Pirates, captivity and Leo's voyage to Italy

"During the reign of Pope Leo X, he was made captive on the Island of Djerba by Corsairs. They brought him to Rome and gave him to his excellency the Pope, who recognized his knowledge in geographic matters and understood that he had already written a book which he carried with him. The Pope welcomed him warmly, praised him greatly and provided him with ample benefits to keep him from leaving". (Ramusio,in Epaulard, XVI)

According to Ramusio, his first biographer, Leo was made captive by 'corsairs' on the Island of Djerba, off the Tunisian coast. "'Corsairs'" were 'legitimate' pirates, affiliated to different rulers in the Muslim and Christian world, to whom they paid a tribute for the right to practice piracy against enemy vessels. 'Corsairs' captured both goods and men, which they sold in auctions in their home port.

While Leo may have been made captive, he was probably not imprisoned on the island of Djerba, as he does not mention this event in his description of the island, nor does he even allude to the corsair activities which Djerba was indeed notorious for. This silence is quite unusual given his tendency to personalize all places he describes with stories of his passage there and the scenes he witnessed. In addition Djerba was famed for its Muslim pirates, and not for its Christian ones- and Muslim pirates never took Muslim captives for slaves. Christians pirates on the other hand were constantly looking for Muslim captives to staff their galleys with a sufficient number of rowers. This was of particular concern to 'Corsairs' of the time, as rowers had a very low life expectancy, due to the dire misery of their condition.

This need for 'cheap' and dispensable labor was so acute that pirates and corsairs were willing to undertake risky land attacks to capture enough slaves. In the mid 16th century, there are at least two instances of Christian piracy attacks on Muslim lands or harbored ships for the sake of capturing slaves. The first was in 1552 against Zouara, east of Tripoli; 1500 people were made captive. The second was in 1555 , when Maltese Corsairs took hold of two Muslim ships off the coast of Tripoli. Here again, several hundreds of people were made prisoners and sold as slaves. (For more on this see Salvatore Bono, Les 'Corsairs' en Mediterranee, Editions la Porte; translated from Italian, p 171).

The following is a description of such an attack (see Salvatore Bono, Les 'Corsairs' en Mediterranee, Editions la Porte; translated from Italian, p 174):

"We arrived near the coast that evening; we crept up to shore as the day broke, quickly bringing light to the land. Our general ordered that we wear turbans around our heads, so as to pass for Morato Rais' men, which we succeeded in doing. We had also raised the Turkish flag on our ship and played the drums and flutes in Turkish manner. We were thus able to anchor our ships near the coast. The town's inhabitants all came to great us, men, women and even children. We were 300 men ready to disembark. We acted swiftly, broke through the gates and took hold of the city. We captured all women and children and the few men who had not fled; we pillaged the city which had little to give, as these people were miserable and poor. Along with the goods we left with 700 souls".

But Leo was probably not made captive in such a land raid, just as he was probably not made captive off of Djerba. Recent scholarship has shown that contrary to what was believed during the past 4 centuries, Leo was not victim of a vulgar raid in the pirate infested Mediterranean waters, but rather the very dignified captive of an Order of Malta Ship (at the time the Order of Malta was more commonly called by their residence of the time- Order of Rhodes- or their original name- the Order of Saint John). Captained by the noble Pietro Bodiviglia, brother of the Bishop of Salamanqua, and Knight of Malta, the ship that lay its hands on Leo was actually sailing the Greek waters when they found their precious prey. For Leo was not coming home from Egypt (as was commonly believed), but from Constantinople, where he may have been leading an embassy on behalf of the Sultan of Fes to the great Ottoman empire.

In his 2000 book on Leo and the Sudan, D. Rauchenberger gives a compelling presentation of this new captivity scenario, even finding Italian diaries and testimonies relating Leo's arrival in Rome. For the "Turk's" ( as he and most Muslims were called) entrance into the Pope's life was greatly publicized at the time. So one Italian wrote:

"scrive e zonto de li dom pietro bovilla stato corsaro fradello di lo Episcopo di Salamanqua venuto perche il Papa lo absolvi a portato a donar al papa alcuni mori presiza piu mezi tra liqual E uno orator dil re di tremissen stato al Signor Turcho et altri cardinali a donato di mori il Papa la fato meter in castellano lanno. Examinato dice era stato al Signor Turco ad alegrarsi di la vittoria di la Soria et Egypto et retornava al suo re E fo preso li e sta trovato alcune scriture il Papa vol farle tradur... (in Rauchenberger, p60)

Leo's fate as a captive is the ultimate proof of his sophistication, education and noble lineage. Without these attributes he would have never been brought to the Pope. This was not uncommon with dignitary and educated captives as they were usually set aside for ransom, on the assumption that their families were wealthy enough to pay. Yet, Leo's captivity seems to be a bit more unusual than these common transactions of 'valuable' slaves. Were we to believe to Italian who wrote about Leo's entrance into Rome, Leo was so precious that he could earn a ruthless corsair Papal absolution.... Some even say that the gift was remembered when the next Pope (Clement VII) had to find a new home from the Knights of St. John (who were given the island of Malta and came to be known as the Knights of Malta).