Happy Halloween!

Today, the 31st of October, is widely celebrated as Halloween. From its origins as a religious festival among the Celts of Great Britain, Halloween has spread to much of the Western world as a day of fun and festivity of a purely secular and highly commercial nature. Halloween has so grown in popularity in the past three decades that it is now ranked by some sources as the second most important commercial holiday in the United States, bested only by Christmas. (Such rankings are rather fuzzy, though. It all depends upon what you wish to count. In any case, Halloween is obviously a very big deal.)

When I was young, Halloween was still often written as “Hallowe’en,” because it is properly a contraction of “All Hallows evening,” being the night before All Saints (Hallows) Day, November 1. With Halloween the night before a celebration of all the Saints, and perhaps in part because the holiday straddles the end of one month and the start of another, and due to the pagan Celtic celebrations which preceded it, Halloween has long been marked as a special time of the year when the dual worlds of the living and the dead can make contact. Thus the celebration is attended by ghosts and goblins and witches and fantastic beasts and all manner of denizens of the netherworlds.

Halloween was traditionally celebrated in Ireland with bonfires, singing, and dancing, and – one presumes – imbibing of spiritous beverages as well. To guide the revelers home in the dark hours after the festivities, turnips (so the story goes) would be pressed into service as lanterns to light the way. The vegetable would be scooped out and holes cut to let permit light to shine out; a few embers from the dying bonfire would be placed inside, and the traveller would hold the turnip by its greens on the dark homeward journey. It became traditional to carve impish face patterns into the turnip, and so began the tradition of “Jack of the Lantern.” Today we use a more easily carved pumpkin to make our Jack-o-lanterns, which are not really suitable for carrying, but make really attractive lights. (Personally, I express a certain doubt about the turnip tale: for one thing a turnip hardly seems like a logical choice for creating a lantern; too, the embers of a bonfire seem unlikely to shed much light. But I am simply relaying what I learned as a young lad. 🙂 )

In the 19th Century, Irish immigrants to North America brought the Halloween tradition with them. By the turn of the 20th Century, Halloween was already being commercialized, with cards, candy sales, and costume parties being promoted. Yet it was not until that late 1970s that Halloween began to assume the massive commercial presence that it enjoys today. Part of the explanation is no doubt the power of modern marketing, and part is perhaps the result of a culture shift. Today’s Halloween is far removed from its origins as a quasi-religious observation, and so may appeal to a wide range of cultural traditions. And who doesn’t occasionally enjoy costumes and candy?

In any event, enjoy the day however you may.

Happy Halloween!!!

Jamie Rawson
Oceanside, California

From ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!

— Scots Invocation

When Wall Street Laid One Of Its Many Eggs …

OCTOBER. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.

– Mark Twain, 1894
“Puddin’ Head Wilson”

Was Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, a seer, as he sometimes alleged? Did he have a clairvoyant vision of “Black Tuesday,” 29 October 1929? Though Twain wrote that sage observation 35 years before that grim day, it has proven notably true on more than one occasion. (Of course, that “prediction” is obviously going to be inevitably “right,” but it is interesting that Twain starts the litany with October!)

On “Black Tuesday,” the Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 12 percent after losing 13 percent the previous day. October’s historic plunges also include that memorable but non-fatal crash on 19 October 1987, known as Black Monday.

Though the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 was not the only reason for the Great Depression that burdened the entire decade of the 1930’s, it surely contributed to it, and it represents a single event that conveniently serves as the identifiable start of the depression.

After that terrible day in 1929, the market was more carefully governed and financial institutions were more closely watched to avoid the wild speculation and careless dealing that had been rampant during the unprecedented boom years of the 1920’s. Of course, any boom invites a relaxing of strictures – who wants to spoil a good thing? – and so the recent boom of the 1990’s saw some surprising shenannigans at some venerable and respectable institutions. Yet, though the economy today is far from booming, at least we also are not quite in that Great Depression …

But given these repeating patterns, one must surely wonder: can humans ever learn from the past?

Jamie Rawson
Pasadena, California
29 October 2011


It was on this day in 1805 that England’s “Wooden Walls,” the venerable Royal Navy, under the command of arguably the greatest naval commander of all time, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, utterly defeated Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet off of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. It was during the run-up to this fight that Nelson sent his famous signal to his fleet, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” And so they did. Though the Napoleonic Fleet had an almost 2-to-1 superiority in manpower, and was about 20 percent larger, including some of the largest warships then afloat, the superiority of British naval training and technology carried the day as they overwhelmingly bested the Franco-Spanish fleet. The Napoleonic fleet lost 22 capital ships, the British none.

