Murat Rais (c. 1570 – c. 1641) was the adopted name of Jan Janszoon, a Dutch Barbary corsair and one of the most famous of the notorious Salé Rovers. He is often referred to as Murat Rais “the younger” to distinguish him from an earlier corsair of the same name. Rais (or ‘Reis’ as it is usually spelled in the novel) means captain. In the novel, Slave to Fortune, he is the leader of the crew of corsairs who kidnap Tom – the central character – from his home at the start of the book.
The real Murat Reis
Jan Janszoon was born in Haarlem, in the Republic of the Netherlands. Little is known of his early life, except that he married Soutgen Cave in 1595 and had two children with her, Edward and Lysbeth.
In 1600, Jan Janszoon began as a Dutch privateer sailing from his home port, Haarlem. He was working for the state with licence to harass Spanish shipping during the Eighty Years War. In pursuit of greater riches, Janszoon breached the terms of his licence and relocated to the port states of the Barbary Coast of North Africa, from where he could attack ships of every foreign state using whatever flag served his current purpose. During this period he abandoned his Dutch family and married again resulting in several children (see below).
Janszoon was captured in 1618 at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands by Barbary corsairs and taken to Algiers as a captive. There he ‘turned Turk’ or Muslim (many Europeans at the time erroneously referred to all Muslims as “Turks”). The Ottoman Empire (ruled by the Sultan in Istanbul) encouraged the Barbary port states to undertake piracy against the European powers. After Janszoon’s conversion to Islam, he sailed with the famous corsair Suleiman Rais (also originally a Dutchman named De Veenboer). When Algiers concluded peace with several European nations, it was no longer a suitable harbour from which to sell captured booty. After Suleiman Rais was killed in 1619, Janszoon moved to the port of Salé and began operating from there as the captain of his own ship as one of the notorious Salé Rovers.
In 1619,the Salé Rovers declared the port to be an independent republic, free from the Sultan. They set up a government that consisted of fourteen pirate leaders and elected Janszoon as their President. He would also serve as the Grand Admiral of their navy. Under Janszoon’s leadership, business in Salé thrived and he became rich. In 1622, Janszoon and his crew sailed into the English Channel and docked under the Moroccan flag at the port of Veere in the Dutch Republic, claiming diplomatic privileges from his official role as Admiral of Morocco (which was then at peace with the Dutch Republic). During his time in Veere, the Dutch authorities brought Janszoon’s Dutch first wife and his Dutch children to him to persuade him to give up piracy but he declined. Janszoon left port with many new Dutch volunteers.
When the political climate in Salé worsened toward the end of 1627, Janszoon quietly moved his family and his entire piratical operation back to semi-independent Algiers.
Murat Rais and his crew undertook a number of infamous raids. In 1627 Janszoon captured the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel and held it for five years, using it as a base for raiding expeditions.
Also in 1627, Barbary corsairs from Algiers and Salé undertook two raids in Iceland, taking around 400–900 prisoners. This event is known in Iceland as Tyrkjaránið – the ‘Turkish Raid’. Four ships attacked the eastern and southern coast as well as the Vestmannaeyjar (“Westman Islands”). Murat Rais appears to have been the leader of the raids and was certainly commanding the first raid on Grindavík, where they captured twelve Icelanders and three Danes. As they were leaving Grindavík, they managed to trick and capture a Danish merchant ship by flying a false flag. His ships then sailed to Bessastaðir, seat of the Danish governor of Iceland, but were unable to land – they were thwarted by cannon fire from the local fortifications and a quickly mustered local militia. They sailed home to Salé, where their captives were sold as slaves.
The second group of raiders came to Hvalsnes in Southeastern Iceland on July 4 and raided the fjords north of there for a week, capturing livestock, silver and other goods, in addition to 110 Icelanders. They also captured and sank a Danish merchant ship and captured an English fishing vessel. On July 16 they arrived at Vestmannaeyjar. They raided the village capturing 234 people and killing 34, including one of the ministers of the island. The other minister, Ólafur Egilsson, was enslaved by the corsairs and taken to Algiers. However, he was later sent back to Copenhagen to plead for a ransom from the King of Denmark to free his Icelandic subjects in Algiers. Ólafur later wrote a detailed account of his experience.
Accounts by enslaved Icelanders who spent time on the corsair ships claimed that the conditions for women and children were humane, in that they were permitted to move throughout the ship, except to the quarter deck. The pirates gave extra food to the children from their own rations, and a woman who gave birth on board was treated with dignity, being afforded privacy and clothing by the pirates. The men were put in the hold of the ships, and had their chains removed once the ships were far enough from land.
In 1631, Murat Rais was responsible for the sack of Baltimore in Ireland. One of his previous Irish captives, a Roman Catholic named John Hackett, provided him with the intelligence to attack the small Protestant town of Baltimore, whose residents had settled on lands confiscated from the Catholic O’Driscoll clan. Murat Rais sacked Baltimore on June 20, capturing 108 people and taking them away to slavery in North Africa. Shortly after the sack, Hackett was arrested and hanged for his crime. Only two of the Baltimore residents ever returned home.
Capture by Knights of the Order of St John and Escape
In 1635, near the Tunisian coast, Murat Rais was surprised and outnumbered in a sudden attack by Knights from the Order of St John. He and many of his crew were captured. Murat Rais spent the next five years imprisoned in Malta, during which his health deteriorated. In 1640 he escaped after a corsair attack, which was carefully planned by the Dey of Tunis in order to rescue the corsairs. Murat Rais was greatly honoured upon his return to the Barbary States and appointed Governor of the great fortress of Oualidia, near Safi in Morocco.
In December, 1640, Lysbeth Janszoon van Haarlem, Janszoon’s daughter by his first Dutch wife, visited him and stayed with her father until August 1641, when she returned to Holland. Little is known of Murat Rais thereafter, though he established an important legacy through his descendants.
In addition to his first Dutch wife, Murat Rais also married a woman thought to have been named Margrietje c. 1600. They had four children:
- Anthony Jansen Van Salee
- Abraham Jansen Van Salee
- Phillip Janz Van Salee
- Cornelis Jansen Van Salee
It is speculated that Murat Rais may have married for a third time, to the daughter of Sutlan Moulay Ziden in 1624.
Through his son Anthony, who went on to be a major landowner in the founding days of New York City, Murat Rais has descendants today in some pre-eminent British and American families. His descendants in the USA include members of the Vanderbilt family and Jackie Kennedy (and hence her children with John F Kennedy) and in the UK, the Spencer-Churchills (Dukes of Marlborough etc). See the separate post of particular areas of interest for American readers for more information on Murat’s high-profile American descendants.
If you’d like to read about what Murat Rais gets up to in the novel then check out the first chapter for free.