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The Pirate Queen of the Mediterranean: The Story of Al-Sayyida al-Hurra

By Adam Ali

When it came to piracy on the Mediterrean Sea, one of the most feared and formidable leaders was a woman by the name of Al-Sayyida al-Hurra. Here is her story.

The sources about Al-Sayyida varied and contradictory, making it difficult to paint a clear picture of her life. Many historians may have looked upon women in power with distaste and omitted to mention her. Another reason for the scant information on her in the sources could be due to the fact that those who ruled Tétouan after her may have tried to erase any records of her and the great revitalization, wealth, security, and power that Tétouan enjoyed under her rule.

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Nevertheless, she is mentioned, albeit in passing, in sources such as Dohat al-Nashir, a biographical dictionary by ibn ‘Askar and in Mir’aat al-Mahasin by Muhammad al-‘Arabi al-Fasi. On the other hand, Christian sources, primarily Spanish and Portuguese, present more detailed information on her. However, they are heavily biased against al-Sayyida al-Hurra and portray her as an aggressive pirate.

We don’t even know her real name. The name by which she is known, al-Sayyida al-Hurra, is most likely her title and has been translated in a variety of ways. In her book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Fatima Mernissi translates it as “The noble woman who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” Laura Sook Duncombe translates this title as “the woman sovereign who exercises power,” while Tom Verde writes that it means “an independent noble lady.” All of these translations tend to indicate that the holder of this title was a powerful, free, female sovereign who was not under anyone’s authority. So, who was al-Sayyida al-Hurra? Was she a noble princess? A competent ruler? A defender and revitalizer of her city? An avenger of her people? A pirate queen? A hero or a villain?

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The situation in the Western Mediterranean

The late 15th and early 16th centuries were both momentous and tumultuous periods in the history of the western Mediterranean. In 1488, Bartholomew Dias rounded the southern tip of Africa. He was the first European to achieve this feat. Within a decade Vasco da Gama, following Dias’ route, would make his way to India. The discovery of this new maritime trade route had a major impact on the economy and politics of the Iberian Peninsula and north-western Africa. It lessened the dependence on the caravan routes from the Niger Bend through Morocco to al-Andalus and Europe and hastened the economic, political, and military decline of Granada and Morocco through the elimination of Moroccan merchants as the middlemen for the trade coming north from Africa. The armies of Castille and Aragon conquered Granada ending almost eight centuries of Muslim rule and presence in the Iberia Peninsula.

Morocco, ruled by the Wattasid dynasty, was also significantly weakened. The colonial expansion of the Spaniards and the Portuguese across the Straits of Gibraltar had already begun during the early 15th century. The Portuguese occupied Cueta in 1415 and then after breaking the truce with the Wattasids in 1471 they conquered Asila and Tangier, not only occupying those two cities but also taking thousands of Muslim slaves in the process. The Spaniards also took Melilla in 1494. By 1500 the Christian Iberian powers had occupied almost all of the coastal towns and cities of Morocco along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, giving them almost complete control over the maritime trade.

Tétouan revives

Tétouan, a major Mediterranean seaport and naval base in Northern Morocco, was central to the events of al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s life and career. It was destroyed by the Castilians in 1399/1400, who also enslaved its population. It was destroyed again by the Portuguese in 1437 after it had been rebuilt. Tétouan remained in ruins until the late 15th century when it was, once again, rebuilt by Andalusi Muslims fleeing from the advancing forces of Ferdinand and Isabella.

An important historical figure in the history of Tétouan is Abu al-Hasan Ali al-Mandri (d. 1505 or 1515). He was a native of Granada and a captain in charge of defending one of the outlying forts, Pinar, against the Spanish armies. Pinar fell in 1485 and al-Mandri and a number of soldiers, nobles, and families departed for North Africa. The exodus of Andalusi Muslims to North Africa had already begun prior to 1492 as the Nasrids of Granada lost more and more land to Ferdinand and Isabella’s armies. Al-Mandri and his party settled in Tétouan sometime around 1485 and received permission from the Wattasid sultan of Morocco to rebuild and govern it.

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At first it was not easy for the refugees. They were few in number and the local tribes saw them as foreigners and outsiders who were a threat encroaching on their territory. In fact, most of the Muslim exiles from Granada and other parts of the Iberian Peninsula had been living there for many generations or centuries and had never set foot in North Africa, making them foreigners in the lands where they sought refuge. Some of these tribes skirmished with the Andalusis and sabotaged their reconstruction attempts. The sultan had to send a small force of 80 men composed of soldiers from Fez and Berber tribesmen from the Rif region.