One clear reason for such an astonishingly lopsided victory was that Nelson had abandoned the standard naval tactics which the “playbook” of every European navy called for. Since the advent of shipboard artillery, fighting fleets had met in great parallel lines, permitting ship-to-ship engagement abroadside (and allowing relatively safe and easy retreat if needed.) Nelson abandoned this cautions approach because he wanted a decisive victory, and long experience had show that line-of-battle formations rarely achieved anything decisive (which is why the naval hierarchies across Europe favored the tactic; it made for few clear victories, but it also made for few disasters. Then as now, naval brass are reluctant to risk losing capital ships.)

Nelson explained to his fleet captains over a dinner which featured English roast beef and Portuguese port, that he intended to drive his fleet through the French line of battle with a perpendicular arrangement of his fleet. Instead of meeting side-by-side, Nelson intended that his fleet sever the French formation and isolate it into two halves. This would render line communications useless for the French and Spanish, and would allow the British ships to bring their full gunnery broadsides to the bows of the French and Spanish ships. Of course, it correspondingly meant that as the British fleet approached the Franco-Spanish line, the British ships would be exposed to the same potentially devastating risk from the French. But Nelson knew that the French and Spanish gunners were no match for his tars. The Spanish and French fleets had been bottled up in their ports for several years, and the crews were inexperienced. The French also suffered from a lack of long-term naval experience, as most of the officers of the Royal French Navy had been exiled or beheaded during the French Revolution. Nelson counted on the greater experience of his officers and the better training of his gunners to more than offset the risk of his unorthodox strategy.

As events proved, Nelson was right to be so confident. Had he lost the battle, though, it is certain that he would have been subject court martial, and quite possibly execution. It is no surprise that his daring and successful tactics were rarely used again in the time that remained of The Age Of Sail. Yet through his daring, Nelson became and remains the greatest naval hero in British history. Monuments were immediately erected to his memory, and a great square in London was christened “Trafalgar Square.”

The Battle of Trafalgar completely removed any threat of a French invasion of England, and left Britain with an overwhelming command of the seas for the next century. Not before nor since in the history of Naval warfare has there been a battle that was so thoroughly one-sided and so strategically decisive. Nelson did not live to see the results of his victory, however. He died as the battle neared its end having been “shot clean through the backbone” by a French sniper. After the battle, his body was preserved for return home in a barrel of brandy mixed with myrrh. A passing Russian squadron paused to salute Nelson as his flagship, HMS Victory, carrying his body, sailed to England. Nelson was given a state funeral with interment in Saint Paul’s, as befits a national hero.

Trafalgar Square is dominated by Nelson’s Column to honor this victory and its author. It has been said that if Alexander The Great is first among the great generals, others (Caesar, Napoleon, Hannibal, and Lee) stand right at hand; Nelson has no equals among the great admirals.

(Of course, it is hard to imagine Nelson being so successful in today’s world where no celebrated figure escapes deep, personal scrutiny. Nelson shamelessly carried on a long-running and flagrant affair with a married woman, an ambassador’s wife, no less!)

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

We have lost more than we have gained.

— King George III, on receipt of the news of the victory at Trafalgar and Nelson’s death

The Acquisition Of Alaska

It was on this day in 1867 that the United States of America formally took possession of the territory of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands from Imperial Russia. United States Secretary of State, William Seward, had negotiated the purchase in March of that year, and with much political arm-twisting, Seward successfully convinced the Senate to approve the purchase by the barest of margins: one vote.

The purchase was a bargain: more than 600,000 square miles of territory were acquired for a mere $7,200,000.00, which works out to that famed “two cents an acre” which most of learned about in grade school. Many of us also learned that this transaction was roundly derided as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox,” and that detractors predicted the creation of new posts such as “Secretary of Polar Bears.” And there is some truth to these notions. But it seems that most of these criticisms were from the Anti-Johnson Administration press of the day, and that a small majority of Americans in 1867 felt that the acquisition of more territory was a good thing for the United States, especially territory which bordered upon and hemmed in Canada, since the United States was having tense relations with Great Britain at the time.

