been established in North Africa for quite long; had defended Jerba in 1510, had established themselves in Jijel; Aruj had by then launched two assaults to free Bejaia from the Spaniards; and with their Algerian allies, the Barbarossas had freed Algiers from Spanish tutelage, in 1516. They had also received armament, including ships, from Selim and not under Suleiman. By the time of Suleiman, in fact, Aruj was already dead, and could not receive anything from the sultan (except his blessings). The circumstances of the Brothers’ arrival in the region and their acts there contradict everything Hess says. He only got right the fact that Suleiman appointed Kheir Eddin as head of the Ottoman navy, but here, too, he got his date wrong, for Kheir Eddin was appointed in 1533, and maybe even in 1532, and not in 1534, for in 1534, he was already in command of a powerful fleet setting out of Istanbul aiming for southern Italy.[9] After all, he was in Algiers when he received his appointment, and in those days, it took a bit longer to travel from Algiers to Istanbul, go through the various procedures, and prepare a fleet. His program was too crammed to make the date of his appointment 1534, for that same year, also, when asked by the Tunisian population to free them from their despotic ruler, he entered Tunis.[10] Just by using logic one can find problems with Hess’s dating of everything.

We won’t dwell on the matter of the supposed ‘Barbarossa’s flight from Turkey to the western Mediterranean to commence their corsair activities.’ Dates and circumstances given by Hess and Imber are contradicted by all contemporary sources and also older Western sources.[11] These dates and circumstances are only upheld by Soucek, Imber and Hess and their gullible followers.[12] Neither dates nor circumstances tally with other facts or historical logic. In regard to the latter, the dates given by Soucek, Hess, and Imber (and their followers) make the accomplishments of the Barbarossa Brothers in the Western Mediterranean impossible.

But let us focus on the matter of piracy: The story goes back to 1501. That year Arruj and Elias, his brother, most certainly as they carried the family wares (their father was a pottery maker) off Mytilene, were surprised at sea by a pirate galley of the Christian Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, based at Rhodes.[13] Elias was killed on the spot (possibly deemed not worth enslaving) whilst Arruj was, like most physically able Muslims who were caught, sent to Christian galleys, where he slaved at the oars for three years.[14] This incident fits in very logically with the events of the time as meticulously drawn from official sources, for precisely that same year, 1501, Venetian and French forces tried to capture the island of Mytilene as a suitable base for operations against the Dardanelles.[15] After Arruj’s ransom (in 1504), an Egyptian emir outfitted him and his other two brothers (Isaak and Khair Eddin) to raid Christian merchants.[16] This shows that it was not the brothers who were pirates but that they were themselves victims of Christian piracy.

Regarding what brought the brothers to prominence in North African politics, where they supposedly engaged in piracy, only a historian who knows a little about the history of North Africa can explain it to the others, and without such knowledge the lives and careers not just of the Barbarossas, but also of Piri Reis himself, and the whole Ottoman maritime history especially in the western Mediterranean, will never be understood. So let’s clarify the situation for everyone:

Following the fall of Grenada in 1492 the Spaniards embarked on their long-held project of ‘recovering Christian lands’ on the other side of the sea (the Maghrib), a project that is so well documented that only idiots can speak of other causes for the Spanish military onslaught against North Africa.[17] The Spaniards, just as the Portuguese nearly a century before them, began occupying (after the usual massacres of Muslims) towns and cities on the coast of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. In 1415, long before the Ottoman ‘corsairs’ grand fathers’ were born, an army of over 50,000 men and a navy in excess of 230 vessels took Ceuta for Portugal.[18] The capture of Ceuta was followed in 1437 by the first abortive crusade against Tangier, and, under Alfonso V the African (o Africano, 1438-1481), by the seizure of Arzila (1458).[19] In 1471, Tangiers capitulated to the Portuguese.[20] In 1485 the kingdom of Fez made a treaty of peace and friendship with the Spanish monarchs, and became in 1494 the subject of two partition treaties between Portugal and Spain.[21] By the early 16th century, during Don Manuel’s reign, the Portuguese were strongly established in fortified settlements in Agadir (1504), Safi (1508), and Azemmour (1513).[22] These conquests were seen as one of the prongs of a proposed attack ‘to liberate Jerusalem from Infidels,’ in pursuit of which the Portuguese tried and failed to take Mers al-Kebir (Algeria) in 1501.[23] In the wake of Portuguese conquest, terrible acts of cruelty were committed on Muslims, and countless numbers were enslaved.[24]