Image by Omar-toons / Wikimedia Commons

Al-Mandri received support from Moulay ibn Ali al-Rashid, the ruler of Chefchaouen, which was just inland from Tangier and Tétouan. Moulay Ali was also an Iberian Muslim who had been forced to flee to North Africa and was the father of al-Sayyida al-Hurra. He was able to cultivate good relationships with some of the tribes in the region. He sent a force of 400 tribesmen to protect al-Mandri. With this aid, the settlers in Tétouan were able to keep their antagonists at bay and gradually restore the city. Over time, al-Mandri also formed ties with the surrounding tribes and made peace with them. Tétouan was restored, the Andalusi refugees rebuilt its walls, raised towers, and erected a fortress and grand mosque. Its maze-like streets also made it difficult to attack and occupy. Al-Mandri is seen as the founder of “new” Tétouan.

The city’s population also grew significantly. After 1492, the trickle of Andalusi Muslim refugees from Granada and other parts of Spain turned into a flood as they fled the conquest and afterwards the Inquisition. Many found their way to Tétouan. However, the rebuilt city’s population was not made up solely of Andalusi exiles and was in fact composed of a mixed population. In addition to the Muslim Iberians, families from among the local Berber tribes made Tétouan their home. There were also those who moved there from Fez in addition to Arab tribesmen and their families who also settled down in the city. Al-Mandri ruled the city and its surroundings, collected taxes and waged war on the Spanish and the Portuguese, particularly the Portuguese occupying Cueta. He, Moulay Ali, and other Andalusis no doubt dreamt of one day returning to their homes in Spain or at least to avenge their defeat and exile in 1492.

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Although al-Mandri was authorized to rule by the Wattasid sultan, he ruled Tétouan as a semi-independent city-state. It became an important economic, naval, and military center because it was the only major port city in Morocco that was not occupied by the Spanish or Portuguese, making it a perfect base from which to launch raids, but also a target of attacks by enemies. As such, it became an important base for pirate activity. Such activity sated the desire of the exiles for vengeance and also provided quick a source of revenue.

Al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s Early Life

Al-Sayyida al-Hurra was the daughter of Moulay Ali ibn Rashid and Lala Zohra Fernandez. Her mother was a Christian from Vejer de la Frontera who had converted to Islam and married Moulay Ali. The Banu Rashid, a prominent Andalusian Muslim noble family, fled to North Africa in the wake of the Christian advance. Al-Sayyida al-Hurra was born around 1485-1495 and had a brother, Moulay Ibrahim, who was born in 1490. Although the sources present her as al-Sayyida al-Hurra (or al-Sitt al-Hurra – both names having the same meaning), most historians agree that this was her title. Her real name may have been Aisha or Fatima. Hasna Lebbady argues that she was named “al-Hurra” after the title of the famous mother of the last Nasrid sultan of Granada.

If she was born in 1485, she may have had some memories of her family’s exile. Otherwise, she may have learnt about it through listening to the stories and discussions of the adults around her. Either way, it seems that she resented the exile of her family and her people. Her father settled in Northern Morocco a little inland from the coast and founded the city of Chefchaouen, which became a center of resistance against Spanish and Portuguese encroachment into North Africa and a place of refuge for many Muslim and Jewish Iberians fleeing persecution and the Inquisition. Al-Sayyida al-Hurra received a thorough education under some of the most prominent scholars in Chefchaouen, which she clearly put to good use as a governor, leader, politician, and negotiator.

In 1510 al-Sayyida al-Hurra married al-Mandri. It is unclear which “al-Mandri” it was that she married. Although it is possible, she most likely did not marry the Granadine captain and founder of Tétouan, Abu al-Hasan al-Mandri. He was 30 years her senior and may have died earlier, the date of his death being 1505 or 1515. It was probably his son or his nephew that she married, one Mohammad al-Mandri. This marriage brought the two families closer and politically united the power of Tétouan and Chefchaouen. Additionally, her brother, Moulay Ibrahim, was appointed to the position of wazir/vizier of sultan Ahmad al-Wattasi in Fez. Al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s marriage to al-Mandri and her brother’s new position at the sultan’s court propelled the Banu Rashid to new heights as major political players in the region, especially in the formation of a united front in Morocco against the encroachment of their powerful Spanish and Portuguese adversaries.

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Her rise to power

It was in 1510, after her union with al-Mandri, that al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s public political role began. She was the co-regent of Tétouan, ruling alongside her husband. There seems to have been a great deal of trust placed in her by her father and male relatives and by her husband, a feature, Hasna Lebbady argues, that was common among Andalusis and Moroccans. In addition to being the co-ruler of Tétouan, al-Sayyida al-Hurra ruled the city as her husband’s deputy whenever he departed on a diplomatic trip or on a military campaign.

