Island of calm? - Pirates in Mallorca

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Corsairs and pirates in Mallorca

Nowadays, who hasn’t thought about a holiday on the island of calm? Yes, that’s right, we’re referring to Mallorca, this Mediterranean enclave easily accessible by land, sea and air, but… Was it always a haven of peace, secluded beaches and beer commercials?

Well, the answer is obviously no. In fact, these islands have suffered numerous attacks in all known eras, have been the target of international interests and have consequently been the scene of constant struggle and danger. One of these threats that have led to coastal raids, sunken ships, robberies, kidnappings and sometimes irreparable damage are pirates and privateers.


Piracy: attack and capture by a private vessel at sea or from a maritime operating base in time of peace, or truce, or in violation of special protection, without authorisation or justification.  OUTSIDE THE LAW

Corso: attack and capture of enemy ships by a private ship under the protection of a letter of marque or privateer’s mark or a commission issued by a public authority of the crown.  PROTECTED BY LAW

As far as we can see, it is difficult to establish a clear difference, the only one: on a legal level, since privateering has a legal right, they are granted a licence and must comply with a whole series of previously established clauses. It all boils down to regulated privateering versus savage piracy.

Corsairs: has two important reasons for its existence:

  • Through them, the Crown gained an additional means of defending its territory and trade, as they faced enemies of the crown and of the faith.
  • And of course, it was an important source of income from the taxes levied on catches. A fifth of the booty (quint reial) was always destined for the Crown.


For a ship to be able to enter into privateering, a licence granted by the royal authorities was necessary; in Barcelona and Valencia these were granted by the juries, and in Mallorca by the governors or lieutenants.

Once the licence was obtained, the ships could be prepared or assembled.

The licences always included: the name of the beneficiary, the type of vessel (they were usually small, fast and light vessels) and a clause excluding subjects of the Crown as a possible objects of prey. See a treaty of peace or non-aggression, for example Maghrebis, Jews and Muslims who went to trade in the commercial centres of the Crown.

Come on, don’t let the allies be attacked! 

In order to comply with all the agreements, a bond was set (negotiated between the corsair and the authorities) and various guarantors were appointed, who normally participated in the arming of the ships, although they could also be relatives of the master.

Attacks on the Balearic Islands in the 16th century

The task of recruiting a crew used to be a difficult one.

Therefore, certain permits and safe conducts were granted for crimes and excesses committed up to the day of enlistment (except for murder and rape). In addition, patrons were granted the same privileges as the captains of the royal navies in terms of civil and criminal jurisdiction. In other words: full protection, power and legitimacy for those patrons who, following the law of privateering, attacked enemies of the Crown with their ships.

At the same time, the Crown granted Marks, also called “Patente de Corso” or Letters of Marque, to municipal merchants, so that the holder of the Mark, or merchant previously attacked, could become a privateer to seize the ships and goods of the attacking country until he recovered the value of what had been stolen. 

Just revenge! Give me back all that you have stolen from me. 

The flags, banners and bugles of privateer ships identified the nation they were fighting for; they might also carry some additional flags to identify the captain or owners of the ship. In contrast to the insignia of pirate ships, which created their own symbols, usually reminiscent of death and blood.

Banners were placed above the flag only in the event of a military incursion and were only used on the flagship of the fleet. These banners represented the highest authority of a state.

Although with the Peace of Nijmegen in 1678 between Spain and France, corsair activity decreased considerably, the privateer’s patent remained in force until well into the 19th century.


The obligation to reimburse a proportional part of the booty to the royal authorities was one of the characteristics that marked the difference between privateering and piracy. Although, as it was an occasional amount, its income was recorded under the concept of “rebudes extraordinaries” or something like extraordinary income.

If the outcome was victorious, the ship was raided and seized, and the goods, crew members’ property, weapons and equipment of the vessel were plundered. They also used to capture the men and women on board. If for some reason they could not take the ship, it was burned and sunk.

The booty, minus the king’s proportional share (1/5th), was auctioned publicly with the imprisoned crew, and the solutions were varied:

  • Those of lower rank were turned into slaves and sold or executed.
  • Others took them to the privateer’s city from where the authorities demanded a high ransom.
  • Prisoner exchange.


Considered savage and inhuman. The pirate differs from the privateer in that the latter acts for his own profit.

If he succeeded in the enterprise, the results did not vary much from the successful results of the privateer; but if the action failed, he did not have the Crown to claim and be ransomed, but on the contrary, the attacked country sent ships against him in order to seize him. His goods were seized and sold at auction.

