Empires of the Sea

May 27, 2023 [books] #ottomans #habsburgs #mediterranean

Book: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World
Author: Roger Crowley

The Ottomans were the lords of the Mediterranean for close to half a century, from 1520 to 1570. The beginning of their suzerainty over the sea under Suleiman the Magnificent was due to a happy coincidence - the Barbarossa brothers offered their service to him, and expanded Ottoman territory by handing off Algiers which they had won by fighting the Spanish and their Berber allies. Now they needed to defend themselves against the Spaniards and the Great Turk would help them do it. The Ottomans knew they couldn't keep their empire if they didn't control the seas. Constantinople was situated on seaway connecting the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean. The islands of the Mediterranean closest to the empire were controlled by the Genoese, Venetians, Greeks and the crusading Knights of St John. Their location meant they faced crusaders, corsairs, and constant war without commanding the sea. Thus they were compelled both by circumstances and ambition to take control of the Mediterranean, and they succeeded for a while.

Suleiman had another reason to expand into Europe. He resented the Habsburg monarch Charles V, elected the Holy Roman Emperor. The Ottomans considered themselves inheritors of the Byzantine Empire, and through them the Roman Empire. Byzantine emperor John VI Kantakouzenos gave his daughter Theodora in marriage to Orhan, the second bey of the Ottomans, in 1346 in exchange for Ottoman troops coming to aid his side in the Byzantine civil war. Their son Halil was betrothed to Irene, daughter of John VI’s son, Matthew. Because of such marriages and other trysts, Ottoman princes were born of Byzantine as well as Armenian, Serbian, and other Christian mothers. Suleiman always referred to Charles V as the King of Spain, while he himself was the Caesar. Charles V and the Pope of course begged to differ. Charles V also took very seriously his role as The Catholic Monarch. Thus the stage was set, and Charles V lost almost every battle in the contest for the Mediterranean. The Spaniards could afford to battle thanks to gold from the New World. They couldn't win because of constant infighting with other European powers - mainly the Venetians, France of Francis I or ascendant Protestant powers. Thus it was that the in first half of the 16th century the Ottomans gradually added to their possessions Tunis, Rhodes and a host of islands under Venetian and Genoese control. The Kings of St John were kicked out of Rhodes and had to settle on Malta. The Ottomans did not win every time - there's the Great Siege of Malta to prove the point. But they had a reputation for winning, and winning for close to a century.

The greatest of Ottoman captains - Dragut Reis, Hayreddin Barbarossa, Uluch Ali were all galley slaves at some point. Considering the upward trajectory of these slaves under Ottomans - usually Christians who converted to Islam - it seems like the Ottomans were more meritocratic in contrast to the Habsburgs, or indeed any of the Christian European kingdoms. Both the Europeans and the Ottomans were brutal to their opponents. Each was the infidel to the other, and hence there was great virtue in visiting depredations on them. Thus the Knights of St John set sail almost every year to conduct their personal maritime crusade, sweeping the seas for Islamic plunder and slaves in the name of religion. The Spaniards and the Portuguese were busy enslaving in the New World and West Africa. Europe was on the receiving end of the slavery by the Islamic empires - though the numbers slaved to the Turks and Mamluks far exceeded the black slaves taken in the sixteenth century. The Turks come off as particularly savage. One envoy of France to Constantinople, a priest named Maurand, was escorted by Hayreddin Barbarossa. During that trip, Barbarossa’s imperial fleet raided Lipari, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. After pillaging and ransoming the Lipariots, Maurand notes that a few of the most aged were found sheltering in a church. The corsairs seized them, stripped off their clothes, and cut them open while still alive, “out of spite.”

By 1570, Christian Europe's sense of military inferiority was deeply ingrained, till a series of events transpired that lead to eventual reversal of fortunes. Each new Ottoman emperor had to sanctify his reign by expanding his territory on ascending his throne. Thus for Suleiman it was beating the fortresses of Belgrade into submission. For Selim, his predecessor, it was Mamaluk Egypt. For Selim II, the son of Suleiman, it was Cyprus. Cyprus was a Venetian possession. Over the course of summer, the Ottomans gradually took control of the island, one fortress at a time. After taking over the citadel of Famagutsa, they flayed its much loved governor, Marcantonio Bragadin, reneging on their promise to let the defenders depart in peace. Around this time there was a new crusading Pope, Pius V. He wanted nothing short of destruction of Turkish power and taking back the Levant from the infidels. Towards that end he assembled yet another Holy League under Philip II, the new Holy Roman Emperor, the Genoese, the Venetians and the Knights of St John. The Venetians had lost Cyprus and were spoiling for a fight. The Knights of Saint John were virtually the sworn enemies of Venice. The Genoese and Venetians don't get along either. As they make their way East they start bickering among themselves and the League almost comes apart. This is when the news comes to them about what the Turks have done to Baragdin. Now united in their hatred they start towards Leptano where an Ottoman fleet is awaiting them. The galleys of the League are newer, larger and packed with artillery. The Ottomans are tired from their conquest of Cyprus, but supremely confident in their ability to defeat a disunited enemy. When they meet, exceeding all expectations, it's the League that wins in what will turn out to be the largest sea battle in history till that point.

In four hours 40,000 men were dead, nearly 100 ships destroyed, 137 Muslim ships captured by the Holy League. Of the dead, 25,000 were Ottoman; only 3,500 were taken alive. Another 12,000 Christian slaves were liberated.

This apparently has an electrifying effect on the European rivals of the Ottomans, giving them more confidence than should have been warranted. The Ottomans were dismissive of the loss, and in a year had built a larger fleet than they had before. So rapid was this reconstruction that Sokollu could taunt the Venetian ambassador about their relative losses at Cyprus and Lepanto: “In wrestling Cyprus from you we have cut off an arm. In defeating our fleet you have shaved our beard. An arm once cut off will not grow again, but a shorn beard grows back all the better for the razor.”

The author states that this victory was important not just because it showed that the Ottomans were not invincible, but thenceforth their boundaries in the sea would be frozen. The Ottomans would no longer expand in the Mediterranean. At Lepanto, the empire suffered its first military catastrophe since the Mongol warlord Tamerlane shattered the army at Ankara in 1402. To make war, one needs money and there were other factors at play that would determine the ambition of the Ottoman. One was the steady stream of gold from the New World. The Spanish real became the most appreciated currency in the Ottoman empire; it was impossible to strike money of matching value. The silver coins paid to the soldiers grew increasingly thin; they were “as light as the leaves of the almond tree and as worthless as drops of dew,” according to a contemporary Ottoman historian.

While the author doesn't mention it, the Ottomans were busy battling a new European superpower in the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese. The brutality of the Portuguese and the surprise of everyone who encountered it in Indies is well documented. I never understood Da Gama's implacable hatred of the muslims - his burning of the Hajj pilgrim ship comes to mind. After learning about the ravaging of the Mediterranean and the reconquista in Spain and Portugal, the context that informs their actions is apparent now. They were no more brutal than the Spaniards in the New World, or Barbarossa and Dragut in the Mediterranean.

This was quite the rollicking read.

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