How a shipwrecked Dutch sailor became a Moroccan admiral and governor in a four-centuries-old tale of rags to riches.
Rabat – I have long found inspiration in the tale of Dutch sailor Jan Janszoon, who became the respected Moroccan admiral and governor Murat Reis over four centuries ago. To me, his tale is a testament to the deep ties between my country of origin and my new adoptive homeland.
In the ultimate story of “rags to riches,” my countryman followed the same path southward as me within a very different context. The story of Janszoon is a story of piracy, multiculturalism, overcoming odds, and the deep historic ties between the Netherlands and Morocco.
Murat Reis’ humble beginnings
Jan Janszoon’s life began in tumultuous times. He was born in 1575 in Haarlem in the Netherlands. Jan entered the world in the midst of what would become an 80-year war for independence from the Spanish. The country was in chaos. Much of the country had been purposefully flooded to block the Spanish and refugees roamed the countryside in search of shelter.
In the midst of a long and bloody independence war, Jan learned the way of the world. Small Dutch ships, known as the Geuzen, or “sea beggars,” heroically fought against the might of the Catholic Spanish at great cost. Jan grew up in a country devastated by marching armies and protruded sieges of Dutch cities. Amid the chaos of a bloody independence war, the Dutch state was born.
The Dutch received crucial support from the Islamic world in their independence struggle. The Ottoman Empire’s Suleiman the Magnificent supported their Protestant uprising. One year before Jan’s birth, the Dutch attacked the Spanish at Leiden bearing Ottoman flags to terrify the Spanish forces. Meanwhile, the Ottoman navy attacked the Spanish in the Mediterranean to divert Spanish attention.
Jan grew up in the age of piracy. It was a time of lawlessness on the seas. It was a time of state-ordained pirates, known as privateers, who played a significant role in the Dutch independence struggle.
Jan left his Dutch family and set off on what would become an illustrious career as a sailor and privateer. He had worked his way up the ranks as a sailor and at age 25 assumed command of a privateer ship. His first foray as commander ended in disaster, however, resulting in a shipwreck on the rocky cliffs of the island of Lanzarote.
Dutch privateers who had converted to Islam and operated out of Algiers rescued the young, shipwrecked commander.
Jan joined the side of the “corsairs,” a fleet of privateers aligned with the Ottoman-backed states in the Maghreb. After the death of the man who had rescued him, Jan became the leader of his fleet and converted to Islam while living in Algiers. He took the name of Murat Reis and became the captain of a fleet of 17 corsair ships.
His corsair fleet eventually set sail for the Moroccan coastal city of Sale, neighboring what was then the sleepy fishing village of Rabat. The city had built an impregnable bastion of fortifications, making it a prime base for his corsair fleet. His fleet became known as the “Sale Rovers” and his corsair compatriots elected Jan, now known as Murat, as grand admiral of the fleet.
Rise to fame
Murat Reis’ corsair fleet, encouraged by the fortifications of Sale, had declared the city to be an independent republic in order to avoid taxation by the Saadi Sultan Zidan Abu Maali. The sultan unsuccessfully tried to besiege Sale but in the end settled on a political agreement with the corsairs. Instead of retaking the city through violence, the sultan recognized Murat’s election and made him governor of Sale.
The peaceful resolution meant Sale would again be part of Morocco, and the city thrived under the leadership of Murat, now backed by the Moroccan sultan. Murat Reis and Sale became rich through piracy and trade but political strife in the city forced him to briefly move his operation to Algiers. There, he quickly became bored with life and once again set sail for new adventures on the high seas.
His search for adventure brought him to the English Channel. With little luck in finding targets, his fleet needed to find a port to resupply. And so two corsair ships appeared on the horizon of the Dutch coastal town of Veere, flying the Moroccan flag. The ships received a warm welcome by the Dutch as part of their 1610 treaty of friendship with Morocco.
While docked in the Dutch village, local authorities brought Murat Reis’ family to the southern village in an effort to talk him into giving up piracy and staying in the Netherlands. But Murat had found a new home in Sale. He had become a charismatic leader and an enthusiastic follower of Islam.
Instead of convincing him to stay, many young Dutchmen instead volunteered to join his crew as the corsairs set off to return to the Maghreb.
His return to Sale was the beginning of another chapter in his career. He became notorious as a pirate on the Atlantic Ocean while building renown as a diplomat in Morocco. He captured the British island of Lundy, which he held for five years as a base for his piracy. He sacked the town of Baltimore in Ireland and sailed all the way north to Iceland.
Captured slaves and loot from his journeys became merchandise for Sale’s growing economy.
From Sale he raided Spanish, Italian, and French islands in the Mediterranean, selling slaves and looted merchandise in Tunis where he befriended the ruler of Algiers. His crew of Dutch, Andalusian, Moorish, and Turkish corsairs fought the Venetians in Crete and Cyprus until they met their match in an ambush by the crusader knights of Malta in 1635.
Murat Reis: The first Dutch-Moroccan
After his capture, Murat Reis endured torture in the prisons of Malta for five long years. But his friends in the Maghreb did not abandon him. In 1640, a massive corsair fleet appeared off the fortified coast of Malta and attacked the crusader stronghold. Murat’s corsair compatriots rescued him, led by the ruler of Tunis who brought him back to his home in the Maghreb.
Murat received a high honor upon his return. Morocco’s sultan appointed him the governor of the coastal town of Oualidia on the Safi coastline. Later that same year, a Dutch consul arrived in Morocco, bringing along Murat’s estranged Dutch daughter. Murat received them after earning the honor of representing the Moroccan sultan in the diplomatic talks.
Years of mistreatment in Malta’s dungeons had left Murat in poor physical condition. The dangerous ventures of a pirate had become too much and he retired from public life. He lived the remainder of his life in Morocco, which had become his adopted home.
His Moorish-Dutch descendants would carry the name “Van Salee” (of Sale) for centuries after his passing. Two of his sons emigrated to New Amsterdam, current-day New York, and are the ancestors of prominent Americans such as the Vanderbilt family, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Humphrey Bogart.
His brutal acts as a pirate, his diplomacy as a Moroccan dignitary, and his love for his new religion and adopted culture marked Murat Reis’ life. Some in Europe see Murat as a traitor who abandoned his roots and robbed and enslaved Europeans. To me, he is a four-centuries-old example of the connections between nations and the fluidity of one’s culture and heritage.
Moroccan-Dutch playwright Karim el Guennouni immortalized the life of Murat in the 2009 play “Jan Janszoon, the Blonde Arab.” Reis served as the inspiration for the 2007 humorous children’s poem “Bad Grandpa: The Ballad of Murat the Captain.” Moroccan-Dutch author Abdelkader Benali has argued for a statue of Reis in the Netherlands, and will publish his story as part of the upcoming Dutch “Month of History” in October.
Just like Murat, I arrived on the coast of Morocco seeking economic opportunities and a new life away from the Netherlands. And just like him I feel the connection with a new adopted homeland. For a Dutch immigrant like myself, and Moroccan-Dutch people living in Europe, Murat Reis can be a poignant reminder that we are all not so different after all.
Our roots are intertwined, just like our future is bound to be.