A number of letters concerning the Tyrkjaránið, the ‘Turkish’ pirate raid of 1627, have survived. Most were written by captives and sent from the ‘Barbari’ (i.e., the Barbary Coast of North Africa) to family and friends back in Iceland; one letter is a chronicle of the raid pieced together from the eyewitness accounts of people who managed to evade capture. An excerpt from this letter appears first below. It is followed by an excerpt from a letter by Guttormur Hallsson, a farmer from eastern Iceland.
Not only are letters like these a valuable source of added detail, both about the Tyrkjaránið itself and about conditions in the Barbari but they also give modern readers a compelling firsthand glimpse into the human cost of the event.
Letter by Klaus Eyjólfsson
— The chronicle of Klaus Eyjólfsson, member of the Lögretta [the Legislature of the Icelandic Commonwealth], concerning the incursions which the Turkish made on the Westman Islands from the 17th to the 19th of July 1627
Of the origins of the Turkish expedition, I cannot myself accurately or truthfully write. But some of those who escaped captivity maintain that two Lords of the Turkish empire made a bet with each other, one wagering against the other that it would not be possible to get even the smallest stone out of Iceland, much less a man. Because of this wager, the expedition was prepared and equipped, and twelve ships were sent to Iceland to capture as many people as possible and bring them back unharmed, for it is said that even one infant could fetch as much as three dollars in Algeria…
When the Turkish pirates first came ashore on the island of Heimaey, they scattered around all the island so that nobody should escape. When they came to the town, they drove livestock and everything before them to the Danish houses at the harbour. That part of their force which, on the way to the town, came to Landakirkja church, surrounded the church, shooting and hewing at it with axes until they broke in. First they stole the vestments and dressed themselves up. Then they trooped away from there, driving everyone they captured towards the Danish houses. Those who could not move as fast as the pirates wished, they beat to death and left lying behind. So bloodthirsty were they, that they turned back to hack and strike the dead for the sick pleasure of it — as will be described more precisely.
In the inhabited district, they came to Ofanleiti steading. There they captured the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, along with two maidservants and a baby. When the priest tried to resist, they kicked him and struck him. As he comforted himself, and said that such things he would not have to suffer in another world, they became furious and beat him and his children violently towards the Danish houses. Before they left Ofanleiti, they first went to Ofanleiti farmstead, where they sought so closely for captives that they lit torches and searched in every house. When they found one old woman hiding atop a pile of firewood, they lit a fire and pulled her off and brought her to Ofanleiti, where they left her lying on the grassy slope in front of the farmhouse while they continued to search round about.
When the eleven-year-old son of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson came by, all unsuspecting, to see his parents, the pirates captured him at once and tied his arms behind his back. He, too, was left outside the farmhouse. The boy asked the old woman to untie him, but she said that she did not dare to do it. When the Turks came out from searching the farmhouse, they checked to see if he was still tied. They had taken two other children of about six years old, whom Reverend Ólafur had taken in. When all this was done, they drove everyone, children and adults, towards the Danish houses.
Then they began to set fire to the house. There was a woman there who could not walk, whom they had captured easily. Her they threw on the fire, along with her two-year-old baby. When she and the poor child screamed and called to God for help, the wicked Turkish bellowed with laughter. They stuck both child and mother with the sharp points of their spears, forcing them into the fire, and even stabbed fiercely at the poor, burning bodies.
The Turkish searched in every corner and in every hole. They rooted about everywhere, like boars, and no rock or cliff stopped them, as the following example proves.
Using ropes, they climbed up to the caves where the fishermen kept their fish, a height of no less one hundred fathoms. From those caves, they fetched women and children and made them climb down. Those whom they could not capture without a problem, they shot to death. Some of those whom they shot fell from the caves a hundred fathoms, some sixty, some were left where they had been shot, looking as though they were alive.
Among those who crossed the path of the pirates was a man named Bjarni Valdason, who tried to run away. They struck him across the head above the eyes and killed him. When his wife, who had been fleeing with him, saw this, she at once fell across his body, screaming. The Turkish took her by her feet and dragged her away, so that the cloth of her dress came up over the head. Her dead husband they cut into small pieces, as if he were a sheep. They took the woman to the Danish houses and threw her in with the other prisoners.
They also chased a pregnant woman who ran away from them as fast as she could, until she lost her baby and fell down dead, the two parts of her separated.
