Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

The Invasion of Africa

As Italy was invaded by Gonsalvo de Cordova, the Great Captain, so Africa was invaded by Cardinal Ximenes, the Great Churchman, one of the ablest men who ever appeared in Spain, despite the fact that he made a dreadful bonfire of thousands of Arabian manuscripts in the great square of Granada. The greater part of these were copies of the Koran, but many of them were of high scientific and literary value, and impossible to replace. Yet, while thus engaged in a work fitted for an unlettered barbarian, Ximenes was using his large revenues to found the University of Alcala, the greatest educational institution in Spain, and was preparing his famous polyglot Bible, for which the rarest manuscripts were purchased, without regard to cost, that the Scriptures might be shown at one view in their various ancient languages. To indicate the cost of this work, it is said that he paid four thousand golden crowns for seven manuscripts, which came too late to be of use in the work. It is strange, under these circumstances, that he failed to preserve the valuable part of the Arabian manuscripts.

The vast labors undertaken by Ximenes at home did not keep him from enterprises abroad. He was filled with a burning zeal for the propagation of the Catholic faith, formed plans for a crusade to the Holy Land, and organized a remarkably successful expedition against the Moslems of Africa. It is of the latter that we desire to speak.

Soon after the death of Isabella, Mazalquivir, a nest of pirates on the Barbary coast, had been captured by an expedition organized by the energetic Ximenes. He quickly set in train a more difficult enterprise, one directed against Oran, a Moorish city of twenty thousand inhabitants, strongly fortified, with a large commerce, and the haunt of a swarm of piratical cruisers. The Spanish king had no money and little heart for this enterprise, but that did not check the enthusiastic cardinal, who offered to loan all the sums needed, and to take full charge of the expedition, leading it himself, if the king pleased. Ferdinand made no objection to this, being quite willing to make conquests at some one else's expense, and the cardinal set to work.

It is not often that an individual can equip an army, but Ximenes had a great income of his own and had the resources of the Church at his back. By the close of the spring of 1509 he had made ready a fleet of ten galleys and eighty smaller vessels, and assembled an army of four thousand horse and ten thousand foot, fully supplied with provisions and military stores for a four months' campaign. Such was the energy and activity of a man whose life, until a few years before, had been spent in the solitude of the cloister and in the quiet practices of religion, and who was now an infirm invalid of more than seventy years of age.

The nobles thwarted his plans, and mocked at the idea of "a monk fighting the battles of Spain." The soldiers had little taste for fighting under a father of the Church, "while the Great Captain was left to stay at home and count his beads like a hermit." The king threw cold water on the enterprise. But the spirit and enthusiasm of the old monk triumphed over them all, and on the 16th of May the fleet weighed anchor, reaching the port of Mazalquivir on the following day. Oran, the goal of the expedition, lay about a league away.

As soon as the army was landed and drawn up in line, Ximenes mounted his mule and rode along its front, dressed in his priestly robes, but with a sword by his side. A group of friars followed, also with monastic garbs and weapons of war. The cardinal, ascending a rising ground, made an animated address to the soldiers, rousing their indignation by speaking of the devastation of the coast of Spain by the Moslems, and awakening their cupidity by dwelling on the golden spoil to be found in the rich city of Oran. He concluded by saying that he had come to peril his own life in the service of the cross and lead them in person to battle.

The officers now crowded around the warlike old monk and earnestly begged him not to expose his sacred person to the hazards of the fight, saying that his presence would do more harm than good, as the men might be distracted from the work before them by attending to his personal safety. This last argument moved the warlike cardinal, who, with much reluctance, consented to keep in the rear and leave the command of the army to its military leader, Count Pedro Navarro.

The day was now far advanced. Beacon-fires on the hill-tops showed that the country was in alarm. Dark groups of Moorish soldiers could be seen on the summit of the ridge that lay between Oran and Mazalquivir, and which it would be necessary to take before the city could be reached. The men were weary with the labors of landing, and needed rest and refreshment, and Navarro deemed it unsafe to attempt anything more that day; but the energetic prelate bade him "to go forward in God's name," and orders to advance were at once given.

