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C - 27 : Asymmetric Warfare in the Adriatic

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

On C + 4 the Dragonfly, our sailboat, will reach Ulcinj in Montenegro, the (in)famous pirates' nest. It was a thorn in the flesh of the Venetians for two centuries.

Ulcinj in Montenegro, the well fortified pirate village with the tiniest harbour

Piracy had a long tradition in the Mediterranean as we've seen last year when sailing along the Cilician coast. The southern coast of Anatolia was Pirates' paradise until they made the mistake of taking Caesar prisoner. The Romans promptly sent General Pompey who made short shrift of them. Who he did not killed was sold into slavery.

Did piracy in the 16th century follow the same pattern? How can a pirate dent survive for two hundred years against a great naval power like Venice? Who were the pirates?

Jewish people getting expulsed from Spain in 1492, the year Columbus discovered America

We need to go back in history to find the answers. 1492 was not only the year of Columbus' discovery of America, it was also the year the Spanish Kings conquered the Muslim Kingdom of Granada and expelled 100'000 Spanish Jews. Within a few years, 300'000 Muslims. mostly from Granada, were to follow. The Spanish Inquisition was brutal and ruthless but efficient.

Whilst the well educated Jews were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire and found new jobs and homes, the thousands of Muslims were less fortunate. Forced to leave Spain with only a few clothes, they got stranded in North Africa. These skilled but unemployed Muslims rallied to the defence of heir new home towns when Spain tried to establish a string of fortresses in their place. Skilfully led by the Barbarossa brothers, they built a small armada of fast ships to counterattack. They raided the coasts of Spain and the Spanish possessions in Italy. Often, they abducted the local population and sold the poor souls in the African slave markets. An eye for an eye. The Saracen watch towers still testify to these horrors.

Barbarossa, the most skilled of the 3 brothers became a Turkish Admiral

Within 10 years, the Barbarossa brothers built a fleet of 50 small galleys, conquered the North African coast and allied themselves to the Ottoman Emperor. They became the heart of the future Ottoman Navy, dominated the Mediterranean for 80 years and put the Spanish, Genovese, Venetians and Pope on the defensive. The Turks' luck run out though when they were defeated at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In one single day, the Ottoman Empire lost an entire fleet.

Ulcinj pirates attacking a commercial vessel

You may wonder what all of this has to do with Uljinc. After Lepanto, the Ottomans looked for an alternative naval strategy and discovered the art of asymmetric warfare. Rather than risking another big fleet, they handed Uljinc over to their colleagues from North Africa, the freelance pirates. Together with most of Albania Veneta, Uljinc had fallen in Ottoman hands a few years earlier. It was an ideal place for pirates. At the fringe of the Turkish Empire but still close enough to be supported with land forces - just in case the Venetians invaded.

Protected by their lords in Istanbul, the Ulcinj pirates could go about their business with few restraints. They recruited freely from the Moores still hanging out in the North African towns, built small, fast boats and rowed out into the sea when there was a lucrative target. With the wind blowing from the north even in summer times, the Venetian Merchants had no other choice than slowly cruising up the coast using the thermal winds in the morning and the afternoon. With their agile boats, the Ulcinj pirates easily out-sailed the slow Venetian vessels. They were also able to out-manoeuvre the artillery from the protecting Venetian galleys who could only fire one cannon ball per minute. It gave the pirates a window of 60 second to board their targets and overwhelm its defence in close-range combat.

Map of "Pirate" Ulcinj

Using their successful tactics, the Ulcinj pirates expanded their operations across the entire Adriatic, often using uninhabited islands as base. In the 17th century Venetian Merchants complaint that up to 10 ships were lost per month. Venice had to dispatch some of its professional fleet to nearby Hvar and Kotor to keep the pirates at bay. We will visit both towns on our trip up the Adriatic. Venice also had to fortify harbour towns like Budva. The Ottoman strategy was thus quite effective. No cost for Istanbul (the pirates paid even taxes to the Sultan) - heavy costs for Venice. Also, is anybody surprised that Ulcinj had a thriving slave market?

Tried to assess the value of a captured Venetian ship which easily carried 100 tons of cargo, mostly high value items such as silk, cotton, sugar, coffee and spices. But did not (yet) find accurate price tables to do so. Am sure it was a lucrative "business".

Today, Ulcinj is a far cry from being a Pirates' nest except for the prices in the restaurants. The town is full of tourists from all over Eastern Europe. Its beaches to the south are well liked. We will stick to the old town though and have dinner at Vi's - a local chef who works during the winter season in Switzerland. He charges normal prices.

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