The defeat of the Ottoman armies before Vienna in 1529 is often viewed as the turning point in the struggle between Christian Europe and the Moslem East. Roger Crowley argues that naval warfare in the Mediterranean in the half century between the fall of Rhodes in 1522 and the defeat of the Ottoman navy at Lepanto in the Gulf of Corinth in 1571 was at least as significant to European history as the land battle on the Danube.
The Ottoman Empire under Suleiman (Solomon) the Magnificent had finally won their long struggle with the Knights of Saint John for the Holy Land. The Knights had been the most prominent of the military fighting orders that had ravished Ottoman Palestine. The Turks needed also to oust these Christian warriors from Rhodes where they had joined the many corsairs (pirates, privateers, buccaneers, freebooters) who plagued Ottoman trade in the Mediterranean and harassed Moslem pilgrims on their hidj to Mecca.
The Knights were known for their excellence as military engineers; the Ottomans for their success at siege warfare. Crowley describes the successful Ottoman siege of Rhodes and their failure in 1565 to take Malta, the greatest of the Knights’ fortresses. The siege of Malta was characteristic of the brutal warfare but also the elaborate diplomacy in the long “contest for the center of the world.”
By far the most important ship in all navies in the “Inland Sea” was the galley. Galleys had dominated naval warfare in the Mediterranean since the siege of Troy. While ponderously slow, they were easier than sailing ships to maneuver at close quarters and in uncertain winds. They were also quicker to construct and less expensive.
The galley was a fascinating war machine. It was propelled by as many as 140 rowers. A typical galley carried a medium-sized cannon and another 75 officers and armed sailors. Having rammed an enemy galley, the contingent of sailors boarded it over temporary bridges and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting. A slaughter generally ensued.
Crowley describes the lives of the sailors and rowers as short and desperate. Rowers were often hungry and thirsty, ill from all of the diseases that afflicted combatants in that age. When they sickened, they were heaved overboard to drown.
Most of the rowers were free men either having volunteered or been recruited from Christian villages in the Balkans. If they were slaves and survived their tour of duty, they were generally given their freedom. Prisoners of war and criminals were often used as rowers. Chained to their bench, they went down with the ship.
A history of warfare in sixteenth-century Mediterranean, Empire of the Sea is also a meticulous diplomatic history. The Hapsburg/Spanish monarchs and the Ottomans were the major diplomatic forces. The Holy League that formed to defend Malta, under the patronage of Pope Pius V, also included Venice, Genoa, and the Knights of Saint John.
The Mediterranean world was a polyglot of ethnicities, Spanish, French, Italian, Greeks, Slavs, Turks, Arabs, and Berbers. Unfortunately the periodic warfare was a threat to the modicum of tolerance achieved over the previous Ottoman centuries. The destruction of Ottoman rule in Cyprus in 1571, for example, saw a considerable slaughter of civilians in what might be considered ethnic cleansing.
Crowley ends with the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a triumph for Christian Europe and a humiliation for the Ottoman navy. There was great rejoicing through Europe as news of the victory spread. But the Ottomans quickly rebuilt their navy and the corsairs, often with the blessing of the Ottoman sultans, continued to raid the coasts of Greece, Italy, and Africa for slaves and cargo.
But one thing would soon change. The Mediterranean would no longer be the center of the world. The great maritime powers Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands now fought on the North Atlantic in carracks, not galleys. They were fighting to gain control of trade with the New World, particularly its precious metals.
The Mediterranean with its warn-out soil and extensive erosion could not support the “agricultural revolution” that was able to nourish a growing population of industrial workers in Britain, the Low Countries, and France. Warfare in the Mediterranean did not cause this decline. It did, however, make the consequences of the warfare less important to European history after Lepanto. The contest at the center of the world didn’t any longer matter so much.