Why you should care
Because this woman knew how to rule the high seas.
The Barbary corsairs didn’t have to work very hard to capture their prey. Most ship crews were so afraid of the vicious pirates that they threw down their weapons rather than fight. Aligned with the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, the privateers targeted primarily Christian vessels, plundering them mercilessly, and robbing and enslaving those aboard — a modus operandi that appealed nicely to a young Muslim woman who had been forced into exile when the Muslim kingdom of Granada fell in 1492.
Sayyida al-Hurra and her family fled Spain for Morocco, where, after marrying and burying her first husband, she succeeded him as the governor of Tétouan before remarrying — this time into royalty. When Sayyida wed Ahmed al-Wattasi, the sultan of Morocco and ruler of Fes, she became queen of Morocco. Holding a grudge, and feeling a great deal of shame over her fallen childhood homeland and its takeover by Ferdinand and Isabella, Sayyida became hell-bent on revenge. She reached out to the famed Barbarossa, an Ottoman admiral and among the most successful corsairs, to ally with the pirates in seizing control of the nearby seas. Sayyida and her privateers would eventually take over the Western Mediterranean during the corsairs’ and Ottomans’ reign in the early 16th century.
She spearheaded the alliance that helped the Muslims unite in defiance against the European colonization of Morocco.
The corsairs sailed under the jurisdiction of local rulers on the Barbary Coast, pirating European ships and bringing a share of the treasure home to their cities. According to Laura Sook Duncombe, author of Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas, they were seen as “brutal, terrifying pirates, but that reputation was probably largely based in xenophobia.” After all, as Duncombe points out, “they were enslaving Christians.”
Christians were doing similar things, but while enslaving Africans to work on sugar plantations was seen as fine by many Europeans, they took a dimmer view on being enslaved themselves. The marauding pirates, in turn, were labeled “monsters,” and this reputation was transferred to their ally Sayyida, making her both an alluring and terrifying pirate queen in the annals of history.
As Sayyida bent a sultan to her will, she was spoken of with awe and anxiety by contemporary European chroniclers who did business with her in Spain and Portugal, Duncombe says. Her unrivaled succession following her first husband’s death demonstrated that she had a capacity for ruling, and that the culture of the time and place accepted female leaders, Fatima Mernissi relates in The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Sayyida spearheaded the alliance that helped the Muslims unite against the European colonization of Morocco, and the Barbary pirates would rule the Mediterranean for three centuries.
While Europeans saw Sayyida and the pirates as nothing more than thieves and murderers, the Ottomans, says Tom Verde, an expert in Islamic and Middle Eastern history and writer for AramcoWorld magazine, viewed them as “freedom-fighting patriots who stood on the front lines of European attempts to invade and dominate the Maghreb.”
Sayyida was the “undisputed leader of the pirates in the Western Mediterranean,” according to Mernissi. But, like many rulers, she was done in by money and politics, Verde says. Shifting alliances in the region and disruptions to commerce under her rule “because of her armed resistance to European invasion,” ultimately led to a coup, which effectively ended her reign. This was loosely orchestrated by her son in-law, who landed a small army in 1542 after complaints from merchants that Sayyida’s outbursts and stubbornness were negatively affecting business.
From there, Sayyida returned to her hometown of Chefchaouen, “where she lived out her days and died peacefully in 1561,” says Verde. She was said to be the last Islamic female ruler to hold the title “al-Hurra,” meaning “sovereign woman.” She remains a national hero in Morocco for having pushed back against European domination. To this day, she’s remembered as a free and independent noblewoman who made the king of Morocco come to her to marry — the first time a royal had left the capital to wed.