The 1627 Turkish Raid on Iceland

In 1627 corsairs from Salé and Algiers made their «Longest Voyage»: they ventured into the Atlantic. There, they captured fishing and merchant vessels, raided the coasts of English and Irish islands and villages, and finally sailed all the way to Iceland

Þorsteinn Helgason
University of Iceland

Spanish version

Westman Islands, Iceland. Author: Bultro. Wikimedia Commons.

The Course of Events

The far edges of Europe —Iceland in the north and the Mediterranean in the south— came together in a violent clash in the year 1627. Through a combination of advanced sailing techniques, political manoeuvrings, and opportunity, corsairs from Salé (Morocco) and Algiers set sail for Iceland in the early summer of 1627. Once there, they raided the coasts of the southwest, the Westman Islands off the southern coast, and the East Fjords.

The corsairs of Salé went first, in a single boat. They cunningly raided a small trading post called Grindavik, capturing some 30 people, mostly Icelanders and a few Danes, plus a Dutchman or two, and two merchant ships. One was given as a reward to the English seamen who had helped with the raid. One elderly Icelander was released, and one who put up resistance was mortally wounded.

After this successful raid, the corsairs rounded the peninsula of Reykjanes and prepared to attack Bessastadir, the temporary seat of the Danish governor, who at the time was a professional captain in the Royal Navy. There were a number of people gathered at the residence on official duty. The captain ordered some defensive measures, mostly as a simulation intended to be seen from a distance by the would-be attackers. The ruse worked, aided by the fact that one of the corsair ships ran aground on a reef. When at last the ship managed to get loose, the corsairs left and finally went back to Salé to sell their human cargo in the slave market.

Sites of events, legends and place names connected with the Turkish Raid in the East Fjord. Source: Þorsteinn Helgason, The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage: The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627, Leiden: Brill, 2018.

A month later, two corsair ships from Algiers appeared in the East Fjords. They succeeded in deception at first, but then turned violent and went from farm to farm capturing people, while killing and injuring others. In all they secured 110 captives and inflicted nine casualties. Most of the inhabitants, however, managed to flee.

The corsairs now headed west, assisted by a third vessel which had been delayed in coming. The target was the Westman Islands, where the population was among the densest in Iceland, but had no towns as such, or even villages. The islanders were easy prey; however, a Danish merchant group and a captain narrowly escaped to the mainland in rowboats, and quite a few inhabitants managed to hide in the cliffs and caves of the small island. The result was 234 captives and 34 dead, according to the Icelandic scribes. The corsairs burnt down the island’s church, captured one of the two pastors, Ólafur Egilsson, and killed the other, who since then has been known as “Jón píslarvottur,” Jón the Martyr.

Captivity and Release

The captives of the second corsair raid were sold in the markets of Algiers to different masters, some harsh and some mild. The pastor from the Westman Islands was soon released and ordered to meet his ruler, the Danish King, and ask him for ransom. Pastor Ólafur was a resilient and charming person and travelled through Europe in the midst of the Thirty Years War until he reached Copenhagen. Unfortunately, the coffers of his king were empty after losing a war against the Catholic Imperial Army. Pastor Ólafur sailed to Iceland and wrote a chronicle of his experiences, which spread around the country in handwritten copies. This was a common way of transmitting stories and news since printing was more expensive.

Cover of the printed edition of Ólafur Egilsson’s book, 1741. Internet Archive.

This Danish translation seems to have had little impact or diffusion, however, by copying by hand the Travelogue spread around Iceland the next centuries. Above is one page of the close to 40 copies still preserved.

Gradually, once the Danish Realm had regained control of its territories and had some money back in the state coffers, the ransoming of the poor souls in Barbary came back onto the agenda. King and Church worked on the mission, and money was collected in the countries of the Realm: Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. Denmark had hardly any experience in the Mediterranean, so the “merchants of the world,” i.e., the Dutch, were called upon to help negotiate terms for the captives’ release and return. Of the almost 400 persons captured, 35 were ransomed by official means, after seven or eight years in captivity and slavery. Many of the original captives had died early on of diseases to which they had no immunity, or had converted to Islam, willingly or not. A few had regained their freedom by their own means or with the help of Dutch merchants. Another eight years later —a full sixteen years after the raid— a new opportunity opened up for the Danish authorities to ransom anyone who was still alive and had remained steadfast in their faith. Eight individuals were bought out, among them one Barbara with her three children, a rare occasion. They finally made it to Copenhagen in 1645. In comparison to other countries, the ransom rate is not the worst —one percent of the captives, who in turn amounted to around one percent of the population of Iceland. Similar raids were conducted on the Faroe Islands in 1629 and Baltimore, Ireland, two years later, without a single captive being freed, as far as is recorded in the documents.

For the people of Iceland, city life in Morocco and Algeria was a totally new experience. Being captives, slaves, or freedmen was an experience enough, not to mention that simply moving for the first time through a dense urban environment with a variety of social classes, occupations, and languages was intriguing and frightening for many. One of the captives wrote in Algiers to his relatives and friends in 1631:

Here are numerous people present together, first the Turkish race, then the Moorish and the black people, each with a peculiar language. Then the Jewish people and those who previously were Christian and now converted. Item the Christian captives from all countries known and recognisable, especially many hundreds from Spain and France, Germany, England, Holland, and Denmark, Valland [Celtic lands], Greece, India and other small countries, islands, and outskirts. Also, such an abundance of languages which I know nothing of.

The “Moorish” people could be of several kinds. Some had probably moved or fled from Spain, while others could be Moriscos expelled in the purge of 1610 or later. The accounts of the ransoms of 1635-1636 are still preserved, and in them the owners are listed, with names like (in the verbatim spelling), Mamet Chrif andelus, Cassam andelus (twice), and N.N. Moor.