Figure 6. The surrender of Granada in 1492 (Source)

This ‘Re-conquest’ beyond the Iberian Peninsula was justified on the ground that ‘North Africa too had once been a Christian land.’[25] The Spaniards continued the ‘Holy duty.’ Melila was captured in 1497, Mers el Kebir (1500), Oran (1509), Bejaia and Tripoli in 1510.[26] When Algiers and Tunis became threatened in 1510, following the Spanish capture of Bejaia and Tripoli, the local sheikhs, in quite normal tradition of the time (as was done before then by the sheikhs of Grenada), called for Ottoman help. The two brothers had already established themselves on the island of Jerba (modern Tunisia).[27] Arruj might have even helped local authorities in Jerba in repulsing the Spanish attack on the island in that year (1510).[28] Arruj and Kheir Eddin established themselves at Jijel (Lesser Kabylia) in Algeria, the nearest town to Bejaia, which they intended to free from Spanish rule.[29] Then, aware of the presence of the two brothers in Jijel, a delegation arrived from Algiers to request them to help wresting Algiers from Spanish garrison on the Penon and ending the annual tribute.[30] Although Algiers had a large Andalusian community, the political leadership was exercised by Salim al-Tha’alibi, chief of the Tha’aliba tribe which had ruled the city shortly before Pedro Navarro’s campaign of 1510.[31] The Spanish presence weighed heavily on the Algerians, who not only paid tribute but were also continually threatened by the cannons of the Penon.[32] King Ferdinand the Catholic, says Lane Poole, ‘held a firm hand over the tribute which his banished subjects had to pay him for his condescension in ruining them.’[33] The people lacked the required armament to even bother let alone dislodge the Spaniards. Arruj’s help was sought, for, as Lane Poole puts it:

Figure 7. Suleiman the Magnificent receiving Barbarossa in Istanbul (Source)

And who so proper to redress this grievance as the invincible Barbarossa, who was master of a naval force, and wanted not artillery? Had he not been twice to reinstate the unfortunate King of Bujēya, and lost a limb in his service?"[34]

Arruj, with his Algerian allies, led by Ibn al-Kadi,[35] entered Algiers in 1516, and were received with great rejoicing by the citizens.[36]  Hence began the story of the Algerian-Ottoman collaboration that was to last for centuries. So this is the reason why the brothers came to Algeria, and this is the reason that drove Turks and Algerians to fight together not that Algerians and Turks have engrained in them the gene of loot and plunder as the authors above make it look. To confirm what has been stated, one only looks at the history of the Ottomans, in general, and the Ottoman navy as summed up in the final heading oft his work (Heading 3: The Wider Cause).

Finally, the claim (as is also found in most works) that the two brothers were mere pirates is utterly disproved by historical facts in their entirety. Arruj, rather than engaging in “pirate” activities, allied himself with the Algerian local population of both Jijel and Bejaia, and mounted successive assaults on land to free the latter city, but failed due to superior Spanish artillery, even losing an arm in one attempt.[37] Arruj did not then, again as stated by our scholars, launch onto the sea from Algiers to terrorize Christian shipping. It is a challenge upon anyone to show a single attack by him on any ship or any coastal area of Christendom mounted from Algeria. The fact is: he spent all his time and effort with his Algerian allies first in liberating Algeria from the Spaniards, Algiers first in 1516.[38] After that, he spent the remainin