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

Disaster at Djerba

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 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. 

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.

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