“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.
Flower Mound, Texas
Those who will play with cats must expect to be scratched.