Ottoman Pirates: A background

During the height of the Ottoman Empire, from the 15th to the 18th centuries, piracy was a significant aspect of naval warfare and commerce in the Mediterranean and surrounding seas. These pirates, often referred to as “corsairs,” operated primarily from the North African ports of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, which were under Ottoman suzerainty.

Historical Context

The Barbary Corsairs

The most famous Ottoman pirates were the Barbary corsairs, who terrorized European shipping in the Mediterranean. These pirates were based in the Barbary States (modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) and were nominally under Ottoman control. They engaged in both piracy and privateering, the latter being state-sanctioned piracy aimed at enemy nations’ vessels.

Prominent Figures

One of the most famous Ottoman pirates was Hayreddin Barbarossa (c. 1478–1546), who became an admiral in the Ottoman navy. Barbarossa and his brother, Oruç Reis, initially operated independently but eventually aligned with the Ottoman Empire, significantly enhancing their resources and legitimacy. Barbarossa’s success helped establish Ottoman naval dominance in the Mediterranean during the 16th century​ (ThoughtCo)​ .

Another notable figure was Murat Reis the Elder, who also served as an admiral in the Ottoman navy and conducted numerous raids across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, even reaching as far as Iceland and the Canary Islands .

Operations and Impact

Mediterranean Dominance

Ottoman pirates primarily targeted Christian ships from Spain, France, Italy, and other European nations. They engaged in both seizing valuable cargo and capturing crew and passengers for ransom or enslavement. This piracy significantly disrupted European maritime trade and led to numerous conflicts and retaliatory expeditions.

Slavery and Ransom

One of the most infamous aspects of Ottoman piracy was the enslavement of captives. Those captured were often sold in slave markets throughout the Ottoman Empire or held for ransom. This practice contributed to the tense and violent maritime environment of the period .


The power of the Barbary corsairs and other Ottoman pirates began to wane in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to several factors, including increased naval patrols by European powers, treaties, and military campaigns aimed at suppressing piracy. Notably, the United States and European nations conducted the Barbary Wars (1801-1805 and 1815), which significantly weakened the Barbary States’ ability to support piracy .


Ottoman pirates played a crucial role in the maritime history of the Mediterranean and beyond, blending piracy with state-sponsored privateering to further the Ottoman Empire’s strategic interests. Their legacy is a testament to the complex interplay of piracy, commerce, and naval warfare in the early modern period.


  1. Konstam, A. (2002). Pirates: Predators of the Seas. Skyhorse Publishing.
  2. Earle, P. (2003). The Pirate Wars. Methuen.
  3. Bohn, H. G. (Ed.). (1847). The Works of Lord Byron: With His Letters and Journals, and His Life. John Murray.