• Yunus Emre Institute

Corsairs Fascinate Guests For The 8th Edition Of The Humans Of The Ottoman Empire Series


Dr. Joshua White Joins Dr. Cengiz Sisman for a Conversation about Corsairs


Washington, D.C. - On May 21st, 2021, the Yunus Emre Institute in Washington D.C. hosted Dr. Joshua White from the University of Virginia and Dr. Cengiz Sisman in a webinar to discuss the importance of corsairs in the Ottoman Empire. Dr. White is an expert on piracy and law in the Ottoman Empire during the Early Modern period. Many guests joined the event to learn about these characters and their journeys spanning from the Mediterranean all the way to the Norwegian Sea.


Dr. White started the event by explaining the difference between a pirate and a corsair. The most critical difference was that pirates had no authorization while corsairs worked for someone, such as a government, and therefore had oversight. During the Ottoman period, becoming a corsair was a gamble since it was dangerous. Many corsairs led difficult lives that were cut short. Dr. White highlighted that corsairs considered their profession to be a very honorable one with codes of conduct for their raids and prisoners. They honored agreements, respected the dignity and religions of their prisoners, and were offended when people broke their code.


Corsairs came into prominence in the 16th century as the naval wars between the Ottomans and the Habsburg kingdoms heated up. Famous figures like the Barbarossa brothers were able to carve out powerful positions in the empire because of their knowledge of Spanish fleets. Corsairs were an important tool for the Ottomans to strike Spanish and Italian towns in Iberia and Italy. Corsair raids grew in number in the 17th century, but their importance in Ottoman foreign policy waned at the same time. The Ottoman state’s relationship with the corsairs fell apart as the corsairs started to ignore Ottoman officials. By the 18th century, the corsairs were practically independent with their own treaties with neighboring countries. Raiding ended in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars as Europe and the U.S. agreed to occupy pirate havens.


Guests posed a number of intriguing questions to Dr. White. A few guests had questions about the daily life of an Ottoman corsair in terms of day-to-day responsibilities. Dr. White carefully explained that people on each ship had different roles and some were more pleasant than others. If one was rowing on a galley, they were exposed to horrible conditions and would often die at a younger age. Officers, however, had a more pleasant life with some comforts. One guest asked about the prevalence of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Black Sea. Dr. White explained that piracy was prevalent in both bodies of water. A notable example that he gave was the Cossacks and their control over the Black Sea. The guests for this edition of the Humans of the Ottoman Empire series came with no shortage of questions for the event’s hosts.


Yunus Emre Institute is a Turkish cultural center located in Washington, D.C. and around the world. The institute hosts events and programs that educate the public about Turkey’s culture, history, and language. For more information about the institute’s mission or online programs, please email washingtondc@yee.org.tr or follow @yeewdc on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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