In the perfect backward vision of the past 144 years, Seward’s decision to pursue and complete the purchase of Alaska certainly proves to have been far-sighted and beneficial: in the late 1890s gold was discovered in the territory, and by the early 20th century a thriving fishery industry was well established, and later an oil bonaza was developed. Furthermore, with the collapse of Imperial Russia in 1917 and the rise of the Soviet Union, the fact that the United States owned Alaska was an immensely important security bulwark for the United States and Canada. Imagine, at the height of the Cold War, if the Soviet Union had bases, missiles, and troops massed on the North American continent! How different things would have been. So, as I say, in retrospect, Seward’s purchase was one of the most important strategic acquisitions that the United States has ever made.

But we know that Seward had no idea that the Soviet Union would arise, and we can be sure he knew nothing of gold strikes and other material resources that would be discovered. So the question remains: why did Seward urge the United States, which had less than two years before emerged from the terrible and costly crucible of Civil War, to spend millions on a distant, marginal territory? What was his reasoning? What was his motivation?

The answer is actually surprisingly simple and rather prosaic: Seward was repaying a political debt, an ancient if uninspiring motive. The United States owed Russia for its support during the Civil War.

When the states of the American South united into the Confederate states of America in 1861, nearly every major European power immediately recognized the government of the rebellious states. In part, the European states were giving the United States a taste of its own policies: the U.S. had long had a policy of recognizing revolutionary states, much to the annoyance of Spain which lost almost all of her New World colonies through revolution by 1861, and so the recognition of the Confederate government was simply a repayment in kind.

But, too, in the global politics of the mid-nineteenth century, a strong United States represented a real rival to the power and influence of Great Britain and France, the two Superpowers of the age. The United States had declared with its Monroe Doctrine in 1823 that it intended to dominate the Americas, and it had risen to a predominant position in the Pacific Rim trade with the opening of Japan in 1856. Both Great Britain and France were uneasy with the power of the upstart nation, and both Great Britain and France would have liked to see the United States split and weakened.

Imperial Russia, on the other hand, had been defeated by an Anglo-French coalition in the Crimean war in the 1850’s and was still smarting from this humiliation and its burdens. Too, the young Czar Alexander II unexpectedly proved to be the greatest reformer in more than 400 years of Romanov rule. Alexander II reformed the decrepit state bureaucracy, revamped the military, sponsored legislation permitting modern corporations for the improvement of the nation’s infrastructure, and he consolidated and reduced Russia’s far-flung and expensive empire. Notably, he abolished Russia’s ancient institution of Serfdom.

Russia’s peasants were the last in Europe to receive the legal abolition of serfdom, a status equivalent to slavery. Alexander II undertook this bold, modernizing step almost singlehandedly in early 1861. Because of this liberation, some historians have explained Alexander’s diplomatic position as being motivated by a love of liberty and a hatred of slavery, but this seems unlikely. There is not the time nor the space here to properly analyse Alexander II’s long and eventful reign, but suffice it to say that his abolition of serfdom notwithstanding, Alexander II was probably not motivated by a hatred of slavery. Despite his progressive initiatives, Alexander II also maintained many of his predecessors’ oppressive policies.

Alexander’s strong support for the United States arose from both a desire to thwart his former adversaries, France and Great Britain, and a real and pressing need to develop an ally with usable ports. Since France and Great Britain were at odds with the United States due to their support of the Confederacy, Russia found a natural ally in Lincoln’s government: the enemies of my enemies are my friends.

In January of 1863, widespread famine in Russia’s Polish possessions led to open revolt. The first six month of 1863 held the potential for destabilizing the balance of power within Europe, and the specter of War loomed. It looked as if Great Britain and France might again be required to take up arms against Russia. And a weakened Russia would alter the balance between France and Great Britain. It was a delicate season.

Russia, for her part, needed an ally with ice-free ports for her fleets in case war broke out. Great Britain vastly dominated the seas, with France a distant second. Russia’s navy would have easily been blockaded in the Baltic and Vladivostok. Therefore, Alexander II ordered his fleets into American ports. The Baltic fleet arrived in New York Harbor on September 11th 1863 and was greeted with festivities and parades. This congregation of Naval power would help avoid overt British action against the Union. President Lincoln hosted the officers of the fleet at a White House banquet, and the Russian sailors were so moved by the appalling conditions of lower Manhattan’s tenement dwellers that they raised $5,000.00 for their relief! An interesting footnote is that a young Lieutenant, recently graduated from the Imperial Russian Naval Academy, passed his long, idle hours on duty with the fleet by writing his first symphony. The experience convinced him that his first love was music, and so Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov resigned his commision when the fleet returned to Russia in 1865.

