National Army Museum

During a period of European peace, Spain sought to establish control of the Mediterranean. Yet a disastrous attempt to oust the Ottomans from North Africa threatened to accelerate the westward advance of Islam. 

Philip II of Spain and Henry II of France signed the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis on 3 April 1559, putting a temporary end to almost six decades of conflict between their nations. The treaty recognised Spanish, and therefore Habsburg, dominance over Italy.

The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis and the Embrace of Henry II  of France and Philip II of Spain, 2-3 April 1559. © Bridgeman Images

The ensuing peace presented Philip with the opportunity to turn his armies towards other, less strictly European problems. As the Continent’s only superpower, Spain was now able to concentrate on the long-standing question of who controlled the Mediterranean. 

 Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, 16th century.
Portrait of Suleiman the Magnificent, 16th century. © Add 7880 f.53v
Spain’s rival in this arena was the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman’s naval power comprised a fleet based in the eastern Mediterranean and the Barbary pirates, located in the west. Since antiquity, pirates were considered outside the law and therefore subject to summary execution. For self protection, they would seek out a suitable and powerful patron. In the case of the Barbary pirates, that was Suleiman. They continued to act independently, but if required, joined the Ottoman fleet. In the sailing season – May to October – the pirates spread out from bases in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and elsewhere, snaffling merchant ships and raiding the shores of Christian Europe. Subduing them was a long overdue task.

Two men, Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John of Malta, and Juan de la Cerda, Duke of Medinaceli and Viceroy of Sicily, suggested a plan for this task. Their proposed target was Tripoli, a choice bound
to appeal to Philip. A fortress city on the north African coast, Tripoli was the base of the feared naval commander Turgut Reis, known alternatively as Dragut and ‘The Drawn Sword of Islam’, under whose command Ottoman maritime power was expanding rapidly. 

The Knights of St John 

Valette had personal reasons for wanting to take Tripoli. As one of the last remaining crusading orders, the Knights of St John had become something of an anachronism in Europe, expelled from the Holy Land in 1291 and then expelled by Suleiman from the Greek island of Rhodes in 1522. They had wandered Europe for eight years, an embarrassment to an increasingly worldly, mercantile continent. Then, in 1532, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V offered them a home in Malta, in exchange for which every year they presented a falcon to the Holy Roman Emperor. Malta, a small, poor island between Sicily and Tunis, was a serious come down from Rhodes but, blessed with a magnificent harbour, it made an ideal base for the seafaring knights. Charles also gave them Tripoli, which they had lost to a combined force of the Ottoman navy and Turgut Reis in 1551.

Valette had been Governor of Tripoli from 1546 to 1549 and its loss rankled. He had fought with the Order at Rhodes, followed them through their wilderness years and risen steadily through the ranks before being voted Grand Master. He saw the expedition as a chance to redeem the Order’s honour. It would, however, be Medinaceli who would lead the men into battle. 

Action delayed 

Medinaceli’s character was different from the hot-tempered Valette. A contemporary described him as a ‘prince of most humane qualities and a most gentle manner’. Admirable attributes, but not those of a soldier. He
would prove a lacklustre commander.

Yet in the summer of 1559, the capture of Tripoli seemed possible. Intelligence suggested that Turgut had just 500 soldiers in the city and was distracted by the indigenous Berber tribesmen of the interior, who disliked the pirate and his Ottoman backers. As for the Ottomans, the aging Suleiman was engaged in war with Persia. If an attack on Tripoli could be arranged quickly, the city should fall before the end of summer. After Philip signed his consent in June, Valette gathered 400 Knights of St John, along with 1,500 soldiers and support personnel. The expedition was put on hold, however, when the French king Henry died suddenly in July and was succeeded by the 15-year-old Francis II. Would the peace hold? It took weeks to make sure.

Due to weather conditions, low-draft galleys do not fare well in the Mediterranean after October. Delays over the uncertainty of peace in Europe meant that the armada, made up of 47 galleys representing Sicily, Genoa, Naples, Monaco and the papal states, did not arrive in Sicily, its staging point, until November. Soldiers, unemployed since the recent peace, had gathered from across Christian Europe, ready to fight. Chief among them was Don Alvaro de Sande, an imposing veteran who had given three decades of service from Tunis to Flanders. The fleet was the responsibility of Gianandrea Doria, the 21-year-old great nephew of the legendary Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. The Spanish forces were absent. Philip had ordered them back to Spain for the duration of the winter. The expedition would have to wait until spring.

Detail of Djerba from Abraham Ortelius’ Map of the Mediterranean, 1570.