Silently the Spanish troops began to ascend the steep sides of the acclivity. Fortunately for them, a dense mist had arisen, which rolled down the skirts of the hills and filled the valley through which they moved. As soon as they left its cover and were revealed to the Moors a shower of balls and arrows greeted them, followed by a desperate charge down the hill. But the Spanish infantry, with their deep ranks and long pikes, moved on unbroken by the assault, while Navarro opened with a battery of heavy guns on the flank of the enemy.

Thrown into disorder by the deadly volleys, the Moors began to give ground, and, pressed upon heavily by the Spanish spearsmen, soon broke into flight. The Spaniards hotly pursued, breaking rank in their eagerness in a way that might have proved fatal but for the panic of the Moors, who had lost all sense of discipline. The hill-top was reached, and down its opposite slope poured the Spaniards, driving the fleeing Moors. Not far before them rose the walls of Oran. The fleet had anchored before the city and was vigorously cannonading it, being answered with equal spirit by sixty pieces of artillery on the fortifications. Such were the excitement and enthusiasm of the soldiers that they forgot weariness and disregarded obstacles. In swift pursuit they followed the scattering Moors, and in a brief time were close to the walls, defended by a deeply discouraged garrison.

The Spaniards had brought few ladders, but in the intense excitement and energy of the moment no obstacle deterred them. Planting their long pikes against the walls, or thrusting them into the crevices between the stones, they clambered up with remarkable dexterity,—a feat which they were utterly unable to repeat the next day, when they tried it in cold blood.

A weak defence was made, and the ramparts soon swarmed with Spanish soldiers. Sousa, the captain of the cardinal's guard, was the first to gain the summit, where he unfurled the banner of Ximenes,—the cross on one side and the cardinal's arms on the other. Six other banners soon floated from the walls, and the soldiers, leaping down into the streets, gained and threw open the gates. In streamed the army, sweeping all opposition before it. Resistance and flight were alike unavailing. Houses and mosques were tumultuously entered, no mercy being shown, no regard for age or sex, the soldiers abandoning themselves to the brutal license and ferocity common to the wars of that epoch.

Liberation of Captives of Oran


In vain Navarro sought to check his brutal troops; they were beyond control; the butchery never ceased until, gorged with the food and wine found in the houses, the worn-out soldiers flung themselves down in the streets and squares to sleep. Four thousand Moors had been slain in the brief assault, and perhaps twice that number were taken prisoners. The city of Oran, that morning an opulent and prosperous community, was at night a ruined and captive city, with its ferocious conquerors sleeping amidst their slaughtered victims.

It was an almost incredible victory, considering the rapidity with which it had been achieved. On the morning of the 16th the fleet of transports had set sail from Spain. On the night of the 17th the object of the expedition was fully accomplished, the army being in complete possession of Oran, a strongly manned and fortified city, taken almost without loss. Ximenes, to whose warlike enthusiasm this remarkable victory was wholly due, embarked in his galley the next morning and sailed along the city's margin, his soul swelling with satisfaction at his wonderful success. On landing, the army hailed him as the true victor of Oran, a wave of acclamations following him as he advanced to the alcazar, where the keys of the fortress were put into his hands. A few hours after the surrender of the city a powerful reinforcement arrived for its relief, but on learning of its loss the disconcerted Moors retired. Had the attack been deferred to the next day, as Navarro proposed, it would probably have failed. The people of Spain ascribed the victory to inspiration from heaven; but the only inspiration lay in the impetuous energy and enthusiasm of the cardinal. Yet at that period it was by no means uncommon to invent stories of miracles, and it is soberly asserted that the sun stood still for several hours while the action went on, Heaven repeating the miracle of Joshua, and halting the solar orb in its career, that more of the heathen might be slaughtered. The greatest miracle of all would have been had the sun stood still nowhere else than over the fated city of Oran.

