Pirates of the Algarve – part 2

Forte de Nossa Senhora da Rocha

Forte da Ponta da Bandeira, Lagos

Fortaleza da Arrifana

After the Restoration of 1640, and in the face of Spanish attempts to reconquer Portugal, the medieval castle in Alcoutim was remodelled for artillery and the castle in Castro Marim, the guardian of the Portuguese Guadiana, was greatly expanded. New defences against the Barbary corsairs were needed, and coastal fortresses were built in Cabanas de Tavira, Faro, Armação de Pêra, Carvoeiro, Ferragudo, Meia Praia, Lagos, Praia da Luz, Figueira and Carrapateira.

The Barbary corsairs were, at that time, rampant on the coasts of Europe. In 1687, for example, the new state of the Netherlands accused the English king James II of offering asylum in English ports to Algerian pirates.

In Cabanas, the Fortaleza de São João was built during the War of Acclamation (1640-1668) and rebuilt in 1763 after earthquake damage. This fortress witnessed a strange event in 1684. A corsair setia (similar to a lateen sail xebec) boldly pursued a Portuguese caravel inside the bar and ran aground right in front of the fortress. The pirate crew took measures to flee on the full tide, and the garrison of the fortress was so relaxed that they did not notice what was happening right under their noses. A Christian prisoner managed to jump from the pirate ship, and ran around to the front of the fortress, where he hammered on the door and woke the garrison, who then effected the capture of the pirate ship.

Built during the reign of D. Sebastião (1557-1578), the Forte do Santo António de Tavira (also known as Forte do Rato) served no useful purpose as it had been built in the wrong place, too far from the river. Further west, the Fortaleza de São Lourenço da Barra de Faro was begun in 1653, built on 2,000 pine trunks placed in the sand. It was completely wrecked in the 1755 earthquake and has since disappeared, although it is rumoured that the pine supports may still be seen at low tide.

Further west, the Fortaleza de Armação de Pêra was built to protect the armação, and still further west the ancient Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Rocha used its seaward situation to protect ships from the pirates.

The Fortaleza da Nossa Senhora da Encarnação was completed in 1675 at the cost of the local population to protect the fishing port of Carvoeiro. Little remains of this fortress except for the eastern wall containing the entrance archway.

The Castelo de São João do Arade dates from 1643. It was built on the Ferragudo bank of the Rio Arade in anticipation of a Spanish attack, which never happened. In 1861, it was sold at public auction and its present-day appearance owes much to a romantic view of history.

The Fortaleza de Santa Catarina in Praia da Rocha was built between 1631 and 1640 and is credited with saving many ships from pirates. It now serves to enhance the historical experience of holidaymakers and may soon be rehabilitated.

Built in the 1670s, the Forte da Meia Praia was wrecked in 1755 and rebuilt from 1796 to counter the threat of a French invasion. Until recently, it was occupied by a customs post, but it is now a ruin. The Forte da Ponta da Bandeira was constructed between 1672 and 1690 to protect the port of Lagos. The four guaritas (the round sentry towers at the corners) were added in 1960 when the whole building was restored. Protecting the western approaches to Lagos is the Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Luz, built on the site of a watchtower. In its present function as bar and restaurant, the building shows little resemblance to its former life as a fortress.

The Bateria do Burgau was authorised by D João IV for defence of the local armação. It is now in an advanced state of ruin. Another ruin, Almádena, was built 1632-1660 on 30-metre cliffs to the west of the River Budens for the protection of the two local armações. The Boca do Rio armação was for atum de direito (tuna going towards the Mediterranean spawning grounds) and that at Burgau was for atum de revés (the tuna on the return journey). The Forte de Nossa Senhora da Guia da Baleeira was destroyed in Drake’s raid of 1587. It was rebuilt in 1644 before being wrecked again by the Great Earthquake.

The Fortaleza de Sagres was first built in the 1450s by Prince Henry the Navigator but, above ground, little or nothing remains of his work. Even the chapel was rebuilt in 1570, more than a century after his death. The central domed gateway is Philippine, and the bastions and walls were added in the late 18th century. The purpose of this fortaleza was to defend the two bays on either side of the promontory, where sailing ships could shelter from the weather.

Massai in 1621 noted that the cannon on the promontory were sited too high to prevent enemy craft from also sheltering under the cliffs, and he recommended the construction of gun platforms in the cliff face. With the arrival of steam propulsion, it was no longer necessary for ships to shelter in the lee of the cliffs and, after 1830, the armações were no longer the targets of pirate attacks. The fortress lost its purpose and, in turn, became the focus of the myth of the school of navigation sponsored by Henry the Navigator.

The Fortaleza de Santo António do Beliche also protected its local armações. Ruined in the earthquake, it was later sold to private owners. In the 1950s, the state bought it back again with the intention of converting it into a hotel, but further cliff falls led to the abandonment of the project.

The monastery on Cape St Vincent predates the Christian reconquest and was rebuilt in the 1440s as a fortified monastery. This building was destroyed by Drake’s expedition in 1587 and rebuilt again under D Filipe II. After the religious houses were abolished in 1834, the fortress became the site of the lighthouse, built in 1846 in the reign of D. Maria II.

In the municipality of Aljezur, a fort at Carrapateira was built in 1673 to protect the church from pirate attacks. Already a ruin by 1821, its schist walls have now completely disappeared. The Fortaleza de Arrifana was built in 1635 by order of D. Filipe III to protect the armação at Arrifana. It soon fell into ruin, was rebuilt in 1670 and suffered great destruction in the earthquake. Its site is still, apparently, a wonderful miradouro.

Further north, and now in the Alentejo, on the coast south of Sines and opposite the island of Pessegueiro, the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Queimada was built to deny landfall to Barbary corsairs. Begun in 1588 under the direction of Filippo Terzi and Alessandro Massai, it was eventually finished in 1690 and became a police post in 1844. Despite its wonderful position, it has not yet become a pousada.

It is ironic that the Portuguese had invested so much energy in the 15th and 16th centuries in their attempts to conquer Morocco. After they had abandoned this costly and unrealistic effort, Portugal’s coasts were forced onto the defensive.

The Portuguese were no longer building fortresses on the Moroccan coast, but on their own coast, desperately defending their people from the slavers. The era of the Barbary corsairs was indeed payback time for the Moroccans.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]