Charles V at Algiers 1541 – First, the History

Excerpt, The Story of the Nations: The Story of the Barbary Corsairs” by Stanley Lane-Poole. 1890.


When Barbarossa left Algiers forever in 1535 to become High Admiral of the Ottoman Empire, the Corsairs lost their chief; but so many of his captains remained behind that the game of sea roving went on as merrily as ever. Indeed, their depredations fierce and ruthless against the people of Italy, Spain and the islands. His successor or viceroy at Algiers was a Sardinian renegade, Hasan the Eunuch; but the chief commanders at sea were Dragut, Sālih Reïs, Sinān, and the rest, who, when not called to join the Kapitan Pasha’s fleet, pursued the art of piracy from the Barbary coast. Dragut worked measureless mischief in the Archipelago and Adriatic, seized Venetian galleys and laid waste the shores of Italy, till he was caught by Giannettino Doria, nephew of the great admiral, while unsuspectingly engaged in dividing his spoils on the Sardinian coast (1540).

Incensed to find his vast empire perpetually harassed by foes so lawless and in numbers so puny, Emperor Charles V resolved to put down the Corsairs’ trade once and forever. He had subdued Tunis in 1535, but piracy still went on. Now he would grapple the head and front of the offence, and conquer Algiers.

Confident the Corsair city would fall at the mere sight of his immense flotilla; he set out in October, 1541. He even took Spanish ladies on board to view his triumph. The season for a descent on the African coast was over. The chance of effecting anything before the winter storms should guard the coast from any floating enemy was more than doubtful; but Charles had been delayed during a busy summer by his troubles in Germany and Flanders, and could not get away before.

At last he was free; in spite of earnest remonstrances of Doria and entreaties of the Pope, to Algiers he would go. Everything had long been prepared—a month, he believed, at the outside would finish the matter. At Spezzia he embarked on Doria’s flagship; the Duke of Alva commanded the troops, many of whom had been brought by the Emperor himself from the German highlands. Ill-luck attended them from the outset: a storm, no unusual phenomenon with November coming on, drove the ships back into shelter at Corsica. At length the seas subsided, and the fleet, picking up allies as it went along, cautiously hugged the land as far as Minorca, where the mistral, the terror of seamen, rushed down upon the huge armada—masts strained, yards cracked, sails were torn to rags; there was nothing for it but to row for their lives and for their Emperor. They were seven miles from Port Mahon, yet it took half the night to win there—an endless night which the panting crews never forgot.

In the bay of Palma, at Majorca, the fleet was assembled. There were the Emperor’s hundred sailing vessels carrying the German and Italian troops, commanded by such historic names as Colonna and Spinosa; there were Fernando Gonzago’s Sicilian galleys, and a hundred and fifty transports from Naples and Palermo; there were the fifty galleys of Bernadino de Mendoza, conveying two hundred transports with the arms and artillery, and carrying the corps of gentlemen adventurers, mustered from the chivalry of Spain, and including one only who had climbed up from the ranks—Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico. Over five hundred sail, manned by twelve thousand men, carrying a land force of twenty-four thousand soldiers, entered the roads of Algiers on October 19, 1541.

At last the great Emperor set eyes upon the metropolis of piracy. On the rocky promontory which forms the western crest of the crescent bay, high up the amphitheatre of hills, tier upon tier, in their narrow overshadowed lanes, the houses of the Corsairs basked in the autumn sun, crowned by the fortress which had known the imperious rule of two Barbarossas. On the right was the mole which Spanish slaves had built out of the ruins of the Spanish fort. Two gates fronted the south and north, the Bab Azūn and Bab-el-Wēd.