In early 1862, both France and Great Britain had dispatched warships to San Francisco Bay, and there they remained throughout the American conflict, a potential threat if either France or Great Britain decided to openly involve itself in the Civil War. Most of the Union’s much-needed gold supply flowed through San Francisco Bay. The appearance of Imperial Russia’s Pacific Fleet in San Francisco in early October of 1863 served to eliminate this threat. To this day, San Francisco honors the memory of the Russian sailors who fought a great fire that broke out in downtown San Francisco on October 23, 1863, and thus saved the city. The Russians overwintered at Mare Island, and there are graves of Russian sailors there today. These gravesites have been the source of a fair amount of controversy in the past year or so: the Russian consulate in San Francisco replaced the 19th Century headstones which simply read “Russian Sailor” with new, strikingly white marble crosses with individual’s names. Unfortunately, these new monuments were not authorized by the historic site and they do not harmonize with the existing, antique headstones on the other graves. The matter is still being debated at this time, with preservation purists and Russian patriots at loggerheads. It is to be hoped that peaceful compromise will be worked out among former allies.

After 1863, the tide of the American Civil War turned decisively – though not speedily – in favor of the Union, and Great Britain abandoned all thought of intervention. Louis Napoleon still hoped to do something until almost the very end, because he had his own little adventure in Mexico under way. Things settled down in Russia, and her fleets returned home from New York in early 1865, and from Mare Island later that year. Though the fleets never had to fire a shot in support of the United States, their presence was a great help in deterring foreign intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, and so materially contributed to the preservation of the Union.

In 1866, Czar Alexander II decided to divest the Russian Empire of its costly and sparsely inhabited overseas possessions. He decided it was time to call in a favor, and so approached Seward about a possible purchase of Alaska. Seward, wanting to be sure that the United States would never be seen as ungrateful, decided to honor the Czar’s offer. Thus was “Seward’s Folly” – a possible boondoggle, an extravagance for a country still burdened by the titanic debts incurred in four years of nationwide war, a political payback – transacted. And by having the character to repay a favor, the United States gained incalcuably.

Happy Alaska Day!!!

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

The 1989 Loma Prieta Quake

I wrote this on the cold and rainy Monday after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake which took more than 60 lives and caused so much damage.

The destruction, while not general, is nevertheless staggering; the human character, while not perfect, is certainly inspiring. It is probably the single most indelible memory of a one minute interval that I’ll ever record. No description can hope to do justice to the experience, but after the passage of a week, I find myself unable to refrain from putting pen to paper. Thus I write, albeit impersonally, by means of my electronic livelihood.

The earthquake was, I’m sure, the longest minute of my life. It truly seemed to last hours. One hears that at such moments time crawls, but this was undoubtably the most vivid proof of that aphorism that I have personally experienced. Etched in my memory is the sequence in which the stages of recognition washed over peoples’ faces as the event unfolded. What was more striking in many ways, was the coolness and aplomb with which people behaved after the minute had passed. I am sure that I will never forget a detail of that afternoon.

We had just gathered for a general staff meeting. The atmosphere was festive since pizza and soft drinks had been provided. The meeting was to start at 5:00, and we were just getting settled in for an unremarkable hour or so.

Personally, however, I was peeved at having to attend the meeting. I had planned on driving up to Berkeley to attend an early evening meeting there, and I had hoped to leave work about half an hour early so that I could arrive at my Berkeley meeting in time. It is worth noting, ye students of fate and the possible, that such a plan, had it been carried out, would have put me somewhere on the Oakland stretch of the Nimitz freeway when the quake struck. I mightn’t have been in the Cypress section, but it would have been very inconvenient to say the least, and much more distressing, too. Needless to say, I have offered prayers of thanks for my good fortune.

When the quake hit we had just settled into our seats. The first motion was such that most people felt that some big truck was driving by just too fast. A second or two later, it became apparent that it was an earthquake, but, hey, no big deal – we get ’em all the time. Almost simultaneously, the wave of recognition hit everyone: this was not dying down; it was getting stronger! Without a trace of panic, though with undeniable urgency, Sue Finnegan slapped her hand on a table top and said, “Drop!” No one hesitated. Someone warned people to turn away from the glass, but again, voices were measured and controlled if not entirely calm. Years of training in school paid off; programmed reaction overrode panic. Some folks were laughing, some were silent. I kept repeating, “Holy Mother of God!” That’s never been an expletive of mine, but I guess it just seemed apt at the time. I stared obsessed at my wristwatch while I was underneath the table. We were down there for just under fifty seconds, and some few seconds had passed before we had ducked.

