The Albanian Captain(s)
Some time in the early 1530s a boy was born in Albania. Neither he nor those who loved him could have known what fate held in store, but it’s a certainty that if even half his story is anywhere near true it would make an incredible action-adventure movie.
We don’t know what the boy’s given name was but it is probably safe to say that he was raised a Christian. This made him a target for the North African pirates who raided his homeland at various intervals. In 1546, the boy was taken up by the raiding party of the pirate Kari Ali and brought to Algiers as a valuable slave. The first years of his life in the busy port city are also lost to history. What we know is that by 1565 Kari Ali Rais (“Rais” being the equivalent of “Captain” or “Commander” in English) was dead and the young Albanian, now calling himself by the Muslim name of Murat Ali, took his place and became Murat Rais.
Murat’s first cruise with the small flotilla his mentor had sailed started badly. He shipwrecked his flagship somewhere either on or near the coast of Sicily and things looked bleak. Fortune smiled a few weeks later and Murat’s smaller vessels captured a prize and used it to continue their cruise. More prizes were caught off the Spanish coast and he returned to Algiers with ships and slaves to sell.
What we know of Murat personally is that he was a small man, probably no taller than five feet three inches. He was slender and liked to dress richly. Having embraced the Muslim faith – or “turned Turk” as the British would say – he used his ever accumulating wealth to build a large home wherein he is reputed to have kept three or four wives. He seems to have been a live hard/play hard kind of seaman, and he made himself very popular with the local Beys by bringing in prizes on a regular basis.
Murat’s reputation for audacity and success got around the North African seaports and men came not only to join his crews but to sail in partnership with him. Murat, however, was not much of a team player. He would routinely disregard the Barbary codes and this behavior made him powerful enemies. One of these was a so called “Captain of the Seas”, a title similar to Commodore, from Algiers named Uluj Ali. Uluj accused Murat of losing a rich galleasse of the Knights of Malta by trying to rush to board her, and a long standing animosity developed. It may have been Uluj who used his influence to keep Murat from attaining the title of Captain of the Seas over the course of the next decade.
Despite the political infighting, which it seems no powerful Rais could avoid, Murat continued his astoundingly lucrative raids on Spanish and Italian shipping. When he captured two powerful galleasses, which were ferrying the Viceroy of Sicily home to Spain in 1574, both the Sultan of Algiers and King Philip of Spain took note. The Viceroy and his entourage were ransomed for an exorbitant amount and Philip put a price on the infidel head of Murat Rais.
Four years later, Murat captured a flotilla from France carrying more in silver and gold coins than the previous ransom from the Spanish King. With this, Murat’s reputation was sealed. The Sultan appointed him Captain of the Seas of Algiers, although the post didn’t actually stick until it was confirmed by the Ottoman Emperor in 1594.
If your doing the math that means that Murat was somewhere around 60 years old when the Emperor elevated him to the new post. To me, this is where some questions have to be asked of the story. Murat redoubled his raids before and after his appointment, sailing into the Atlantic and, using Sale in modern Morocco as a base, raiding Spanish and Portuguese towns for slaves. In 1595, he took his largest flotilla to date to southern Italy where he captured three Sicilian galleasses while destroying a larger fleet of the Knights of Malta.
With this triumph, he was given command of several squadrons of the Ottoman navy. He continued his predations on Christian ships until he was called to assist – almost ironically – in the siege of Vlore, the largest city in Albania. Here he was killed during fighting in 1636. That’s right; he would have been over 100 years old.
Obviously this is where the tale of Murat Ali Rais jumps the track. Even in this day and age, 100 years is a long time to live and not a one of us would be capable of going out to battle at that age. My personal belief is that we are dealing with two men, possibly a father and son, who went by the same name and had a similar talent for piracy. Their personalities blended as their legend grew and, like the Laffite brothers, they have come down in folklore as one man. Another possibility is that the deeds of others have been tacked on to the hero Murat Rais and his true dates of birth and death are now unknown.
Either way, there is no denying that the boy kidnapped from his natal home made more than good along the Barbary coast and may very well have seen his son do the same.
Sjellur nga Agim Zhuti