They were considered parasites of commerce, _ because, in fact, they did not declare everything they invoiced _.

The moor's head in the Paseo del Borne
Drawing of the Turkish-Ottoman corsair Hayr al-Din Jeireddin (1475-1546), nicknamed Barbarossa.
The Turkish-Ottoman corsair Hayr al-Din Jeireddin (1475-1546), nicknamed Barbarossa.


The struggle between Islam and Christianity had, for a long time, the Iberian Peninsula as the main stage, but with the fall of Granada in 1492, this struggle moved to the Mediterranean, reactivating piracy and privateering. 

The Mediterranean now became the main stage and a very dangerous area. The Balearic Islands became, so to speak, the “defensive shields” of the coasts of the Levante peninsular and therefore one of the most attacked areas.

The most famous Ottoman corsairs of that period were the brothers Oruj and Hayreddin “Barbarossa”, who from their base in Algiers (controlled since 1516) led numerous expeditions throughout the western Mediterranean and ravaged the coasts of Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, the Levante peninsular and the Balearic Islands, most notably the attack on Maó in 1535 and the attack and sacking of Ciutadella in 1558.

In order to fight against them and put an end to the rule of Algiers, in 1541 Charles I arrived in Mallorca to set sail for North Africa. His arrival was described in the book: Libre de la benaventurada vinguda del Emperador y el de rey don Carlos en la sua ciutat de Mallorques y del recebiment que li fonch fet juntament ab lo que mes sucehí fins al dia que parti de aquella per la conquesta de Alger. But this great venture failed, marking the end of an active policy to defend the western Mediterranean from the Ottomans.

Old plan of the castle of Sant Felip (Maó). Demolished in 1782 by Charles III (Source: Descobreix Menorca).

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Mallorcans were constantly in fear due to the news that came in about Barbarossa.

And on Charles I, as he was more involved in the politics of the Empire (the fight against the Protestant princes) than in the politics of the Spanish crown. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Gran i General Consell, in June, encouraged the depopulation of places near the coast.

The depopulation of Formentera, Cabrera and Sa Dragonera was another important factor, as they were often used as a refuge and launching pad for corsair operations against Eivissa and Mallorca.

View of the island of Sa Dragonera in Majorca

It was after the attack and sack of Maó in 1535 that the Balearic Islands were put on their guard.

A defensive plan began to be organised. It was felt that there were too few fortifications, that many repairs were necessary, and that bastions and better artillery were needed.

To protect the island’s population, a defensive system was created: in the main urban centres it was necessary to build fortified enclosures that incorporated the new technical advances that consisted of polygonal bastions and geometric layouts prepared to withstand artillery fire; the construction of a network of watchtowers to watch over the coastline and the erection of refuge towers on some rural farms in the interior.

In Menorca, after Barbarossa’s attack on Maó in 1535, the walls were reinforced and in 1555 work began on the Castell de Sant Felip, directed by the engineer Giovanni Battista Calvi and later by Giacomo Paleazzo Fratin.

The medieval walls of Palma had already been reinforced during the reign of Ferdinand the Catholic and Charles I; even so, in 1543 the Great and General Council approved the construction of a new walled enclosure which began to be built in 1562, although work had already begun on three new bastions (the Socors, Santa Margalida and Príncep bastions). In Alcúdia, from 1543 onwards, the walls were reinforced with four bastions for artillery, part of the wall was extended and the moat was deepened.

In Ibiza, in the early 16th century, they built a network of watchtowers and in 1552 they carried out several fortification projects for the city.

In addition to all this, defence and watchtowers were built all along the coast, especially in the south and east of Mallorca. At the end of the 16th century, Mallorca was organised into two fortresses (Palma and Alcúdia), six castles (Alaró, Pollença, Santueri, Bellver, Artà and Capdepera), two fortress towers (Sóller and Cabrera) and around 30 atalayas or watchtowers.

The total sum for the fortification of the Balearic Islands is estimated to have been 2,284,000 pounds between 1550 and 1650, a considerable sum paid in part by the Crown and the Universities.

Watchtowers of Mallorca
Land and defence fortresses in Mallorca in the 16th century


Between the mid-16th and 17th centuries, there was a boom in Mallorcan corsair activity, and it was at this time that some of our corsairs were feared throughout the Mediterranean. The great trigger for this increase was the battle of Lepanto (1571) against the Ottoman Empire. From this moment on, Philip II tried to control the Atlantic and the American Indies with his navies, leaving the Mediterranean with hardly any official squadrons.

