The words “pirate” and “queen” aren’t often used together, but during my recent residency in Tetouan, Morocco, I caught wind of a pirate queen that once ruled there. This story takes place 500 years ago and features a badass woman who ruled with intelligence and diplomacy and backed up her words with a fleet of ruthless pirates. It’s a tale of revenge and romance fit for a Netflix series and a story that I just HAD to paint.
This saga all begins in Granada, Spain during the Reconquista in the late 1400s. Ferdinand and Isabella were mounting an effort to put all of Spain back under the rule of the Catholic monarch and Granada was one of the last strongholds of Muslim power. After a bloody fight, their Christian forces prevailed and the remaining Muslims were given three choices:
stay and convert to Christianity
flee across the Mediterranean Sea to Morocco
Into this bloody conflict and forced exile, a young girl is born to noble parents who were previously enjoying a comfortable life Granada. The writers of history never recorded her proper name but she would eventually be known and feared by merchants and governments throughout Europe and North Africa. She is known as Sayyida al Hurra, which translates as “noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority”. This description also fits my wife.
So this daughter of a noble Muslim family is just a young girl when they are forced to leave Granada and settle in present-day Morocco. She grows up and eventually marries the governor of Tetouan. As a young bride, she learns the ways of governing and quickly gains prominence as an intelligent woman who can handle the demands of her husband’s position when he is away on government business. When he dies a decade later, she unquestionably becomes the governor of Tetouan and begins to amass the army of pirates that would help her exact revenge on Spain for her family’s exile.
Also during this time, the Sultan of Morocco begins to woo her from his throne in Fez and eventually asks for her hand in marriage. She accepts, but only on her terms: she is allowed to continue to live and rule in Tetouan AND HE must come HER for the marriage. He agrees and this is the only time in history that a Moroccan King married outside of his capital. This is like if Prince Harry flew the whole royal family to Los Angeles so that he could marry Meghan Markle. What a boss.
Now that she is the Queen of Morocco, Sayyida al Hurra senses that the timing is right for her act of revenge 24 years in the making. She aligns herself with the infamous Ottoman pirate Barbarossa and they rule the Mediterranean Sea for 30 years, looting Spanish and Portuguese vessels and taking many of their sailors captive. The Pirate Queen was a fair yet ruthless leader, demanding respect and the highest ransoms for the return of her Christian captives.
During our time in Tetouan, my family and I saw the caves where these Christian slaves were kept while they waited for their government to meet the Pirate Queen’s demands. It’s also rumored that in the secret tunnels underneath the Medina (old city), there is a makeshift altar and church where the visiting Spanish monks would perform mass with the slaves. That’s quite a scene to imagine…
The Pirate Queen amassed many riches during her rule of the seas and much of the booty that she collected went into rebuilding Tetouan. Most of what still remains from this period is due to Sayyida al Hurra’s efforts during her rule and many credit her care for the city as the main reason that it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Now seen as one of the most important female figures of the Islamic West, the Pirate Queen was known as a powerful ruler who was fair to her people and ruthless to her enemies. After three decades as the Queen of Morocco (a lengthy rule by any standard), Sayyida al Hurra was overthrown by her stepson and fled to the neighboring mountain city of Chefchaouen, which was my family’s favorite place in Morocco. She lived there for another 20 years until her death in 1561 at the age of 66.
The Jobs of Yesteryear Series has always been about celebrating the storied workers of the past and their incredible tales. The Pirate Queen is such a fascinating example of an individual defying expectations and I’m honored that Sayyida al Hurra will live on as my 100th Job of Yesteryear painting (100! WOW!).
This painting found a new home during a festival in Dallas, Texas and will hang on the wall of an interesting fella from Rock Springs, Wyoming. As I continue to create new work for this year’s shows, I’ve been remarking on how I often get asked where the women are in my art. It’s a justifiable question.
The fact is that when studying the jobs of the past, there just weren’t that many occupations that women were allowed/able to hold; they were often too busy keeping the home in order and raising the children. It’s a great reminder about how wonderfully different our modern times are. But there are definitely some stories to be found and I recently completed three powerful paintings celebrating women workers: The Typist, The Hello Girl, and The Teacher.
Thank you for all the incredible support and enthusiasm for The Jobs of Yesteryear Series since it all began with The Lamplighter in 2011. 100 paintings in a series is a proud milestone for me and I’m so excited to see where the next 100 take me. The journey is all the more enjoyable with all of your feedback, support, and love. Thank you and stay tuned…