To Djerba 

Medinaceli was not to be denied. Against his officers’ advice, on 1 December 1559 he ordered that they set sail for Malta, where they spent Christmas as the unexpected guest of the Knights. The new year came and went. Some 500 men became sick and died. Finally, on 10 February 1560, accompanied by an infusion of  fresh Spanish troops, Medinaceli ordered 90 ships and 10,000 soldiers to set sail. Their first port-of-call was Djerba, Homer’s island of the Lotus Eaters and one of Turgut’s staging areas, around 75 miles west of Tripoli. Six days later, the freshly watered fleet reached North Africa. 

Only now did the full scale of the operation strike Medinaceli. Seeing the walls of Tripoli, he realised that the task was more than his depleted Christian army could handle. They should, he said, return to Djerba, create a solid base of operations at the fort of Hamut-es-Suk and revisit Tripoli at a later date.

This improvisation was not universally applauded. Fra Urre de Tessières, Valette’s lieutenant, insisted that the order had agreed only to regain Tripoli. Others pointed out that the shallow waters off Hamut-es-Suk would make provisioning difficult and leave large ships at anchor unprotected from storms or enemy ships. Others, fed up with the whole affair, wanted to return home.

Two weeks passed in arguing, but the viceroy prevailed. On 2 March the army embarked once more for Djerba. Here, local politics played to his advantage. A local sheik, Messaoud, resentful of Turgut’s power, was happy to swear fealty to Medinaceli and to Spain. The Christians, he said, were welcome to Hamut-es-Suk. 

‘Who will defend you?’ 

A later chronicler described the fort as ‘remote and lacking all artificial and natural advantage, in a desolate site, without fresh water, and without a port, where it was impossible to send any kind of aid’. In any case, it required extensive rebuilding, a prospect which did not fill the soldiers with enthusiasm. Trained for battle and eager for plunder, they despised this undignified grunt work. Some left to trade with the locals. One who stayed to work composed and carved a sonnet above the entrance, a grim dialogue between author and fort, the last couplet of which reads:

Who will defend you? I cannot say for certain.

What relief will come to your aid? Only that of heaven.

The invaders were not to get any help from the locals. Most of Djerba’s indigenous Muslims and ancient Jewish community had prospered under Turgut and saw little benefit from this band of Christian interlopers.  

One thing, however, was certain: an Ottoman fleet would come eventually. The Viceroy assumed it would arrive no sooner than June, sufficient time for him to restore the fort, consolidate his control over Djerba and return to Sicily. His captains were less optimistic. Don Sancho De Leyva, the Neapolitan commander, wrote to Philip on 5 April that ‘if the Ottoman fleet attacks this summer, I do not know how [the fort] will be defended’. Senior officers urged Medinaceli to leave while they still could. The viceroy refused. His expedition would not be fruitless and he would have his fort. 

By now, an ailing Fra Urre de Tessières had returned to Malta with three galleys of ill knights and news of Medinaceli’s activities. Valette, who had stayed on Malta throughout the siege, might have hoped to cancel the operation, but he could do little. Honour demanded his support. On 17 April he sent three galleys to replace those which had come home with de Tessière.

It was too little, too late. On 6 May, 86 Ottoman galleys appeared off Gozo, Malta’s sister island. Suleiman’s admiral, Piali Pasha, alerted to Djerba’s situation, had come to aid the Turgut. Ottoman sources report that ‘a group of warriors went ashore, falling upon the habitations of the infidels. Having gathered much booty, they set fire to their houses, gardens and orchards, and seized persons well suited for interrogation’.

Piali arrives 

Gianandrea Doria (detail), by the Semino Brothers, 16th century.
Gianandrea Doria (detail), by the Semino Brothers, 16th century. © Jacopo Brancati/Bridgeman Images.
Valette, helpless, sent this news hurriedly to Djerba, inspiring panic. Mercenaries announced that their terms of duty were fulfilled and insisted on returning home immediately. Leaders, including an ailing Gianandrea Doria, quarrelled over what was to be done. Medinaceli held firm. The Turks might be sailing west, but their destination, he insisted, would be Tripoli, not Djerba. 

He was mistaken. The dawn of 17 May revealed the entire Turkish armada anchored some 12 miles off Djerba. Doria’s illness was unfortunate. Had he managed to form the disparate vessels into a strong line, the fleet might have been able to put up a reasonable fight. Yet in his weakened state, he was not up to the job. The various captains, leaderless, were unable to coordinate a defence.

Piali Pasha saw his chance and took it. Finishing his morning prayers, he ordered his fleet to bear down on the confused Christian ships. Some of his men were in such a hurry that they cut their anchor cables rather than take the time to pull them in.

