Cacela Velha fortress

Pirates of the Algarve

The stunning Algarve scenery of tree-covered rolling hills, golden shimmering sands and a deep blue ocean has attracted many foreigners to trade, to settle or to spend their short summer holidays. Yet the attractions of this small kingdom have not always been peaceful.

Under Moorish rule, the Algarve suffered from threats from the Christian kingdoms of the north, which resulted in the construction of an inland network of defensive fortifications from Aljezur, Silves and Messines to Paderne, Loulé and Salir, which even so were unable to resist the Christian reconquest.

The Christian kingdom of the Algarve suffered a different fate and was subject to persistent attack from the sea. To counter this perennial threat, kings of Portugal constructed a line of coastal defences, some of which survive today.

Our knowledge of these defences is based on the work done by the Neapolitan Alessandro Massai (15?? – 1638) and Évora-born military engineer José Sande de Vasconcelos (1730-1808).

Massai wrote a Descripção do Reino do Algarve (1621), describing for D. Filipe III the state of the defences of the Algarve, and Vasconcelos wrote a similar work (Mappa da Configuração de Todas as Praças Fortalezas e Baterias do Reyno do Algarve) around 1800, in which he detailed the 44 installations from Alcoutim and Castro Marim on the Guadiana to Arrifana on the west coast. By his reckoning, there were 20 fortalezas, three towers and 21 gun emplacements (baterias). Surprisingly, he does not count the walled towns of Tavira and Faro, nor Portimão and Lagos.

In the same way that England and France have been traditional enemies, Spain has been the traditional enemy of Portugal (and the Algarve fortresses of Castro Marim and Alcoutim were built to withstand any invasion from that direction). The Algarve also suffered two major incursions by English raiders (Drake in 1587 and Essex in 1596) and in 1658 the whole of Portugal felt itself threatened by a powerful Dutch fleet, which mercifully never arrived.

But the major threat to the Algarve coast came from the Barbary corsairs. These pirates were based in Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis on the Mediterranean coast and Sallee on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. They were nominally a part of the Ottoman Empire but were, practically speaking, independent.

The corsairs remained an international maritime pest until their Algerian base was captured by French forces in 1830. The attacks on the Algarve (and also in southern Spain and Italy) by the Barbary corsairs of North Africa were particularly severe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and the forced conversion of Portuguese Jews in 1497, many Jews joined the corsairs from motives of revenge. In addition, Felipe III of Spain decided in 1609 to expel the Moriscos (people of an Islamic background and heritage) from the whole of Spain. The majority of these people also made their way to North Africa and gave the corsairs another boost in manpower.

Harbouring no kind memories of their expulsion from Spain and Portugal, these Jews and Moriscos raided extensively on the Iberian Peninsula. These raids were encouraged by their religious chiefs in the form of a jihad against the Christians. Their main objective was to capture Christians for the slave markets of North Africa, but any loot was acceptable to them. In particular, Algarvian armações were targeted both for their fisherfolk and for their valuable fish. These fixed tuna nets were worked in the summer from beach villages (such as Armação de Pêra), and the working population retired further inland during the winter (to Pêra) to be further out of reach of the corsairs.

D. Simão de Menezes wrote in 1548 from Cacela that the corsair raids on the armações near Cacela were forcing local residents to move further inland, away from the coast.

Famous for the enmity he held towards the Spanish and Portuguese was the Great Jew, Sinan Reis. A Sephardic Jew whose family had been expelled from Spain, Sinan Reis fought against the Christian forces at the Battle of Preveza in 1538, and in the 1540s was employed by the Egyptians to build a fleet to oppose the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean.

Samuel Pallache was another Sephardic Jew whose family originated in Córdoba, and whose family fled to Fez in Morocco in the 16th century. He represented the Moroccan interest when Morocco and the Netherlands signed a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce in 1610, whose target was the Spanish and Portuguese empires. The Dutch granted him a licence to privateer, and he certainly captured at least one Portuguese merchantman.

Because of the problems of corsair raids, D. João III (1521-1557) and D. Sebastião (1557-1578) began the task of strengthening the coastal defences of Portugal. There was talk of stationing a number of armed caravels in the Algarve ports, which when warned by fire beacons at night or by smoke signals during the day, might put to sea against the pirate xebecs.

The Torre d’Ares near Tavira is one of the oldest surviving watchtowers (atalaias) erected at this time, and the Forte de Santo António (commonly called Rato) was built in the time of D. Sebastião to guard the entrance to the Rio Gilão in Tavira.

In 1577, Frei João de São José wrote of the threats to the people of Tavira from the “enemies which often raid this coast, as a result of which the fidalgos of Tavira stand watch by day and by night, with their foot in the stirrup and holding their lance in hand”.

The Spanish Philippine dynasty (in Portugal 1580–1640) also invested in these coastal fortifications, and after the Restoration of 1640 even more new fortresses were built.

It was the greatest misfortune to Portugal that the Great Earthquake (often called the Lisbon Earthquake) of 1755 destroyed many of these coastal defences, and of course they had to be rebuilt. In 1758, the Marquês de Pombal sent five squadrons of dragoons to the Algarve to help with the defences against the corsairs until the forts west of Lagos could be repaired.

A discussion of these defences will follow in part two of this article.

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

Torre D’Ares, near Tavira
Forte de São João da Barra, Cabanas (Tavira)
Cacela Velha fortress