Enthralling narrative of epic battle
EMPIRES OF THE SEA:
The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580
by Roger Crowley
(London: Faber and Faber)
Hardback: 368 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95
Half a lifetime ago, as a university student, I entered for the first time the Church of Our Lady of Victories, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell.
What made the interior different from that of other Catholic churches were the images in the stained-glass windows that referred to the 1571 Battle of Lepanto.
Although largely forgotten by the Western world, the outcome of this naval battle between the Christian countries of Europe and the Muslims of the Turkish Ottoman Empire was crucial in determining the course of Europe history.
Roger Crowley, who two years ago published Constantinople: The Last Great Siege, 1453, has now turned his attention to the 16th-century struggles between the Ottoman Empire and Christendom, commencing with the accession of Suleiman the Magnificent as Ottoman Emperor in 1521.
Accession required the new emperor to embark on conquests, which Suleiman rapidly did in 1522 by seizing Belgrade and the island of Rhodes. Crowley, in his engaging narrative, proceeds to explore the continuing military struggles in the following decades.
Suleiman, thanks to his brilliant admiral, Hayrettin Barbarossa, was able to conduct successful raids against coastal cities in countries such as Africa and Spain and to expand his hegemony in North Africa.
This netted his empire thousands of slaves, many of whom were forced to row in the galleys.
Christendom’s response to the Muslim threat was hampered by the Habsburg Emperor Charles V’s wars elsewhere, particularly against Protestant states in Germany and against his rival, France.
So bitter was the latter rivalry that, in 1543, the French aided the Ottoman Turks in the sack of Nice, then a Hapsburg possession! Similarly, Venice remained neutral and at various points provided the Ottomans with valuable intelligence.
Crowley then focuses on the 1565 siege of Malta, devoting almost a third of his book to the heroic defence of this island.
The Ottoman Empire eagerly sought control of this strategically crucial island, which could have significantly enhanced its ability to attack and conquer Western Europe.
In 1530, Malta had been granted to the Knights of St John by Charles V after the Ottomans had expelled the knights from Rhodes in 1522.
During the 1565 siege of Malta, some 600 knights put up one of the most gallant defences in history, successfully opposing some 30,000 Ottoman troops.
Sadly, although the European powers recognised Malta’s strategic importance, they gave little assistance to the Knights of St John.
Indeed, substantial numbers of relief troops arrived only at the very end of the conflict, once the Ottoman commanders had decided to discontinue the siege after failing to breach the central defences.
Crowley’s work culminates with a discussion of the 1571 Battle of Lepanto, arguably the largest naval engagement until the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
Finally, Europe organised a co-ordinated response. Led by the young Don Juan of Austria, Charles V’s illegitimate son, Western Europe inflicted a shattering defeat upon the Ottoman Empire’s navy.
The result was that the Ottomans realised that attempts to expand into the western Mediterranean were futile.
Empires of the Sea is an engaging and masterful retelling of pivotal yet often overlooked historical events in European history.