 With this scythe of 86 Ottoman galleys heading towards them, men scrambled to their ships and captains struggled to make do with half-complements of rowers. Soldiers and crew wasted precious time dumping the goods they had gathered: cotton, dates, even gazelles and other exotic livestock they had hoped to sell as curiosities back in Europe. Some managed to exit the shallows, but the bulk of the fleet, crowded and incapable of manoeuvering, were forced to take the full brunt of Piali’s assault.

The siege begins 

Piali Pasha’s official report states that he split his force in two, half to chase ships heading out to sea, half to chase soldiers heading to the fortress. The battle itself was quick and furious. Piali’s men destroyed 46 enemy vessels and lost none. When night fell the Christian soldiers, holed up inside the fort, considered their options, while the Ottomans celebrated their victory. Five thousand Christians had died in the naval action. Eight thousand had managed to reach the safety of the fort.

Medinaceli now turned to Doria, ordering him to take a request for help to Sicily. Doria proposed to take a small boat through enemy lines and ‘rally the sad remnants of our defeat’. Medinaceli insisted that he accompany the younger man and, astonishingly, they succeeded. Under cover of darkness they managed to take five vessels and head out to sea, leaving behind the sounds of the Ottomans’ rejoicing and the silence of those men doomed to remain within the fort. 

The decision was not as callous as it first appears. Hamut-es-Suk now boasted 70 guns of varying sizes, a good supply of ammunition, food enough for six months and a seasoned commander in Don Alvaro de Sande. Two large cisterns, one inside the outer walls, one inside the inner fortress, were full of rainwater, more than enough for the 8,000 defenders. 

Piali, by contrast, was limited to 7,000 men, though Turgut would supply 5,000 more by May. Moreover, he faced a difficult choice. He did not have wall-crushing cannon, only smaller guns on his ships. Moving them ashore would leave the fleet vulnerable to any sudden Christian relief force, yet failure to employ them would make the siege toothless. 

De Sande must have reached the same conclusion, because he ignored Piali’s demand for surrender. The weather was good, the fleet was not wholly destroyed, and the Knights of St John were not far away. The Spaniard was confident that relief would arrive. And so began the rituals of siege warfare. Piali made the decision to offload the naval cannon and began a steady barrage of stone and iron ball against the fort. It was slow work. The guns were designed for the lighter requirements of naval warfare, not for wall busting. Nevertheless, with each strike, cracks emerged in the stone and mortar. The defenders repaired what they could, as each side tried to calculate who would come to the end of their resources first. An Ottoman account tells of two separate Christian attacks in early June, one of them a bold sortie by De Sande: ‘The infidels reached the guns, and for two hours there was battle the like of which had never been seen before.’

‘Thus many perished’

Word of the situation spread throughout Europe. Spain’s allies were of one mind: the men must be rescued. Philip ordered veteran commander Don Garcia de Toledo to gather around 70,000 men and sail to Djerba. The pope declared a jubilee for anyone who volunteered money or themselves to the cause. 

On 15 June, however, Philip learned that Medinaceli and Doria had arrived safely back in Sicily. He immediately issued new orders. The defence of Spain’s coasts, to say nothing of her ships and sailors, could not be risked on an all-or-nothing gamble for men who, if reports were correct, should be able to outlast the besiegers, who would need to leave by the autumn. De Sande, after all, had previously endured the 1554 siege of Valsenieres by eating ‘cats, dogs, rats, and anything else he could get his hands on’. The fort at Djerba was far better equipped with ammunition, food and, assuming normal rainfall, sufficient water.

Philip’s assessment was echoed by Piali, who expressed doubts that Sande could be expelled. Nevertheless, the Ottomans continued with the siege, creating a small breach in the outer wall, though they could not exploit it. Sande, ‘wicked and stubborn’, according to Piali, ordered a few more sorties, likely intended to keep up his own soldiers’ morale, but accomplishing nothing more than additions to the death toll. Later, their infrequency would be cited as evidence of Sande’s insufficient zeal. 

In the end, weather was the determining factor: 1560 was a summer of no rain. Thirst was soon a graver threat than gunfire. By June, the Ottomans finally broke through the breach in the outer wall and took one of the two cisterns. Inside the fort, where food consisted of dry biscuits, horse, donkey, camel and salted fish, men gradually began to feel the effects. Their suffering was described by Osier de Busbecq, Austria’s ambassador to Istanbul, from survivors’ accounts: 

You should see some lie parching on the ground, ready to give up the Ghost for very Thirst, continually crying out, as well as they could speak, Water! Water! And if little was brought, they were relieved for the present; but, when the Moisture was spent, they relapsed to their former Drought, and died thereof. Thus many perished, besides the Wounded, who could have no help to Surgery to cure them in that desolate Place. 

