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Watchtowers & Pirates

mallorca's watchtowers and piratesMallorca was the home for pirates for hundreds of years and they used the island's rugged coastline to hide away until trade ships were passing. Merchant ships though the ages, from the Phoenicians, Egyptians and Greeks, to the Carthaginians, Romans and Byzantines, all fell victim to piracy. The island was also raided many times and villagers and farmers had to move inland and build fortified towers. The raids continued for 500 years after King Jaime I's conquest of Mallorca in 1229 and they reached their peak in the mid-1500's. The two questions that spring to mind, where did the pirates (or corsairs) come from and what did the Mallorcan people do to protect themselves from danger?

By the 14th Century, the Ottoman Empire had expanded from what is present day Turkey into Europe and Asia; it had also taken control of most of the northern coast of Africa. By the time the Empire reached its peak in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Ottoman ships dominated most of the Mediterranean Sea and they viewed Christian lands as legitimate targets. Sometimes just a single ship manned by brigands, criminals and adventurers raided the coast of Mallorca but other times it a large fleet carrying soldiers. The feared Ottoman Admiral and privateer Dragut (or Captain Turgut) became well known for attacking the Spanish coast and in the Balearic Islands.

mallorca's watchtowers and piratesCastles or walled towns were few and far between on Mallorca and islanders usually depended on their church to protect them, often sleeping in them if pirate ships had been sighted. Many of the ancient churches across the island still resemble small fortresses, with few windows and a bell tower to warn of danger. If the villagers were lucky, the pirates would take everything of value before torching the buildings. If they were unlucky they would be killed or taken to the ships to be ransomed for money or sold as slaves.

Troubles increased for Mallorca after the Barbarossa brothers captured Algiers and Jijel from the Spanish in 1516. Aruj Barbarossa declared himself Sultan or Sanjak of Algiers and allied his new territories with the Ottoman Empire. The Spanish struck back and both Aruj and his brother Ishak were killed in the siege of Tlecem in 1518 so their father, Heyreddin, recaptured the city. He also welcomed thousands of Moors fleeing from persecution in Andalusia.

mallorca's watchtowers and piratesBarbarossa's first raid on the Balearic Islands was made in 1521. In December 1530 he captured Cabrera Island, off the south coast of Mallorca, and used it as a base for his operations in the area. In February 1538, Pope Paul III assembled a Holy League of Catholic countries but Barbarossa its combined fleets at the Battle of Preveza in September 1538, securing Ottoman dominance over the Mediterranean.

In September 1540, King Charles V of Spain, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, tried to get Barbarossa to join him but he refused. A year later Charles planned to siege Algiers but bad weather dashed his plans and with no Spanish fleet to stop them, the attacks on Mallorca began in earnest. The largest attacks were made against Sóller in 1542, Valldemossa in 1545, Pollensa in 1550 and Andratx in 1558. The worst attack took place in July 1558 when Vizier Piali and his fleet of 140 ships landed 15,000 soldiers on Menorca and besieged Ciutadella. After eight days the Turks breached the walls and sailed away with over 3,000 slaves. While King Felipe II raised money to buy them back, few were seen again.

The attack prompted the Palma authorities to take action before a similar disaster struck Mallorca. An extensive coastline and a shortage of money and meant that it was impossible to fortify everywhere so the plan was to build a ring of observation towers at strategic points. Watchmen keep a look out for suspicious ships and warn the villagers and the military. In 1560 Palma commissioned the Italian architect, Jacobo Paleazzo, because he had organised watchtower defences in Italy and he planned to upgrade the 30 existing towers and add over 50 more. The towers were divided in two groups. 'Watchtowers' would be manned by a small team of lookouts while 'Defensive Towers' has a garrison and maybe artillery. A Guild of Tower Keepers was formed for the watch men or 'talaiers' but it was lonely and dangerous work.

mallorca's watchtowers and piratesThe watch men needed a quick and reliable way to communicate with each other if they were going to be effective. Manacor man Joan Binimelis (1539-1616) was a priest, a doctor in medicine, a historian, mathematician, cartographer, astronomer, and he had just returned to Mallorca after studying at Valencia University. He devised a simple communication system which involved the watch men building a number of bonfires. They would light them when ships were sighted and while smoky fires would be used in daylight, blazing fires would be used at night. Each fire represented a single ship but if it was kept lit for over 15 minutes it represented ten ships. For example if two fires were kept burning for a long time while five fires were extinguished after a short time, the watch men had spotted 25 ships.

mallorca's watchtowers and piratesEach tower would pass on the signal, either in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction around the island, until it reached the Angel Tower on Almudaina Palace in Palma. The tower was so called because of the bronze figure of the Archangel Gabriel on top. It was commissioned by King Sancho and sculptured by Francisco Campedroni of Perpignan in 1312; it still looks out over the bay after 700 years. In no time at all, the Governor knew that the island was under threat and could plan to counter it.

The raid on Sóller in 1542 was a prime example of how effective communications could work. When the alarm was raised and Alaró's and Bunyola's militia helped to save the town from attack. Meanwhile, the churches would ring the bells to warn the villagers. Some watch towers had a 'Secret Guard', who lived in nearby cabins or caves. They would ride into town, sometimes using a marine horn or 'abalot' to give the warning.

84 watchtowers were eventually built around the coast but the scheme took over 100 years to complete, by which time the pirate scourge has virtually disappeared. Pirate attacks were far and few between following the defeat of the Ottoman fleet by the Holy League fleet at Battle of Lepanto in October 1571.

The Ministry of Defence handed the towers over to the Ministry of Finance at the end of the 19th century and they were auctioned off to private owners. Over 350 years since the first towers were built, around 50 still remain, keeping a silent watch over the island's coastal waters.

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