The ground felt as if it was heaving and pitching like a raft on a turbulent river. The noise was probably nowhere near as loud as it seemed at the time, but it was terrible. The sound of an entire building shaking and rumbling is simply too abnormal to be measured in any impartial manner. Trains roaring past rickety frame houses on nearby tracks cannot come close to recreating the noise. I have heard other quakes rattle houses and buildings, but no structure ever sounded like this. It added to the fearsomeness of the event. At some point the lights flashed and then failed completely, which emphasized the ominous sensation. It seemed surprising that no pieces of ceiling fell on us and that no windows broke. As powerful as the quake was, the building was equal to the test. We are all grateful.

After several lifetimes, when the shaking subsided – it didn’t really stop entirely for several more seconds – folks picked themselves up and hurried outside. No one panicked, but we were moving with great purpose.

Immediately everyone knew that this one was bigger than any we had been through before. Many of us had been in Los Angeles for the 1971 quake, and, frankly, with or without a degree in seismology, we were sure that this one was much stronger. I was absolutely convinced that somewhere in the Bay Area buildings were falling and people were dying. It was a very morose feeling. In fact, it surprised me to see that the old freeway overpass outside was still standing. Its vintage is such that I really expected to see it collapsed in a heap of rubble. Many people headed directly for home thus creating the greatest traffic jam I have yet seen here. Several others of us decided to sit and wait it out. Very soon news reports began filtering to us from the passing vehicles. At 5:03 the impending World Series seemed terribly important. At 5:05 it was entirely forgotten. (Since then it hasn’t really crossed my mind.) As the enormity of the quake’s impact was verified, the mood grew more somber still. After about an hour and a half, it seemed time to head home to whatever awaited. With no power and uncertain telephones, it was sure to be a long, anxious evening. And it was, it was.

The actual event itself was nearly terrifying. I hadn’t realized the truth of this seemingly obvious observation until late Friday afternoon. Having survived dozens of other earthquakes, even some rather severe ones such as that Los Angeles quake in 1971, I have come to see myself as a fairly cool and unflappable old hand at tremors and shakes. But one learns something about one’s self at times like these, and I have found that in response to this quake I am still about as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It took until last Friday for this to dawn on me because I hadn’t really quite gotten into a normal pattern of activity before then. And the revealing event was one of the countless aftershocks that we’d been feeling for the last several days. This particular one hit about 5:00 Friday evening. We were all proud of the way in which we had adapted to the upheavals of the week and we were pleased with our successful completion of a very unusual class week. We had endured well, and with few complaints; after all, we had survived intact and unharmed. But all of us were acutely aware of the tremors and rumbles that had made our familiar terra firma anything but for the last few days. We were finally trying to wind down from the week’s demands when this insignificant little tremor rolled through. Suddenly is was just too much; it wasn’t strong enough to be scary, but boy was it irritating! Like being within earshot of a kid who has an unknown number of balloons to pop at random, it’s not so much that each actual event is unbearable, it’s just that you wish like hell it would stop! Several of us who were sitting in the office at the time suddenly felt a compelling desire to express variations on this thought at the same time. We all came to realize that we were quite edgy and unsettled, and, as of today, we all still are. Each small tremor or rattle gives rise to some slight but palpable anxiety; sleep is still hard to come by. Yet life goes on.

It’s been a week for reflection and reassessment. Today it has been raining and gusting quite hard and unseasonably cold, almost as if to remind us all that we are being put to the test. Somehow, though, it seems that we are coming through as needed. Times have gotten tough, and the people have responded in kind. The news has been a relentless barrage of stories of grave misfortunes and great courage. The unhelpful wind shut down the rescue operation in Oakland Friday night, but the very next day a survivor was pulled from the debris. The Monday morning traffic was not terrible as anticipated. People seemed to have a great deal of patience. Of course, it isn’t as if it came as a surprise to anyone. Yet it is very encouraging and pleasing to take account of how people have behaved in this most stressing of challenges.

San Francisco is a pretty city, her splendid setting having been formed by the very geological cataclysms which threaten her. She is also a very gritty and determined city. Indeed, this observation certainly applies to the Bay Area as whole. Every community has been tried, and none has been found wanting. I think that this, in large measure, can be attributed to the training which Californians have in coping with earthquakes, but, too, an undeniable portion of the action may be inspired by the very lofty and mythic legends of courage and toughness among our forebearers from 1906. The stories and legends that have sprung up about “The Big One” are part of everyone’s consciousness in the Bay Area. The heroes of ’06 left very large shoes to fill. I honestly think that in 1989, we have found that those shoes fit us modern folk quite well. It’s a good feeling, and good to know as we face a future that will be permanently affected by that one minute on an absolutely perfect October afternoon.