Avoiding the promontory of Cashina, the galleys, with furled sails, drew up before the low strand, backed by stretches of luxuriant verdure, south of the city, and out of range, at the spot which is still called the “Jardin d’essai.” A heavy swell prevented their landing for three days, but on the 23rd, in beautiful weather, the troops disembarked. The Berbers and Arabs, who had lined the shore and defied the invaders, hastily retired before the guns of the galleys, and the Spaniards landed unopposed. The next day they began the march to the city some few miles off. The Spaniards formed the left wing on the hill side; the Emperor and the Duke of Alva with the German troops composed the centre; the Italians and one hundred and fifty knights of Malta marched on the right by the seashore. Driving back the straggling bands of mounted Arabs, who ambushed among the rocks and ravines, and picked off many of the Christians, the invaders pushed steadily on, till Algiers was invested on all sides save the north. Its fate appeared sealed.

A brief bombardment from Charles’s heavy cannon, and the Spaniards would rush the breach and storm the citadel. Hasan Aga, within, with only eight hundred Turks, and perhaps five thousand Arabs and Moors, must almost have regretted the proud reply he had just made to the Emperor’s summons to surrender.

Then, when the end seemed close at hand, the forces of Nature came to the rescue. The stars in their courses fought for Algiers: the rains descended and the winds blew and beat upon that army, till the wretched soldiers, with neither tents nor cloaks, with barely food—for the landing of the stores had hardly begun—standing all night knee-deep in slush in that sandy soil, soaked to the skin, frozen by the driving rain and bitter wind, were ready to drop with exhaustion and misery. When morning dawned they could scarcely bear up against the blustering gale; their powder was wet; and a sudden sally of the Turks spread a panic in the sodden ranks which needed all the courage and coolness of the Knights of Malta to compose.

At last the enemy was driven out of the trenches and pursued, skirmishing all the way, to the Bab Azūn. It looked as though pursuers and pursued would enter together; but the gate was instantly shut, and a daring Knight of Malta had barely struck his dagger in the gate to defy the garrison, when the Christians found themselves under so heavy a fire from the battlements, that they were forced to beat a retreat: the Knights of Malta, last of all, their scarlet doublets shining like a fresh wound, and their faces to the foe, covered the retreat.

Hasan then led out his best horsemen from the gate, and driving their heels into their horses’ flanks, the cloud of Moslems poured down the hill. The Knights of Malta bore the shock with their iron firmness, though they lost heavily. The Italians ran for their lives. The Germans whom Charles hurriedly despatched to the rescue came back without drawing a sword. The Emperor himself put on his armour, spurred his charger into the midst of the fugitives, sword in hand, and with vehement reproaches succeeded in shaming them into fight. “Come, gentlemen,” then said he to the nobles around, “forwards!” And thus he led his dispirited troops once more to the field; this time the panic alarm of the rank and file was controlled and banished by the cool courage of the cavaliers, and the Turks were driven back into the town. The skirmish had cost him three hundred men and a dozen Knights of Malta. All that day the Emperor and his officers, great seigniors all, stood at arms in the pouring rain, with the water oozing from their boots, vigilantly alert.

Had Charles now run his ships ashore at all hazard, and dragged up his heavy siege train and stores and tents and ammunition, all might yet have been won. But several precious days were wasted, and on the morning of the 25th such a storm sprang up as mortal mariner rarely encountered even off such a coast—a violent north-easterly hurricane—still known in Algiers as “Charles’s gale”—such as few vessels cared to ride off a lee shore. The immense flotilla in the bay was within an ace of total destruction. Anchors and cables were powerless to hold the crowded, jostling ships.

One after the other they broke loose, and keeled over to the tempest till their decks were drowned in the seas. Planks gaped; broadside to broadside the helpless hulks crashed together. Many of the crews threw themselves madly on shore. In six hours one hundred and fifty ships sank. The rowers of the galleys, worn out with toiling at the oar, at last succumbed, and fifteen of the vessels ran on shore, only to be received by the Berbers of the hills, who ran their spears through the miserable shipwrecked sailors as soon as they gained the land.

The worst day must come to an end: on the morrow the storm was over, and Andrea Doria, who had succeeded in taking the greater part of the fleet out to sea, came back to see what new folly was in hand. He was indignant with the Emperor for having rejected his advice and so led the fleet and army into such peril; he was disgusted with his captains, who had completely lost their coolness in the hurricane, and wanted to run their vessels ashore, with the certainty of wreck, sooner than ride out the storm—and yet called themselves sailors!