After al-Mandri’s death in 1515 (or 1519) al-Sayyida al-Hurra became the sole ruler of Tétouan. There was no opposition to a woman taking power for several reasons. Her family, the Banu Rashid were well-respected in the region. Through her brother’s influence, there was no opposition to this move at the sultan’s court either. More importantly, the people of Tétouan were accustomed to al-Sayyida al-Hurra as their governor and ruler. What little the sources tell us about her presents an image of a woman who was strong, strong-willed, intelligent, well-educated, daring, and brave. These qualities, were no doubt, observed and appreciated by her subjects and soldiers. It is at this point that she assumed the title “al-Sayyida al-Hurra.” Under her rule Tétouan reached an unprecedented level of prosperity and power.

Much of Tétouan’s wealth and prosperity during al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s reign was a result of attacks on the enemy’s ships, particularly those of the Spanish and the Portuguese and through raids on coastal settlements. According to Fatima Mernissi, in addition to being the governor and ruler of the city state of Tétouan, al-Sayyida al-Hurra was also the “undisputed leader of the pirates in the western Mediterranean.” At this time the Wattasid rulers of Morocco did not possess a fleet. How could they? The Spanish and Portuguese had occupied all the major ports, with the exception of Tétouan. The only navy the Moroccans could depend on to defend their coasts and to launch attacks on their enemies was composed of the ships of the privateers and pirates who were based in Tétouan.

Depiction of galleys and other ships in battle, made around 1561

Pirates of the Mediterranean

The sources state that al-Sayyida al-Hurra made contact with the famous privateer brothers, Hayreddin Barbarossa and Oruç Reis, known as the brothers Barbarossa. It is unclear how they got this name meaning “red beard,” which may be true. One account states that Oruç was given the honorific title of “baba Oruç,” which was westernized into Barbarossa. They were the most notorious of the Barbary Corsairs under the nominal service of the Ottomans and operated out of their base in Algiers. The younger brother, Oruç, had been involved with safely transporting Muslim refugees fleeing from Spain to North Africa during the years 1504-1510. It appears that al-Sayyida al-Hurra learned from the brothers, assembled a fleet, and launched into privateering herself, attacking both enemy ships and towns taking much booty and capturing many prisoners and slaves.

Some historians state that she joined forces with Hayreddin and Oruç and for a while, they dominated the entire Mediterranean. There are Spanish and Portuguese records of diplomatic missions to her court to ransom Christian prisoners. Some of these accounts describe her as bad-tempered and harsh, but also as a shrewd negotiator and without a doubt the sovereign and main ruling authority in and around Tétouan. It is unclear if al-Sayyida al-Hurra ever personally boarded a ship and led a naval campaign or raid. However, it is clear that she was in charge and more than capable of assembling fleets and armies and coordinating the war efforts and raids from her capital. It is also apparent that her captains and lieutenants respected her and submitted to her authority.

The corsairs of the Mediterranean primarily used galleys and galliots (smaller versions of galleys) in their attacks. These were much smaller than the European warships and carried considerably fewer guns. However, what they lacked in firepower they made up for in maneuverability and speed. These galleys had one or more masts and twenty to thirty oars that required three to six rowers each. The galliots were considerably smaller with one mast and twelve to twenty-four oars with two rowers each. The combination of sails and oars allowed these ships to be mobile regardless of the wind and its direction. They certainly would not have fared well in a gun battle against the warships of the Europeans. That is why these corsair galleys and galliots depended on their speed and maneuverability to surprise their enemies and attack their targets at their weakest points, which was usually from behind. Perhaps another reason the corsairs avoided firefights was to prevent damage not only to their outgunned galleys, but also to the ship they were attempting to capture and to preserve its value.

Due to the small size of these ships the oars were not manned by slaves, but rather by free crew members, all of whom were fighting men and who participated in the boarding of target vessels. Based on the size of these ships, there were 24-48 rowers on a galliot and 60-180 rowers on a galley; these men would have formed the bulk of the crew and were needed both to row and to fight. On the other hand, non-pirate galleys, both Muslim and Christian, were rowed primarily by slaves. The corsairs did possess a few larger galleys and vessels, but these were usually used as support ships or command ships during larger operations. The sources do not indicate what type of ship al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s crews used. But based on the popularity of the galley and the galliot during this era among pirates, they were probably the ships of choice among the privateers and corsairs of Tétouan.