Jamie Rawson
Monday, 23 October 1989
San Francisco, California

An Inglorious War

It was on this day in 1812 that British forces led by General Sir Isaac Brock soundly and roundly defeated American regulars under General Stephen Van Rensselaer at the Battle of Queenston (Queenstown) in Ontario.

The loss was significant for the United States as it precluded any invasion or conquest of Canada. More than 1,000 U.S. regular troops were captured, killed, or wounded by the victorious British. (I emphasize the fact that the U.S. troops involved were regular Army because there was a sizable contingent of various state militia troops who declined to take part in the battle, preferring to remain on the U.S. side of the Niagara River while the regulars were slaughtered.)

This battle was not unique in the history of this little-remembered and and strange war; U.S. ground forces were almost uniformly defeated when they engaged British troops throughout the conflict. Indeed, the only major land battle in which U.S. forces gained a notable victory was The Battle of New Orleans (8 January 1815) which was fought after the peace treaty ending the war had been signed! (24 December 1814.)

This is not necessarily a criticism of the U.S. Army, though. At the time of this conflict Britain had what was perhaps the most well-trained and battle-hardened Army in the world. Other countries had bigger armies (France, Russia) and others had well-trained armies (Prussia, Sweden) but no other troops had such a combination of training and experience. Britain had been fighting Napoleon’s French Empire for more than a decade when it engaged the U.S. in war. The U.S. had no similar experience, and it had limited military resources.

At sea, the matter was dramatically reversed. Though Britain had the largest and most powerful navy in the world with 1,048 major warships in service around the globe, in battle after battle Yankee sailors bested British tars. These actions were nearly all single ship contests, though there were major fleet actions on Lake Erie (Oliver Perry’s famous “We have met the enemy and he is ours,”) and on Lake Champlain.

There have been many theories advanced to explain how the tiny U.S. Navy (14 warships) could consistently defeat the mighty Royal Navy. It seems that a combination of the superior maneuverability of American ships, a result of innovative American shipwrights being allowed to innovate (the Royal Navy was decidedly anti-innovation) and the superior morale of U.S. sailors proved crucial. (The Royal Navy had endemic morale problems due to poor conditions, harsh discipline, and impressments.) Basically, the new U.S. Navy, small as it was, could outrun, outfight, and outshoot the Limeys.

As wars go, The War of 1812 was a toss-up for American military bragging rights. The U.S. did well at sea, but could not really make a crucial dent in the Royal Navy. The U.S. did poorly on land, but Britain was too busy in Europe to invest the massive commitment of men and materiel necessary to consolidate their victories. British generals, in fact, were forbidden to hold territory. The U.S. made a successful raid on the capital of British Canada, York, Ontario (now known as Toronto) and burned it to the ground (8 May 1813.) In retaliation, the British burned the infant city of Washington, D.C. (24 August 1814; how many school kids recall learning that we burned their capital first? York was just a muddy frontier outpost in those days, but Washington, D.C. was little better.)

The war eventually ended. Great Britain had bigger fish to fry with Napoleon loose on the continent, and the U.S. was tired of getting pasted in land battles. Britain made concessions which allowed the U.S. to proclaim victory. The United States never again attempted to invade or conquer Canada (militarily, at least! ;-)) and Britain stopped impressing American sailors, and relinquished its fortresses in the Northwest and Mississipi Valley regions.

All in all, it was a pretty dreadful war without much point. But the U.S. did get what it insisted upon from Britain, and Francis Scott Key wrote a nifty poem after seeing the British bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore. That poem, sung to the tune of the old Beer Hall Ballad Anacreon in Heaven, is now our national anthem.

The Battle Of Lepanto: “The Rout”

“The Imperial Ottoman Fleet encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels and the will of God turned another way.”

— Turkish contemporary account of the Battle of Lepanto

It was on this day, 7 October 1571, that the combined naval forces of the alliance known as “The Holy League” utterly defeated the Ottoman Empire’s larger navy at the Battle of Lepanto, one of the most decisive naval contests in history. The Ottoman Turks had menaced European Christendom for nearly 500 years; as Mohammedans, the Turks were religious adversaries as well as political rivals, they were therefore considered to be the “Always-and-Forever” enemy of Christian Europe. Lutfi Pasha, Grand Vizier to Suleiman the Magnificent, recorded that the Sultan told him “my purpose is to conquer all the lands of the Franks.” (All Christian Europeans were “Franks” to the Turks and Arabs. This is the source of the epithets “ferangi,” [Arabic] “ifrangi, [Turkish] “ferenghi,” [Farsi, Hindi, and Tamil] and possibly even “farang,” [Thai] all of which refer to Europeans or whites.) By the time of the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottoman Empire controlled vast regions of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In 1529, Sultan Suleiman’s armies had reached to the gates of Vienna itself. Only a fierce resistance prevented Vienna’s capture. For the next forty years, Europe periodically trembled at the prospect of a Turkish invasion. If Vienna were to Fall, the whole of the West would be exposed.

