Thursday, April 9, 2015
H IS FOR HUZZAH! IT'S SAYYIDA AL HURRA!
Folks, when I promise a pirate queen, I deliver a pirate queen - and when I say queen, I'm referring to an actual Royal. Allow me to present to you the one, the only, Sayyida al Hurra bint Ali ibn Rashid al-Alami, Hakimat Titwan (also spelled Tetouan). She looks awfully demure in the painting above, but she was one of a kind.
Sayyida was born about 1485 to a well-to-do Muslim family living in Granada, which was then a Muslim emirate. But in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain conquered Granada, murdering or enslaving up to 100,000 Muslims and forcing another 20,000 to flee. Sayyida's family was among those who escaped with their lives. They ended up in Morocco.
At age 16 Sayyida was married to a friend of her father's who was then in his mid-forties. They ruled Tetouan (a region at the very northern tip of Morocco) as partners, gradually reconstructing the city which had been destroyed in 1490. After her husband died in 1515, Sayyida declared herself the governor of Tetouan, thus becoming the last Muslim woman to assume the title "al hurrah" - queen. At some point after that she got married again, this time to the King of Morocco. But just to make sure he knew where things stood between them, she made him travel to Tetouan to marry her, rather than vice versa. It was the only time in history that a Moroccan king got married outside of Fez, the capital.
It bears noting that Sayyida al Hurra is a title, not a given name, and it means "noble lady who is free and independent." The primary way she demonstrated that independence was in her method of avenging herself against the Christians of Spain and Portugal, whom she held responsible for her family's being forced to flee Granada when she was a child. Some time around the year 1515 (the same year her first husband died and she assumed the solo governorship - which seems to suggest that he was holding her in check while he was alive), she reached out to Barbarossa (literally, "Redbeard" in Italian) of Algiers, a Turkish pirate who, along with his two brothers, ruthlessly controlled sea travel throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Evidently Sayyida and Barbarossa reached an agreement, and Sayyida enthusiastically entered the pirate's life, assembling her own fleet and wreaking havoc on Spanish and Portuguese trade. She became the ruler of the western Mediterranean region, accepted as the boss by Muslims and Christians alike, and was the person with whom the release of Spanish and Portuguese captives had to be negotiated. To great Portuguese humiliation, in 1520 one of those captives was the wife of the Portuguese governor. I'll admit Sayyida may never have personally attacked a ship, but still, it's the thought that counts. She was an extremely bold and successful pirate, and used all of the booty and ransom money acquired to restore and beautify Tetouan, making her very popular with the people she governed.
Sayyida remained the ruler of Tetouan until 1542, when she was forcefully deposed by what is described as her son-in-law, but (because I could not find any mention of her ever having had children) to me sounds more like her stepson, the son of the Moroccan king. Immediately she lost all her wealth and power, and disappeared from historical accounts. It was the ultimate reversal of fortune, and no one knows what became of her.
On the other hand, since Sayyida's death has never been reported, maybe she's still out there somewhere on the open sea, buckling her swash (??), gleefully plundering European ships and generally raising hell. I'd like to think so. Wouldn't you?