TALES OF MAJORCAN PIRACY

The Moors are Coming!
L'emperuer des morts bporcel]11
'Suddenly a group of Moors appeared from behind a field of sugar cane, howling feverishly. They gave my great-great grandmother a thorough clubbing and left her stretched out on the ground. A captive who was old, skinny and coughing wasn't worth a cent.'

An excerpt from The Enchanted Isles by Baltasar Porcel. Translated from the Catalan by John L. Getman.

I have talked at length about pirates, sometimes throughout the night, the long nights of Sant Telm or Andratx, which in the winter start about six in the afternoon and stretch out, between dozing and chatting, till one in the morning, as we would sit in front of the wide, black mouth of the fireplace, burning chunks of almond trees, with the ants running crazily down the wrinkled bark, trying to escape the heat of the fire.

We would talk about pirates with turbans and scimitars, sailing in galleys flying the half-moon flag, who would mount their attack with an enormous uproar. It may seem strange today, that with all the cars, electric appliances and the beaches packed with chic girls from the North, that I would be pursuing the corsairs of the past. But the fact is that my town has been, for more than four centuries, one of the great pirate centers of the Western Mediterranean. I have written about this maelstrom of activity on several occasions. It's worth while to insist on the point: in our country, we haven't had sumptuous stories of kings and soirees. We have to concentrate, then, on what we have.

In 1406, our king Martin the Humane ordered Andratx to be fortified. He was alarmed at the calamity the predatory Moors had wrought upon the town. Andratx was the first Majorcan town that was able to hide behind a wall. When, from the pyramidal, sharp Cornador peak--which overlooks the town and good deal of the coast--the conch horn wailed its warning, the townspeople barred the doors to the towers and their houses and set about preparing their defensive arms: oars, lances, boiling oil, hunting dogs, long rifles, and sometimes small cannon--which, depending on how the fighting went, sometimes blew up. But the walls only came down after they had suffered continuous attacks for over two hundred years.

The candy maker, Joan Canet from Palma, made a fistful of money in 1859, selling parts which came from the artillery pieces that survived the fortifications of the port of Andratx, which of course have been demolished. There are still some old defense towers left along the coast, at Sant Telm, at Dragonera, at Cala En Basset, at Sa Mola and at Sa Torre Nova...a couple of them still have a rusty old cannon on their roofs. The priest Joanillo, the illustrious and bewildered local historian, gazed at those iron tubes about fifty years ago and wrote with great emotion: "Perhaps these cannon will someday be useful again to halt the landing of foreign troops who have come to conquer this old Spanish possession!" I think that the priest, in his whitewashed rectory in the little town of S'Arracó, was perhaps having some patriotic dreams which were a little too fiery. The priest, as a result of the local history he wrote, was made a member of the Academy of Cadiz.

The sixteenth century was naturally the most ferocious, because the power of the Turks came into play. That Empire made big business of launching their fleet against a town and setting it afire, after they had loaded up as many captives and gold as they could get their hands on. The Turks controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and so when they moved into our seas they gave a shot in the arm to the Barbary pirates, who hadn't been very lively until then. The Berber was a good navigator, especially in the calm summer waters. But once on land, when it came to robbery, he was unsure of himself and often easily scared off. The Turk, on the other hand, was a real meat-eating beast, in spite of not being too skillful handling his ships.

Studying the comings and goings of the pirates, the general historian of the Kingdom of Majorca in the middle of the seventeenth century, Vicenç Mut--who also carried the title of Sergeant-Major in the Infantry and Engineer for His Majesty--wrote the following: "It seems that the Moors had only one enemy and that was Andratx, for all their incursions were aimed at that town." And the confusion of the raids continued until the French conquered Algiers in 1830.