He found Charles fully aware of the necessity for a temporary retreat, till the army should be revictualled and reclothed. The camp was struck: the Emperor himself watched the operation, standing at the door of his tent in a long white cassock, murmuring quietly the Christian’s consolation: “Thy will be done”—Fiat voluntas Tua! Baggage and ordnance were abandoned; the horses of the field artillery were devoured by the hungry troops; and then the march began.

To retreat at all is humiliation, but to retreat as this luckless army did was agony. Deep mud clogged their weary feet; when a halt was called they could but rest on their halberts, to lie down was to be suffocated in filth; mountain torrents swollen breast-high had to be crossed, the wading men were washed away till they built a rude bridge—O crowning humiliation!—out of the wreckage of their own ships. Hasan and a multitude of Turks and Arabs hung forever on their flanks. The dejected Italians, who had no stomach for this sort of work, fell often into the hands of the pursuers; the Germans, who could do nothing without their customary internal stuffing, were mere impedimenta; and only the lean Spaniard covered the retreat with something of his natural courage.

At last the dejected army reached the Bay of Temendefust (Matifoux), where the remains of the fleet were lying at anchor. It was resolved, in view of the approach of winter and the impossibility of sending supplies to an army in stormy weather, to reëmbark. Cortes in vain protested: the council of war agreed that it was too late in the year to attempt retaliation. Then a new difficulty arose: how was room to be found in a flotilla, which had lost nearly a third of its ships, for an army which was but a couple of thousand less than when it landed? Regretfully Charles gave orders for the horses to be cast into the sea, and, despite their masters’ entreaties, favourite chargers of priceless value were slaughtered and thrown overboard. The famous breed of Spanish horses was well-nigh ruined.

It was but one tragedy more. On the 2nd of November most of the troops were on board. Charles resolved to be the last to leave the strand; but the wind was getting up, the sea rising, and at last he gave the order to weigh anchor. Often is the story told in Algiers how the great Emperor, who would fain hold Europe in the palm of his hand, sadly took the crown from off his head and casting it into the sea said, “Go, bauble: let some more fortunate prince redeem and wear thee.”

He did not sail a moment too soon. A new and terrific storm burst forth. The ships were driven hither and thither. Where the tempest drove them, there they helplessly wandered, and many men died from famine and exposure. Some of the Spanish vessels were wrecked at Algiers, and their crews and troops were sent to the bagnios. Charles himself and Doria arrived safely at Bujēya—then a Spanish outpost—with part of the flotilla. Here the unexpected visitors soon caused a famine—and still the tempest raged. The half-starved rovers in vain tried to make head against the waves, and carry the Emperor back to Spain: eighty miles out they gave in, and the ships returned disconsolately to the harbour. Twelve days and nights the storm bellowed along the treacherous coast, and not till November 23rd could the Imperial fleet set sail for the coast of Spain.

There was mourning in Castile that Yuletide. Besides eight thousand rank and file, three hundred officers of birth had fallen victims to the storm or the Moorish lance. Algiers teemed with Christian captives, and it became a common saying that a Christian slave was scarce a fair barter for an onion.

So ended this famous expedition. It was begun in glory, and ended in shame. The whole of Christendom, one might say—for there were English knights there, as well as Germans, Frenchmen, Spaniards, and Italians in the army—had gone forth to destroy a nest of pirates, and behold, by the fury of the elements and the foolishness of their own counsels, they were almost destroyed themselves. They had left behind them ships and men and stores and cannon: worse, they had left Algiers stronger and more defiant than ever.

The Algerines, for their part, never forgot the valour of the Knights of Malta, and the spot where they made their stand is still called “The Grave of the Knights.” High up on the hillside may be seen “the Emperor’s Castle,” which marks the traditional place where Charles’ great pavilion was pitched on the morning of the fatal 23rd of October.