The other priest who lived on the Islands, the Reverend Pastor Jón, fled with his family, wife and daughter, sons and servants, to seek refuge in his house. He started to read to his people from scripture, to comfort them. But as he was doing this, he heard the pirates’ footsteps and said to his wife, “They are come, Margaret.” As they were talking, the bloodthirsty pirates entered the house. When they saw the Reverend Jón, one of the pirates said, “Why are you not home in your church?” Jón replied, “I have been there this morning.” The pirate said, “You will not be there tomorrow.” He then struck poor Jón a blow across the head. Reverend Jón stretched out his arms and cried, “I recommend me to my God!” The pirate struck him again, and Jón said, “I commit me to my Lord Jesu Christo!” His wife crept to the feet of the murdering pirate and held fast to him, thinking that she could sway him from his violence. But there was no mercy. The pirate struck a third blow, and Reverend Jón said, “It is enough! Lord Jesu, receive my spirit!” and died. Then the pirates drove the people to the Danish houses. But one small hole was up in the rock above where this happened. Two women hid themselves there, and they heard and saw all these tidings...
Letter by Guttormur Hallsson
— Letter written by Guttormur Hallsson, delivered from the Barbari to Iceland Anno 1631
…I now wish, in a few brief lines, to make known to you how I and my fellow countrymen have fared until now.
As you know, I was captured and taken from my native soil on the 6th day of July, in the year of our Lord 1627. After the Turkish pirates had gathered up me and my poor fellows, they sailed to the south and the Westman Islands, where they viciously attacked the inhabitants, like bloodthirsty wolves overrunning carrion. They burnt the buildings, tortured and killed many of the people, and took away all the captives they could, like cruel hunting hounds. But you no doubt know all about this, for these terrible events must be common knowledge in Iceland by now.
From the Westman Islands, the Turkish pirates put to sea on the 20th of July, and both the mainland of Iceland and islands disappeared behind us.
There were three ships, with a total of 400 Icelandic people onboard. We had following winds both night and day for over three weeks, until we came here to this alien land on the 12th of August. The name for this country is Arabia. The part where we were taken is known as Barbari. The town where I am is called Arigiel or Arsiel [Algiers].
During the voyage here, we had a miserable and wretched time. We Icelanders were tossed about from one place to another, and each had almost to lie atop another in the ballast. The ship I was on seemed to hold a hundred people, both young and old. Such a wailing and lamenting was to be heard from the poor souls as would have amazed you. Two women passed away on that ship: the wife of Rafn and a woman from Gautavík. The pirates hurled an old woman from Búlandsness alive into the sea. Two more people died upon arrival here at the Barbari. Two others of those captured with me also have died: Reverend Jón and Katrín. But others of his people live. Of the rest that I know about (with the exception of Jón Egilsson and Jón the carpenter), few of those captured in the east of Iceland have died. But God alone knows what they have suffered.
We spent an entire week, after our arrival at Algiers, imprisoned there. Crowds of people came to see us, for to them we were a rare type of people. Many of the heathen women there, both black and white, had pity on us, shaking their heads and shedding tears. Some of them gave the children bread; some gave small coins. Thereafter, we were little by little brought out to the marketplace, as sheep are sold.
The first choice went to the King. By tradition, he owns the right to an eighth part of those captured. After that, the remaining prisoners were led to the street in the market where Christian captives are sold. But nobody there wanted to buy, because they thought we were a foolish, weak, and ignorant people. Moreover, we did not have any skills for the hard labour which this land demands. Also, they knew, which is very true, that nobody would trouble to buy us from here, because they would not find any silver for ransom payments in our poor home country, and so we would be obliged to live here all our lives and be their slaves until our deaths. They call us ‘bestial’. But we know more than they, God be thanked.
We were sold and separated from each other with many a sorrowful cry and scream of pain, so that no one knew what had happen to another until time had passed and people gradually became acquainted with what had gone on and where everybody was.
There is a great difference here between masters. Some captive slaves get good, gentle, or in-between masters, but some unfortunates find themselves with savage, cruel, hardhearted tyrants, who never stop treating them badly, and who force them to labour and toil with scanty clothing and little food, bound in iron fetters, from morning till night. Many have had to endure unfair beatings. God in heaven alone knows all that we Christian people have had to suffer here in this terrible place at the hands of these vicious criminals. I will say no more of this now. Our Lord knows of the wickedness that transpires in this town. There is nothing here except fear and fright, grumbling and quarrel, murder and manslaughter, haughtiness and arrogance and demoniacal possession, day after day…