How Miguel de Cervantes was captured and sold into slavery by Barbary Pirates

Miguel de Cervantes (1547 – 1616), the famed Spanish author of “Don Quixote,” had a life filled with adventures and hardships. One of the most significant events in his life was his capture by Barbary pirates and subsequent enslavement in Algiers.

Miguel de Cervantes, a 16th-century Spanish writer, is best known for “Don Quixote,” a seminal work in Western literature. This portrait, attributed to Spanish painter Juan de Jáuregui, is unauthenticated

World History Edu dives into the circumstances surrounding the famous author’s capture and later enslavement.


In the 16th century, the Mediterranean Sea was a dangerous place because of the activity of Barbary pirates, primarily from North African Ottoman provinces such as Algiers and Tunis. They often raided ships and coastal towns, capturing Europeans to sell as slaves.

READ MORE: Most Famous Ottoman Sultans and their Accomplishments


In 1575, after fighting in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) where he was wounded and lost the use of his left hand, Cervantes was returning to Spain from Naples, Italy. He was aboard a ship called “El Sol” with his younger brother Rodrigo when they were attacked and captured by Barbary pirates.

A Sea Fight with Barbary Corsairs by Flemish painter Laureys a Castro, c. 1681

Barbary Pirates demand a ransom for Cervantes

The pirates recognized the value of their captives, especially Cervantes, who they believed could fetch a higher ransom due to letters of recommendation he carried with him.

Cervantes and his brother were taken to Algiers, a major slave market at the time. The high ransom set for him (500 gold escudos) indicated his perceived importance.

Life in Captivity

Cervantes spent five years (1575-1580) in captivity. He made several escape attempts, all of which failed. Despite the risks, his spirit remained unbroken, and he even tried to organize other captives to escape.

His leadership, bravery, and resilience during this period earned him the respect of both fellow captives and some of his captors.

“A Barbary Pirate” Italian painter Pier Francesco Mola, 1650


The Cervantes family struggled to raise the ransom amount, managing to pay for Rodrigo’s release relatively quickly.

However, gathering the sum for Miguel proved difficult. After several years, with the help of the Trinitarian friars, they negotiated his ransom down to 300 escudos.

In 1580, he was finally released and returned to Madrid, Spain.

How did his enslavement impact on his work?

Cervantes’ experience as a captive deeply influenced his literary works. His play “Los tratos de Argel” (The Treatments of Algiers) and some episodes in “Don Quixote” reflect the suffering, the characters, and the situations he encountered during his time in North Africa.

While Cervantes’ years in captivity were filled with hardship and suffering, they also shaped the writer he would become, providing him with material and perspectives that enriched his literary contributions.

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