Sande ordered strict rationing but, by July, men desperate from thirst no longer cared about the fight and were fleeing to the Turkish lines at a rate of up to 40 a day. There, they got the water they needed and were made galley slaves. The problem was temporarily solved when a Sicilian engineer, Sebastiano Poller, established a system of alembics with which he purified significant amounts of sea water. Entrepreneurs soon followed suit and sold the results for one piastre a shot. Once fuel gave out entirely, the situation was hopeless.

On the night of 28 July, Sande, not wishing to be the man who surrendered the fort, led a portion of the remaining force in a futile attempt to break out and steal a boat. He got as far as the water’s edge, but no further. Ottoman soldiers overwhelmed him and his crew.

Turkish bust of Piali Pasha. Courtesy of Istanbul Naval Museum Turkey.
Turkish bust of Piali Pasha. Courtesy of Istanbul Naval Museum Turkey.
After Sande’s capture, command within the fort broke down. Half the men, fearing a bloody end, offered Piali Pasha 20,000 gold ecus in return for what they hoped would be lenient terms. The admiral accepted and they opened the gates. More senior Christian captains remained inside the keep, defiant until, on 31 July, they too bowed to the inevitable.   

The fort on which Medinaceli had pinned his hopes and which Philip believed would hold out until autumn, lasted less than three months. The battle was over, Djerba was back in Muslim hands. By August the Turkish fleet could sail home. In a deliberate snub to his enemies, Piali watered his armada at Gozo, then stopped at Augusta in Sicily to raze the town. 

Piali had defeated a fleet almost half again as large as his own, for which he received a hero’s welcome and the sultan’s granddaughter in marriage. The galleys returned with some 7,000 captives, who were marched in irons through the streets of Istanbul to the sounds of brass horns, kettle drums and cheering crowds. The prisoners were in a position familiar to many captives of the time. Communication with their families would have to be opened, figures negotiated, middle men paid. For the poor and the friendless, there was the slave market or the galley bench. 

Burj-er-Roos, or the Tower of Skulls at Hamut-es-Suk, Djerba, c.1840.

The Ottoman’s opportunity 

Suleiman took a personal interest in Alvaro de Sande. He invited the commander to embrace Islam and to serve the Grande Porte, offered him money and rank, both of which the Christian refused. The Emperor Ferdinand of Austria eventually ransomed Sande and the Spaniard returned overland, with Busbecq picking up his expenses.

Back home, Sande was alternatively lionised as the hero of the siege and ridiculed as the man who tried to abandon his men when all was lost. He would, however, redeem himself at the Siege of Malta in 1565, where, as part of the Great Relief, he would help that island resist Suleiman’s (and Piali’s) most ambitious enterprise. Other less favoured soldiers languished in Turkish cells or in galleys, where they would remain until death or, in some cases, be released after the Holy League’s decisive naval victory over the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571. 

Who would take the blame for the disaster at Djerba? Doria lost the sea battle, while Medinaceli had made the clash inevitable. In the end, Philip had little choice other than to forgive the young Genoese admiral, largely because Doria was backed by the maritime republic’s wealthy bankers, on whom Philip was reliant for working capital. Philip could not risk a Genoese alliance with France. Doria went on to hold senior positions at Malta and at Lepanto. His actions were repeatedly valiant, even when the results were mixed. Medinaceli, by contrast, sank into quiet oblivion.

In the battle for Djerba, Suleiman deprived the Spanish of many of its naval experts, giving the Ottomans a considerable advantage in the ongoing struggle for the Mediterranean. He gained an opportunity to press his advantage and expand Islam westward, taking back those lands, such as Sicily, southern Italy, even Spain, that had once been controlled by Muslim armies. Distracted by personal matters closer to home, however, he chose not to, giving western Christendom a chance to replenish itself before the critical battle for Malta in 1565.

In the meantime, the Christians killed at Djerba had one more role to play. With the battle won, the bones of the dead of Hamut-es-Suk were gathered and placed in a pyramid 25ft high and 60ft in circumference, known thereafter as the Tower of Skulls. This grisly monument remained in place for nearly 300 years, slowly deteriorating until, in 1848, local Christians had it dismantled and the remains given a proper burial. 

Bruce Ware Allen is the author of The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John (ForeEdge, 2015).

Disaster at Djerba

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