War of the Waves:  The Battle of Lepanto, 1571

 

            Lepanto was a historically significant naval confrontation in 1571 between the Ottoman Turks and a combined European Christian fleet, the so-called “Holy League,” comprised chiefly of sailors from Spain and the various Italian states, and led by Don John of Austria.  Not since the ancient Battle of Actium between Octavian and Marc Antony had the Mediterranean witnessed such a pivotal clash on the seas.  The European fleet, with close to 30,000 soldiers, was underwritten substantially by King Philip II of Spain.  The Turks had already conquered the formerly impenetrable citadel of Constantinople in 1453, and under their venerated ruler Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottomans had unsuccessfully besieged Vienna in 1529 to present Europe with its greatest invasion threat since the Battle of Poitiers in 732 A.D.    Ottoman sultans then sought to gain effective control of the Mediterranean shipping routes and port traffic, as a possible prelude to an amphibious invasion of Europe from the south.  More immediately, the Ottomans aimed to oversee Mediterranean trade and extract corresponding tribute revenues from the rich commerce of the region residing at the bridge of three continents.  The Holy League and the Ottoman fleet faced off in the waters off of Lepanto, Greece, in October for supremacy of the Mediterranean.  The battle was notable for being a clash of the galleys, replete with the sort of single-volley and siege-and-grapple tactics that Philip would have to modify against England in the 1590s.  Don John’s cleverness and adept improvising enabled the European sailors to consistently gain positional advantage over their Turkish adversaries, with the result that the Turks lost nearly 75% of their galleys and thousands of their most experienced sailors.  In fact, the Holy League in many calculations boasted negative casualties on the balance sheet, since its sailors managed to liberate nearly 10,000 galley slaves from the Ottoman fleet who were then able to participate in further assaults against the Turks.  Ironically, in the wake of such a seemingly devastating reversal, the Ottomans appeared oddly undaunted.  They rapidly rebuilt their fleet under Selim II and proceeded to conquer Cyprus, while making further headway against other European and North African targets in the Mediterranean.  Nevertheless, their plan to seize control of the Mediterranean ports and trade routes had been decisively thwarted.

 

n      Wes Ulm

 

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