No European power could hope to challenge the mighty Ottoman Empire singlehandedly. The Ottomans controlled an Empire stretching across Africa from the Atlantic shores of Morocco to the Indian Ocean, and from Hungary in the North to the Sudan in the South, and embracing modern day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Iraq as well. It was a rich and populous realm possessed of a huge military. At the edge of the Ottoman Empire’s European territories, Austria’s resources permitted defense, but not reconquest. On the great Mediterranean Sea, the fleets of the trading empires of Venice and Genoa could evade but not eliminate the immense Ottoman navy. Even Spain, newly rich from her plunder of the New World, could not hope to contend with the Turkish fleet by herself.

The Ottoman navy was the largest in the world of that day, boasting more than 300 war galleys. These galleys, familiar to anyone who has watched one of Hollywood’s Roman Epics, had been the warship of choice in the relatively calm and often windless Mediterranean for more than 2,000 years, and they had changed very little. The large and graceful fighting vessels were propelled by one, two, or even three banks of oars. The oars, in turn, were powered by manual labor.

Despite what Hollywood depicts, the Romans rarely used slaves to man the oars. It comes as no surprise that slaves proved to be extremely unreliable in battle. The Ottoman galleys, however, did rely on slave labor at the oars, and the vast majority of these slaves were European Christians. More than 30,000 Europeans were enslaved in the Sultan’s navy. Many European powers desired to see the Ottoman Empire checked or even pushed out of its European lands, and many wished to recover those Christians enslaved by the Turks. Accordingly, Pope Pius V established the “Holy League” in order to conduct a crusade against the Ottomans.

Because of inevitable bickering among the potential allies, the league was slow to get underway. Eventually Imperial Spain, the Italian Republics of Venice and Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy, and the Knights of Malta forged a naval alliance under the leadership of Don Juan de Austria, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V. Don Juan proved a very capable admiral and invested a great effort in training his forces. When news arrived that the Ottoman fleet was assembling at Lepanto in the Gulf of Patras off of Western Greece, the Holy League’s fleet was ready to do battle.

The League’s fleet had 108 Venetian galleys, 81 Spanish galleys, and 32 additional galleys from others sources. There were also six huge Venetian galleasses, the dreadnaughts of the age. The galleasses were converted merchant ships, heavily armed and able to carry large numbers of sailors and marines. The galleasses relied on sail power, though they did have a bank of oars to assist with maneuvering. Because they relied upon sail, these ships could not be guaranteed to be useful in battle, but in a favorable wind, they could be devastating against the much lighter construction of galleys.

The Ottoman fleet had some 270 galleys, somewhat smaller on average than the League’s vessels. The Ottoman forces had a far greater numbers of fighting men, however. From the days of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage in the third century BC until the Battle of Lepanto, naval battles in the Mediterranean were essentially land battles fought on floating battle fields. Manpower mattered: as ships came to close quarters and were bound together with grapples, troop movements and actions resembled the form of armies ashore.

The League forces had a technological advantage in firepower, including more arquebusiers (troops armed with a cumbersome early version of the musket) and far superior artillery, though shipboard cannons were of necessity quite light on galleys. The galleasses, though, had some really heavy firepower, and this proved a vital aspect of the engagement.

As dawn broke on the morning of 7 October 1571, the Ottoman fleet was drawn up in a battle formation that would have been familiar to Mark Antony at Actium, more than 1,500 years before (and some 30 miles away from Lepanto!) The League fleet formed up in opposition. A line of ships almost five miles long prepared to clash just off Greece’s cape Schropha. At about 10:30am, the lead ships of each side commenced fighting, and the massive, barely coordinated melee had begun.

The Venetian galleasses were able to break the Ottoman line because the wind favored the Holy League’s sails. The galleasses used their heavy cannon broadsides against the Turkish galleys with devastating effect. The League’s well-trained sailors were also able to out-maneuver the less experienced Ottoman crews. The right flank of the Ottoman line was driven hard against the shallow beaches of Cape Schropha and virtually every one of those galleys was run aground. Unable to move, the ships were quickly overrun by the League’s men. What ensued was a slaughter.

