Warrior Women: Sayyida al Hurra, Avenging Pirate Queen

Sayyida al Hurra

Sayyida al Hurra was a ruthless pirate who wreaked havoc on Spanish and Portuguese shipping lines in the 16th-century. In 1515, she allied with Turkish pirate captain Barbarossa of Algiers. Sayyida took control of the western half of the Mediterranean, while Barbarossa commanded the east. Together their forces looted Spanish and Portugese ships and ransomed captured sailors. Sayyida al Hurra was a respected and fearsome opponent who dominated the Mediterranean seas.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella ended of nearly eight centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula by expelling Muslims and Jews from the city of Granada in Al-Andalus in Andalusia (now southern Spain). Among those expelled were the prominent Muslim family Banu Rashid, which included a daughter born around 1485, who was to become Sayyida al-Hurra.

Sayyida and her family settled in Chaouen in present-day Morocco. She received a first-class education, excelling in languages, including Castilian and Portuguese, as well as theology. Despite her luxurious surroundings, Sayyida never forgot the indignity of being forced out of her home by “the Christian enemy”.

When Sayyida was 16, she married a man 30 years her senior who was the governor of Tétouan in northern Morocco. This helped the Rashid family position themselves as major players in the effort to unify Morocco against the fast-growing powers of Spain and Portugal.

Sayyida and her husband ruled the city side-by-side, united in their hatred of the Spanish and the Portuguese. When he died, she inherited his position and gained the title of “al Hurra”, which means “queen”. After her first husband’s death Sayyida made contact with the Barbary pirates. Sayyida assembled a fleet, presumably under Barbarossas’ guidance, and began her strikes on Portuguese ships.

Under the command of Sayidda al-Hurra, her pirates helped her to fend off the aggressive Spanish and Portuguese who were colonizing Morocco, and at times enslaving most of the populations. The riches looted from the Catholic coffers transported in Spanish and Portuguese ships paid for Tétouan’s refurbishment. City walls were rebuilt, families who had lost everything to the Reconquista were repaid, and the once-floundering area flourished.

As her power and popularity grew, so did her reputation. In 1541, the King of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi, asked for her hand in marriage. Sayyida refused to travel to Fez to marry her new husband, and the King took the unprecedented step of leaving Fez and traveling to Tétouan for their wedding. After the wedding she continued to rule Tétouan as before, refusing to give up her governorship or pirate activities.

In 1542, Sayyida’s son-in-law arrived in Tétouan with a small army and usurped her. After 27 years as sole governor of an important Moroccon city-state, the beloved Queen and fierce pirate was deposed and disappeared from history altogether.

Some historians believe that Sayyida was accepted as a female ruler by the other Muslims because of the strong tradition of female leaders from her homeland of Andalusia, but others believe that she was respected because of her successful as a pirate leader.