It may not be amiss to add to this narrative an account of a second expedition against Africa, made by Charles V. some thirty years later, in which Heaven failed to come to the aid of Spain, and whose termination was as disastrous as that of the expedition of Ximenes had been fortunate.

It was the city of Algiers that Charles set out to reduce, and, though the season was late and it was the time of the violent autumnal winds, he persisted in his purpose in spite of the advice of experienced mariners. The expedition consisted of twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse, with a large body of noble volunteers. The storms came as promised and gave the army no small trouble in its voyage, but at length, with much difficulty and danger, the troops were landed on the coast near Algiers and advanced at once upon the town.

Hascan, the Moorish leader, had only about six thousand men to oppose to the large Spanish army, and had little hope of a successful resistance by force of arms. But in this case Heaven—if we admit its interference at all—came to the aid of the Moors. On the second day after landing, and before operations had fairly begun, the clouds gathered and the skies grew threatening. Towards evening rain began to fall and a fierce wind arose. During the night a violent tempest swept the camp, and the soldiers, who were without tents or shelter of any kind, were soon in a deplorable state. Their camp, which was in a low situation, was quickly overflowed by the pouring rains, and the ground became ankle deep in mud. No one could lie down, while the wind blew so furiously that they could only stand by thrusting their spears into the ground and clinging to them. About day-dawn they were attacked by the vigilant Hascan, and a considerable number of them killed before the enemy was forced to retire.

Bad as the night had been, the day proved more disastrous still. The tempest continued, its force increasing, and the sea, roused to its utmost fury by the winds, made sad havoc of the ships. They were torn from their anchorage, flung violently together, beat to pieces on the rocks, and driven ashore, while many sank bodily in the waves. In less than an hour fifteen war-vessels and a hundred and forty transports were wrecked and eight thousand men had perished, those of the crews who reached shore being murdered by the Moors as soon as they touched land.

It was with anguish and astoundment that the emperor witnessed this wreck of all his hopes, the great stores which he had collected for subsistence and military purposes being in one fatal hour buried in the depths of the sea. At length the wind began to fall, and some hopes arose that vessels enough might have escaped to carry the distressed army back to Europe. But darkness was again at hand, and a second night of suspense and misery was passed. In the morning a boat reached land with a messenger from Andrew Doria, the admiral of the fleet, who sent word that in fifty years of maritime life he had never seen so frightful a storm, and that he had been forced to bear away with his shattered ships to Cape Metafuz, whither he advised the emperor to march with all speed, as the skies were still threatening and the tempest might be renewed.

The emperor was now in a fearful quandary. Metafuz was at least three days' march away. All the food that had been brought ashore was consumed. The soldiers, worn out with fatigue, were in no condition for such a journey. Yet it was impossible to stay where they were. There was no need of deliberation; no choice was left; their only hope of safety lay in instant movement.

The sick, wounded, and feeble were placed in the centre, the stronger in front and rear, and the disastrous march began. Some of the men could hardly bear the weight of their arms; others, worn out with toiling through the nearly impassable roads, lay down and died; many perished from hunger and exhaustion, there being no food but roots and berries gathered by the way and the flesh of horses killed by the emperor's order; many were drowned in the streams, swollen by the severe rains; many were killed by the enemy, who followed and harassed them throughout the march. The late gallant army was a bedraggled and miserable fragment when the survivors at length reached Metafuz. Fortunately the storm was at an end, and they were able to obtain from the ships the provisions of which they stood so sorely in need.

The calamities which attended this unluckly expedition were not yet at an end. No sooner had the soldiers embarked than a new storm arose, less violent than the former, but sufficient to scatter the ships to right and left, some making port in Spain, some in Italy, all seeking such harbors of refuge as they could find. The emperor, after passing through great perils, was driven to the port of Bugia in Africa, where contrary winds held him prisoner for several weeks. He at length reached Spain, to find the whole land in dismay at the fate of the gallant expedition, which had set out with such high hopes of success. To the end of his reign Charles V. had no further aspirations for conquest in Africa.