The Moors and Christians re-enactment in Pollensa which takes place in August. | JAUME MOREY


Over the eighty years before the famous clash between Moors and Christians in Soller on May 11, 1561, there were 1,723 recorded incidents involving pirates. An average of more than twenty a year, there were peaks in these incidents. Some occurred over more or less consecutive days. On occasion, they were in the same place. The details from the records aren’t complete in that not all of them by any means note who the pirates were. Many simply refer to “advice” of sightings or of incidents, which weren’t all landings. Plenty of them were attacks off the coast. With various sightings, ships kept sailing and caused incidents elsewhere, so the 1,723 included what amounted to duplicates.

In the late fifteenth century, if the pirates were identified, they included some from Genoa and the Spanish mainland. Although Mallorca and the Balearics, given that the islands formed part of the Crown of the Aragon, were by 1480 integrated into what was the founding of Spain - the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon - the archipelago was still a target for renegades from Andalusia and the Basque Country. And on top of the 1,723 incidents in Mallorca, there were great numbers in Minorca, Cabrera, Ibiza and Formentera as well. The whole of the Balearics was at the mercy of pirates and increasingly, as the records show, these were almost exclusively ‘Berberiscos (Musulmanes)’ - Berbers (Muslims).

While ‘Muslim’ would have been generally accurate, ‘Berber’ wouldn’t necessarily have been. Yes, there were many who were from north Africa, but there were also those from the eastern Mediterranean; ‘Saracen’ is another word used to describe the pirates. Moor is a further one, the Moors having for the most part been synonymous with the Berbers. These categories aren’t entirely helpful as they can convey a false impression of what was happening in the western Mediterranean from the late fifteenth century onward. Pirate incidents may have occurred at random, but they were mostly part of the clash between Christian forces and the Ottoman Empire for control not just of the western Mediterranean but of the whole of the Med. As such, therefore, they were coordinated incidents.

In any conflict situation there is propaganda to appeal to the respective publics. The activities of the pirates were no exception. But the perspective of the Mallorcan authorities and chroniclers provided good detail of only a handful of incidents. Where there was detail, it tended to be limited, such as for the sixth of October, 1494, when four ships with “Turks and Moors” attacked the estate of El Palmer in Campos. Taking advantage of a lack of surveillance, they captured ten people and killed a woman. Negotiations for the release of the ten ended in failure because too high a ransom was demanded.

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The limited detail suggests that many incidents amounted to little or nothing. When they did amount to something, they were small-scale skirmishes. In Arta on May 5, 1502, the mayor dispatched one hundred men who apparently saw off between seventy and eighty Berbers.

The first detail of real significance comes from August 1531 in Cala San Vicente and when a prominent Ottoman corsair admiral is mentioned. Sinan Reis was known as The Great Jew, he having apparently been a member of a family of Sephardic Jews from Spain who had fled to what is now Izmir in Turkey. Six Muslim ships landed, twenty of the invaders were killed and two were captured and later sold at auction. The pirates’ artillery prevented the people of Pollensa from rescuing those who had been captured.

The three standout incidents are the ones for which there is the greatest detail that provided the means for developing re-enactments - Pollensa, May 1550; Valldemossa, October 1552; Soller, May 1561. Each of these places had suffered previous attacks. For instance, the seventh King of Algiers, Salah Reis, led a raid on Soller in February 1542. The port was bombarded, a tower was blown up (thirteen died) and the church and a number of houses were set ablaze. Salah Reis, by the way, had been the number two to an Ottoman admiral, Aydin Reis, at the battle off Formentera in 1529 when the Spanish fleet was destroyed.

Unlike that incident (and indeed the battle), the Pollensa, Soller and Valldemossa re-enactments are all to do with local heroism and bravery and the vanquishing of the enemy. The propaganda for Valldemossa and for the other two to a lesser extent plays on a certain incompetence on behalf of the invaders. This may have been the case, but the veracity of the details has always been somewhat suspect. In Pollensa, the Ottoman admiral Dragut (Turgut Reis) would not have engaged in direct combat with the captain, Joan Mas, while in Soller there’s no evidence to suggest that Ulutx Ali (who was to become grand admiral) ever set foot on land. The role of the ‘Valents Dones’ (the Brave Women) was subject to reinterpretation over some three hundred years

Folk legend, it might be said, has drawn on propaganda from centuries past in creating the re-enactments. But one thing can be sure and that is the comparative seriousness of these attacks, which is why there is the detail. In the case of Soller, the records reveal one particularly striking fact. The incidents with pirates had been regular. In 1560 there were eighteen. The last was on September 17. Almost eight months then passed until the 1,700 or so ‘Berbers (Muslims)’ arrived in Soller. Had something bigger potentially been planned that was thwarted in Soller? A gap of eight months was most unusual.