Due to the unstable relations between Spain and France, the “Holy War” against the Ottomans and the clashes with the English, the Spanish crown felt surrounded, which is why corsair activity increased considerably, since, as we have said before, it functioned as another defence system and also as an extraordinary source of income.

There are more than fifty documented Mallorcans who took part in this “lawful war” or activity, either as shipowners or as captains. Many of them were born into humble families but died with great fortunes. Captain Jaume Canals and Captain Toni were two of them. But even the Mallorcan nobility (such as the Sureda family, the Count of Montenegro and Montoro Ramon Despuig, Gaspar Puigdorfila, the Marquis of Solleric Miquel Bonaventura Berenguer Vallés d’Almadrá), took part in this type of activity by financing “companies” as shipowners.


Jaume Joan Canals i Penya was born in Sóller into a humble family. His father, Antoni Canals, was a ship’s skipper and his mother, Esperança Penya, was the daughter of a sailor.

These were times when social climbing was difficult, as nobility married nobility, peasants married peasants, shipmasters married shipmasters, and so on. Therefore, social climbing or promotion could only be possible thanks to money. For this reason, the success of corsair’s activity generated large amounts of wealth and made it possible to climb the social ladder in a very closed and classist society. In the mid-17th century, Canals became one of the financiers of the corsair operations in Mallorca; he was one of the main shipowners of the Mallorcan squadron from 1660.

His activity as a privateer, it is believed, took place in the 1650s, after his actions in Naples and Catalonia in defence of King Philip IV.  In 1656 he was elected Conseller del Col·legi de la Mercaderia. Subsequently, he acquired ships and entered the world of exporting goods, especially oil.

From the age of 60 onwards, his corsair activity decreased and he became one of the main shipowners and financiers of corsair operations, participating in almost all the armaments of the Mallorca Squadron from the beginning of 1660 until his death in 1679.

He died as the mayor of Bellver and with the title of Knight. The triumph of an entrepreneur!

Portrait of the captain Jaume Canals in Mallorca


We can say that Captain Toni was Mallorca’s most famous corsair. He was born in Palma, in the neighbourhood of Puig de Sant Pere, Carrer del Vi (currently the seat of the Theatines) and was the son of the skipper of a small fishing vessel. In his early years he worked as a courier between Palma and Barcelona and later, like many sailors, he applied for a privateer’s licence to defend himself against enemy attacks.

Although he always worked under the patent, he took part in many battles supporting and leading squadrons of the Spanish navy, which is why he was considered by many to be a military figure and not strictly speaking a privateer.

He rose rapidly up the social and naval ladder. In 1738, thanks to a victory against Algerian ships, he obtained the rank of ensign in the navy, from which he rose through the ranks to become lieutenant general of the Spanish navy.

Thanks to his war merits, he became one of Charles II’s favourite sailors, but this privilege, together with his rapid rise in his military and social career, meant that the high officers of the navy were against him, as Capità Toni had humble origins, was illiterate (he only knew how to write his name), coarse and crude in his manners. For this reason, his supporters were always his subordinates or people of the common people.

“Although he is an excellent, he does not have, nor can he have, by his education the qualities of a general”.

In 1779 he carried out one of his greatest exploits. Charles III put him in charge of the naval forces destined to blockade Gibraltar. To ensure the success of the enterprise, Barceló invented “gunboats” with much greater mobility. However, due to palace intrigues against him and tensions between the Mallorcan and the career officers, he was removed from his post and retired to Mallorca. The situation in Gibraltar worsened and Barceló returned to the front. He had a plan of attack but did not have time to carry it out. Spain had signed the Treaty of Versailles, which recognised British sovereignty over the rock. Spain lost Gibraltar to the British. Despite this, the people continued to support Barceló with this ditty:

“If Spain had four like Barceló, Gibraltar would belong to Spain but not British”.

Birthplace of the corsair Antoni Barcelo Pont y Terra

A curious fact is that Antoni Barceló was a very religious person, always before setting sail and just after arriving from a crossing his destination was the same: the parish church of Santa Creu, where he is buried; but this did not prevent him from also being famous for his bloodthirsty behaviour, as if his prisoners were Muslims he did not hesitate, on arriving in Palma, to slit their throats in the Paseo del Born.

Today he is an illustrious son of the municipality of Palma. 

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