The raid on Iceland in 1627 was initiated in Salé, Morocco, according to my research —which, however, can still be disputed. I even have pinpointed as the “brain” behind the raid one Murad Reis alias Jan Janszoon, born and bred in Harlem in the Netherlands. He was a skilled sailor who, after being captured by Algerian corsairs, took up their customs and converted to Islam. He rose to the rank of corsair captain (reis) and admiral in Salé, also operating in Algiers.

Obviously, Murad Reis acted within a certain atmosphere and political milieu. One strong influence was the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain. The Moors and Moriscos came over in waves, a number of them even before the expulsion of the 1610s. Soon after the decree to expel all the Moriscos, the inhabitants of the village of Hornachos in Extremadura proved a special case. They had secured themselves a quasi-independent status by carrying weapons, speaking Arabic and worshipping Allah, all of which was forbidden in Royal Spain. The village more or less agreed to evacuate and sail to Salé, where they settled in an abandoned castle by the sea, fortified it and furnished it with modern Dutch canons.

A seventeenth-century view of the city of Salé. Gallica.

The Moriscos/Andalusis had reasons to take revenge on Spain, and even try to regain some territory. This was at times in cooperation with the English and Dutch, for whom Spain constituted a common enemy. So, the two great masters of the oceans had a use for Salé, the corsair city which in the autumn of 1627 declared its independence from Royal Morocco amidst internal strife among the Moors, whom the English emissary John Harrison managed to reconcile.

The Salé corsairs —and those of Algeria— continued to raid the coasts of Spain and the Canaries, but in response the latter became more and more defended and fortified, prompting the corsairs to venture into the Atlantic. There, they captured fishing and merchant vessels, raided the coasts of English and Irish islands and villages, and finally sailed all the way to Iceland —“The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage,” as I have titled my book on the subject.


Was the Turkish Raid on Iceland the final revenge of the Moors, an Islamic Jihad into Christian lands, the ultimate gift of the Prophet’s faith to the heretics – or just a business venture? Maybe a bit of each, depending on who had a stake in it. Murad Reis was not the only “renegade” of European Christian origin. Half of the corsair captains were converts of this kind, and brought their skill to the service of the corsair cities of Salé and Algiers. Nonetheless, they were acting on behalf of their municipal authorities, as private enterprises.

All things considered, the raid on Iceland was an anomaly, an aborted enterprise since it did not respect the rules and customs of lawful corsair/privateer activity. For the Icelanders, it was a new reality to reckon with. They had a great deal to learn, even though English pirates and merchants had already wreaked havoc several times —most seriously in the Westman Islands a decade prior. Once, English pirates had gone so far as to take a prominent person hostage and demand ransom money. The 1627 raid, however, was unprecedented.

A Royal letter was written in 1630 suggesting funds be collected for the ransoms, which finally bore fruit as described above. The mental and cultural aspects were important, too. Immediately, literate Icelanders began to write accounts of the raid. An official close to the Westman Islands was the first, followed by pastor Ólafur Egilsson with his travelogue, as mentioned before, and then others, including poets, until finally a comprehensive history of the Turkish Raid was written in 1643.

In 1650, an altarpiece was donated to the church of Kross in the southern district of the mainland, the closest to the Westman Islands. The donors were the first chronicler of the raid and a Danish merchant operating in the Islands, supervising the reconstruction of the church in the Westman Islands which the corsairs had burnt down. After studying its iconography and conducting extensive research, I came to the conclusion that it was an interpretation of the Turkish Raid and in peculiar of the slaying of Jón the Martyr. In Christian biblical terms, the reconstruction was put forward as a form of atonement and reconciliation for the raid and for the death of Jón. The altarpiece was painted in Denmark, but two of Jón the Martyr’s sons probably had a stake in its creation.

Altarpiece of the church of Kross, southern Iceland. Photo: Guðmundur Ingólfsson.

Since the 17th century, there has been a steady flow of creative endeavors addressing the raid. Accounts were first copied by hand and later on printed, poems were written and sung; there were even two attempts to make operas, and there have been multiple historical novels and documentaries. Most recently, a fictionalized TV series is currently under way.

Finally, a personal story is pertinent: that of a young woman by the name of Anna Jasparsdóttir from the Westman Islands. She was captured together with her father, while her husband managed to escape the raid. In Algiers she was purchased by “a Spanish man who had been captured as a young man and was coerced to abandon his popish faith,” as testified by Anna’s father to the bishop upon returning to Iceland. The man’s name was Juss Hamet, in the spelling of the documents. Anna had persuaded him to ransom her father, who turned out to be one of the most expensive. As for Anna, she married her master and went on to have children with him. “God knows he did a good deed towards us,” remarked Anna’s father. Back in Iceland, her former neighbours testified that she had forgone her marriage and faith, so that her former husband could at last remarry. Do we have here a Morisco from Spain and “the queen of Algiers,” as the legend had it in Iceland?

Further reading:

  • Ólafur Egilsson, The travels of reverend Ólafur Egilsson : the Story of the Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland in 1627, translated by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols, Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2016.
  • Þorsteinn Helgason, The Corsairs’ Longest Voyage. The Turkish Raid in Iceland 1627. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2018.
  • Þorsteinn Helgason (script and direction), Atlantic Jihad. TV documentary, Seylan/Avro/TG4, 2003.
  • Þorsteinn Helgason, The Pen and the Borrowed Sword: 500 years of Icelandic defense policy. Scandinavian Journal of History, 33:2, June  2008: 105-121.
  • Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir, L’esclave islandaise. Paris: Gaïa, 2017 (novel).
  • Bernard Lewis, Corsairs in Iceland, Revue de l’occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée 15:1, 1973: 139-144.