Pirates in Cinque Terre and in the Gulf of Poets

In the sixteenth century the Ligurian coast was struck by a danger that terrified its people for about 300 years: the “turcheschi” pirates. Centuries later, after the last terrible Saracen invasions, Turkish and Berber marauders (coming from the East, from Tunis to Algiers) or sometimes Christian converted to Islam, came on their fast ships and sighted the coastal villages.

Khair-ed-Din called “Barbarossa”, chief of the fleets of the Ottoman Empire, Draghut, Ucciali, a renegade born on the Calabrian coast and Giaffer, were the commanders of the best known expeditions that, in summer, went back the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian seas, plundering  the villages and pillaging men and women, subject to redemption or sale as slaves.The Ottoman expansion in the West, who had great boost with the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, was added to the war between two Christian powers, Spain and France, where King Francis I, most Christian prince, had allied with the “infidels “to beat the enemy Charles V.

In this situation the piratical fleets could go with relative tranquility in the Western Mediterranean and hit Spain and its allies. The tools available for the defense of coastal communities were not many. Only by the strengthening of the old fortified structures of medieval origin, by the construction of some towers with cannons, muskets and harquebus, the measure of resistance of these small villages increased.

At the end of the fifteenth century, in order to monitor the coast, the Republic of Genoa armed two galleys, which in the summer of 1490 became four.

Warning signs were thrown from very specific points scattered along the coast; this function was held by the promontory of Mesco in Monterosso and Montenero in Riomaggiore, which are situated to the western and eastern extremities of this area. At night the fire was the only mean used for reporting. If it was burning at regular and pre-defined intervals and burned continuously, you could sleep quietly; but if the fire was lit and then immediately turned off or dimmed, and if simultaneous fires appeared, it was a signal that the “infidels” were close, with many boats as there were fires. During the day the signals were made with smoke.

The Cinque Terre suffered badly on 8th July 1545  when a pirate flotilla led by the infamous Draghut invaded Monterosso. From the galleys, the pirates came down to the beach and looted and burned houses and carried off men and women. From there they went back on board, did not attack Vernazza but hit on Corniglia, which suffered the same fate as Monterosso.
Then it was the turn of Manarola, where, however, the pirates could not dock, as the men of the village were aided and rescued by the men of Riomaggiore, thus preventing the looting.
From Cinque Terre Draghut moved into the Gulf of La Spezia, where he docked waiting to get a ransom for the prisoners whom he had brought with him.
The last Islamic attack took place on the night between 24th and 25th of June 1815, off the coast of Mesco, when a Turkish “bombard” plundered two boats out fishing for anchovies. The men were taken away while the boats were abandoned.

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