The fight in the center was less one-sided, but the superior firepower of the Venetian galleasses gave the League’s fleet the advantage. After almost five hours of intense fighting, more than fifty Ottoman galleys had been sunk.

Only on the left flank of the Ottoman forces, ably commanded by Ouloudji Ali, Dey of Algiers, were the Ottoman forces able to escape complete destruction. When the course of the battle became clear to Ali, and the hopelessness of his ships’ position plainly evident, he effected a tactical disengagement. This action prevented the Ottoman fleet from being destroyed entirely, as Ali succeeded in withdrawing about half of the 95 vessels under his command. All the other Ottoman ships were run aground, sunk, or captured. Some 230 major warships had been lost in a matter of hours.

Both sides attributed the outcome of the battle to the will of God, with the Christian League seeing God’s favor, and the Ottomans perceiving God’s indifference. It is also true that superior firepower played a part in the League’s stunning victory. But the crucial factor was the superior seamanship of the Leagues crews, and the corresponding unreliability of the Ottoman’s slaves. Men who are fighting for a cause they believe in make better troops than slaves who oppose their masters aims.

According to DuPuy and DuPuy’s Encyclopedia of Military History (Second Edition, Harper and Row, 1986; ISBN: 0061812358) the Ottoman forces must have lost between 15,000 and 20,000 men killed, and possibly far more. Only 300 Turkish prisoners were taken. The League forces lost 7,566 dead and a like number of wounded. The League lost only 13 galleys all together while having completely wiped out the Ottoman navy. In addition, the League freed more than 10,000 Christian slaves who had been forced to serve as oarsmen on the Turkish ships.

It is significant, that while the West refers to this great conflict by the name of the nearby seaport, in Turkish it is simply singin, “The Rout.” At the start of the battle, the Ottoman Empire possessed the largest navy in the world. Five hours later it ceased to exist and Ottoman influence on the seas was essentially eliminated, for the Ottomans would never again take part in, far less win, a major naval engagement. In retrospect, the Battle of Lepanto proved to be the “high water mark” of the Ottoman Empire, and of the second great military manifestation of the Mohammedan desire to conquer European Christendom. To be sure, the Ottoman Empire was by no means done for. In the aftermath of the battle, one Turkish chronicler, cited by Princeton Professor Bernard Lewis in his embarassingly sycophantic The Muslim Discovery of Europe (W.W.Norton and Company, 2001; ISBN: 0393321657) wrote that Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmed Pasha informed his Sultan that, “The might of the empire is such that if we desired to equip the entire fleet with silver anchors, silken rigging, and satin sails, we could do it.” But this boast was rather an overreach. It is true that within the year, the Ottoman navy had built 200 galleys to replace the fleet lost at Lepanto. But these ships were smaller than the ones they replaced, and were generally of poor quality.

The greater limitation, though, was the lack of trained sailors. Though the Ottoman Empire had ample manpower, it had lost an entire generation of experienced and capable naval officers and men. Lepanto essentially wiped out the Ottoman naval tradition. This loss was to prove insuperable.

On the land, Ottoman armies continued to threaten Eastern Europe and to dominate the Balkans. As late as 1683, the Turks again besieged Vienna with 150,000 troops. The siege ended in a disastrous defeat for the Turks, costing them great numbers of troops and vast stores of treasure. That siege truly was the “Last Hurrah” of Ottoman military power, though the Empire would last until the Republic of Turkey was finally proclaimed by Mustafa Kemal in 1923. But Lepanto was decidely “the Beginning of the End.”

Among the thousands of the Holy League’s combatants who were wounded was a Spaniard named Miguel de Cervantes. Shot three times, he lost use of his left hand from a wound he received that day, thus ending his military career. Cervantes continued to serve in the Spanish forces after he recovered from his wounds, being posted in Naples. In 1575, Cervantes was sent to Spain to receive his commendation from the King. Before he reached Spain, however, his ship was captured by Algerian corsairs, and he was taken prisoner. Cervantes spent the next five years as a slave in North Africa before he was finally ransomed.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Cervantes would speak of his participation at Lepanto with pride, saying “I lost the left hand for the glory of the right!” For it was with his good right hand that Cervantes went on to write one of the masterworks of world literature, the epic novels of Don Quixote.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Those who will play with cats must expect to be scratched.

— Cervantes