Based on her naval activities, one can call al-Sayyida al-Hurra a pirate or a “pirate queen.” However, it is the European sources that give her this title because she was their enemy and a powerful one at that. Hence this negative title. One should remember that during this era piracy was not one-sided. It was not only the north Africans and Andalusis of Tétouan and the corsairs of Algiers that were raiding the shipping and coasts of Europe. Europeans were doing the same, enslaving Muslims and North Africans and destroying or occupying coastal cities. It all comes down to perspectives and semantics. To the Spaniards and Portuguese anyone who attacked their ships and their colonies were deemed an enemy and a pirate. However, when they engaged in such behaviour it was not piracy.

The same goes the other way, Arabic sources that mention al-Mandri, al-Sayyida al-Hurra, and the actions of the Andalusis and Moroccans of Tétouan do not refer to them as piracy, but rather as a legitimate form of war. Some historians have stated that due to the lack of a Moroccan naval force per se, al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s privateer fleet acted as the only legitimate navy in the region to counter the Spanish and Portuguese incursions and expansion in Morocco. So, was al-Sayyida al-Hurra a pirate? Well, both yes and no. It depends on who’s perspective one takes. From the Spanish/Christian perspective, she was a pirate and from the Moroccan/Muslim perspective, she was a defender and revitalizer of her city and avenger of her people.

A modern depiction of al-Sayyida al-Hurra – Oxygene Tetouan / Wikimedia Commons

Fall from Power

In 1541 al-Sayyida al-Hurra married the Wattasid sultan of Morocco, Abu al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Wattasi. It is noteworthy that al-Sayyida al-Hurra did not go to Fez for the wedding but insisted that the sultan make the journey to Tétouan for the wedding. This is significant because this is the only time in Moroccan history that a sultan left his capital to get married. After the wedding, al-Sayyida al-Hurra remained in Tétouan and continued ruling it, while her new husband returned to Fez.

The news of this union was disconcerting and troubling, especially to the Spaniards and was compared by some to the union between Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. This marriage further cemented the united front against Spain, now ruled by Philip II, formed by the city-states of Tétouan, Chefchaouen, and the Wattasids of Morocco. However, al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s second marriage had other purposes. Moulay Ibrahim, al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s brother, had died in 1539. The sultan hoped to consolidate his position in northern Morocco through his marriage to his former wazir/vizier’s sister. The Watassids were slowly being pressured by the Sa‘di dynasty in the south. The successes of their rivals, especially with the help of artillery supplied by the English, was drawing support away from them. Many of the al-Mandris in both Fez and Tétouan started to shift their allegiances to the rising Sa‘dis and conspired against the Wattasids.

Al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s downfall happened very quickly. In 1542, shortly, after the wedding Moulay Ahmad al-Hasan al-Mandri, al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s son-in-law and a grandson of Abu al-Hasan al-Mandri entered Tétouan at the head of a small army (in another account it is a stepson of hers). In a swift move, he captured the palace, overthrew al-Sayyida al-Hurra, and confiscated all her property. He then set himself up as the independent ruler of Tétouan severing ties with the Wattasids in anticipation of their defeat at the hands of their Sa‘di rivals. What the populace thought of this move is unclear. Even though Tétouan enjoyed prosperity during much of al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s rule, it had gone through some hardships in the last few years. Due to her quarrel with the Portuguese governor of Cueta, commercial ties with the city had been severed and both the people and the merchants felt the brunt of this spat. Perhaps that is why the populace did not rise in defence of their ruler of three decades. Al-Sayyida al-Hurra retired to Chefchaouen where she lived out the last two decades of her life quietly. She died in 1561.

What can one make of al-Sayyida al-Hurra’s life and career? We get multiple images, perspectives, and opinions about her in the sources and in the discussions of scholars. She is presented as a hot-tempered and aggressive pirate, a shrewd politician and negotiator, an opportunist, a defender of her city and her people, a competent ruler, an intelligent well-educated noblewoman, and an avenger. Perhaps she was a little bit of all of these things.

Similar problems arise when discussing many such contentious figures or events in history. For example, to many westerners Alexander the Great was “great,” an Iranian will most probably think otherwise. Most people may think of Genghis Khan as a bloodthirsty conqueror, but to many Mongols he is a hero. The same can be said about many other important historical personalities, and al-Sayyida al-Hurra is certainly one of them.

The 16th century was a volatile and violent era in which cities such as Tétouan required decisive, strong, competent, and intelligent leaders to survive. Al-Sayyida al-Hurra was definitely all these things and more. She was a woman who rose to power and ruled in her own right for decades. She did not hesitate to take action, when necessary, in the form of diplomacy and outright war to safeguard her city. Despite the scarce information on her life in the sources, she certainly left her mark on history.

Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.

Top Image: Details from a Portolan chart by Albino de Canepa in 1489 – Wikimedia Commons

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