My grandparents were born after 1860, of parents who as youngsters had lived through the last of the Moorish attacks. My grandparents spoke of the attacks with the same precision and exacting detail that they had heard from their parents: "and the Moor was wearing a red neckerchief when he jumped up on the back of a man from Son Segui who was trying to escape and it came undone and he fell down beneath a fig tree.... The band of Moors were climbing up by Fosseret d'en Guiemoi, and since it was hot, they took off their turbans and gun belts. At Son Esteva's well they stopped to take a drink and two of them stayed behind to pee. That was when the owner, Pascual d'es Vinyet, cut loose with his blunderbuss and left them stiff as a board...." I would sit there and listen, watching Grandfather, who was telling the tale as he ate supper, while he downed a forkful of fried meat and sweet potatoes.

From what they tell, one of my great-great grandmothers got up one morning in July and set about making coffee in front of the house, under a grape arbor loaded with long red grapes. She was a thin lady, over fifty, and she had caught a summer cold that she couldn't get rid of. Suddenly a group of Moors appeared from behind a field of sugar cane, howling feverishly. They gave my great-great grandmother a thorough clubbing and left her stretched out on the ground. A captive who was old, skinny and coughing wasn't worth a cent. On the other hand, they took two pigs which had been fattened on figs, three white-woolen mattresses and a sack of wheat. Within our family, that event was something of a record.

These pirate attacks generally took place in the summer, when the sea was as calm as well-oiled water and sailing was easier and the houses were full of harvested crops: baskets of apricots, wicker trays of figs, sacks of fava beans and peas, hens fattened from scratching up grain on the threshing floor, and goats made sleek from chewing down the stubble in the fields. There were also the things: copper pots and pans, blankets, and wool clothing. And then came the captives.

They were not always taken to the African slave markets. Often the corsairs would anchor their ships in front of the little island of Dragonera - deserted and grey, with thousandsof lizards on it - and would send emissaries to Andratx, to Palma or to Sòller, demanding ransom. The negotiations could last a couple of weeks. The emissaries would come and go, back and forth. The ships would rock at anchor in front of Sant Telm. Until the matter was settled. If not, off they'd sail to Algiers, to Tripoli or to the Devil.

Back then, Sant Telm was known as Port de la Palomera, and it appears with that name in the chronicles of King Jaume. It was also used as a refuge by Dragut when he robbed in these seas, and it was also here and in the Port d'Andratx that the Barba-rossa brothers berthed their squadron, before they were crowned as Algerian monarchs. Neither one of them ever had a serious problem in the waters off Andratx. They were like family.

Their presence was so constant that the Moorish slaves who had fled from everywhere else on Majorca--because, of course, our country captured Moors as well--that is to say the pirate business in reverse. It was said that the slaves who were able to escape trotted through the hills and stayed in hiding until they could work their way down to the Andratx coast, where they would wait for their Mohammedan countrymen's ships to appear. Then they would make signals and get picked up. That business gave rise to an industry presided over by the people from Andratx: they were always on the lookout for escaped slaves, whom they would grab and rob of whatever they had on them - some gold coins, a knife.... And after that they would kill the slaves and hide the bodies, because the law said that anyone who saw an escaped slave had to turn him over to his owner...life is often like that.

This piracy did not traffic in Moors alone. There were Frenchmen, Galicians, Majorcans, Englishmen and even the Knights of the Order of Malta, who circulated throughout the Mediterranean, disposed to strip anyone at hand.

All this went on during the time of Spain's conquests across the Atlantic and its wars in Europe. The Castilian rulers had set out to take over and get rich in the lands which were at the time the crossroads of the world. Nobody remembered the old Mediterranean, an out-of-the-way corner. There is documented proof that only once did the viceroy of Majorca, the representative of the most--more or less--powerful State, on whose domains the sun never set, ever send armed aid to Andratx on the occasion of a Moorish raid. Only once, in four hundred years...

That happened in 1555. The most daring troops on the island were sent to the town, the Company of Two Hundred. But the Moors grappled with the Two Hundred, who started to tremble and run off, howling in desperation. The Andratx folk, who made up the rear guard up on Palomera hill, faced off against the corsairs and drove them toward the beaches.

According to what the old folks tell, and what the chronicles say, it is evident - evident and notorious - that the people from Andratx were individuals who, with a lance or a club in their hands, were capable of scaring off the Devil himself.






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