Project 500 Years
Published in

Project 500 Years

The Spanish conquest of Tunis, 1535 CE

Photo of part of one of the dozen massive tapestries woven between 1549 and 1551 to memorialize and recreate Charles’s Conquest of Tunis. They hang until today in the Real Alcazar in Seville.

Europe basically has two significant maritime “backyards”: the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Present-day Spain and France are the two European states that have coastlines along both these bodies of water. The European empires we see today were all built over the past 600 years by European-Atlantic powers, starting with Portugal. By the 1500’s, Spain had also entered the world-empire-building project. Unlike their counterparts in Portugal, many of the aggressively Christian city-state leaders who came together to form “Spain” had a long history of operating in the Mediterranean maritime environment. So some 40 years after Ferdinand and Isabella had vanquished the last Muslim city-state in terrestrial Spain, it is not surprising that their heir Charles, enriched beyond precedent by the booty from his “New World” plunderings, should have sought to confront the main Muslim power operating in the Mediterranean, the Ottoman Empire.

In that era of the emergence of several significant proto-empires around the world, the Ottoman Empire was the one that posed perhaps the greatest challenge to Spain’s increasing global swagger. In earlier posts here I have tracked the Ottomans’ terrestrial expansion into some of Central Europe since 1520, and how they were resisted by Charles and his allies. But the Ottomans were also becoming a significant maritime power- both in Mediterranean, to which they had had good access since they seized Constantinople (now Istanbul) from the Byzantines in 1453 CE, and in the Red Sea, to which they gained access with their conquest of Egypt in 1517. (From the Red Sea port of Suez they were able to sail around the Arabian Peninsular to Muscat, Hormuz, and even up to Basra. But along they way they encountered the Portuguese, who had preceded them there by sailing around the Horn of Africa. More on this, later…)

So, back to Charles V’s conquest of Tunis in 1535. Here’s the summary from English-WP:

In 1533, Suleiman the Magnificent ordered Hayreddin Barbarossa, whom he had summoned from Algiers, to build a large war fleet in the arsenal of Constantinople. Altogether 70 galleys were built during the winter of 1533–1534, manned by slave oarsmen, including 2,000 Jewish ones. With this fleet, Barbarossa conducted aggressive raids [ sic] along the coast of Italy, until he conquered Tunis on 16 August 1534, ousting the local ruler, theretofore subservient to the Spanish, Muley Hasan. Barbarossa thus established a strong naval base in Tunis, which could be used for raids in the region, and on nearby Malta.

Charles V, one of the most powerful men in Europe at the time, assembled a large army of some 30,000 soldiers, 74 galleys (rowed by chained Protestants shipped in from Antwerp), and 300 sailing ships, including the carrack and the Portuguese galleon São João Baptista, also known as Botafogo (the most powerful ship in the world at the time, with 366 bronze cannons) to drive the Ottomans from the region. The expense involved for Charles V was considerable, and at 1,000,000 ducats was on par with the cost of Charles’ campaign against Suleiman on the Danube. Unexpectedly, the funding of the conquest of Tunis came from the galleons sailing in from the New World, in the form of a 2 million gold ducats treasure extracted by Francisco Pizarro in exchange for his releasing of the Inca king Atahualpa (whom he nevertheless executed on 29 August 1533).

Despite a request by Charles V, Francis I denied French support to the expedition, explaining that he was under a 3-year truce with Barbarossa following the 1533 Ottoman embassy to France. Francis I was also under negotiations with Suleiman the Magnificent for a combined attack on Charles V, following the 1534 Ottoman embassy to France. Francis I only agreed to Pope Paul III ‘s request that no fight between Christians occur during the time of the expedition.

The last point there about Suleiman’s use of smart diplomacy deep inside Europe is almost as relevant as the recognition English-WP gives to the fact that it was only the booty from Peru that allowed Charles to mount such a massive expedition against Tunis.

English-WP also tells us this:

The resulting massacre of the city [Tunis] left an estimated 30,000 dead.[15] Barbarossa managed to flee to Algiers with a troop of several thousand Turks.[4] Muley Hasan was restored to his throne.[4] The stench of the corpses was such that Charles V soon left Tunis and moved his camp to Radès.

The siege demonstrated the power projection of the Habsburg dynasties at the time; Charles V had under his control much of southern Italy, Sicily, Spain, the Americas, Austria, the Netherlands, and lands in Germany. Furthermore, he was Holy Roman Emperor and had de jure control over much of Germany as well.

Ottoman defeat in Tunis motivated the Ottoman Empire to enter into a formal alliance with France against the Habsburg Empire. Ambassador Jean de La Forêt was sent to Constantinople, and for the first time was able to become permanent ambassador at the Ottoman court and to negotiate treaties.[16]

Charles V celebrated a neo-classical triumph “over the infidel” at Rome on April 5, 1536 in commemoration of his victory at Tunis.

Originally published at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Senior Fellow, Ctr for International Policy. Fuller bio at my Wikipedia page.