Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The End of Islamic Maritime Hegemony, for a While at Least: The Battle of Lepanto

In the early sixteenth century, the Muslim navies controlled the Mediterranean. Nearly all trade between Africa and Europe crossed that sea, and much trade with Asia was also shipped across that body of water.

Islamic fleets could demand any amount of money they wished for leaving freighters unharassed. Islamic pirates raided ships, not only taking the cargo, but also taking the crew to be sold as slaves.

Trade between Europe and other parts of the world was reduced. China and India experienced a decline in importing from, and exporting to, Europe.

Standard academic accounts tell that the Battle of Lepanto was “a famous naval engagement fought near the town of Lepanto in Greece, on the Gulf of Corinth,” on October 7, 1571.

This report of the battle, from a common encyclopedia, tells that the battle was between the Muslims “and the combined Mediterranean fleets of the” European “allies, principally the Venetian and Spanish craft.”

Those “allies” were organized by the Holy Roman Empire. The HRE, as the old joke goes, was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. It was, instead, a defensive coalition of European states. The HRE fluctuated between decades of neglect and times of critical importance.

When there was no threat of military attack, the HRE was of little importance and had little power, its emperor having little influence and being forced to placate the Electors. (The Electors were a group of princes who chose the emperor.)

But when the danger of armed offensive was real, the HRE suddenly galvanized itself and its member nations as a defensive alliance. This was the case at Lepanto.

The forces gathered at Lepanto were part of the Holy League, a special coalition which was formed principally of Spain and various Italian republics and kingdoms. Some parts of the HRE, like Savoy, were part of the Holy League, while others were not.

The Portuguese were not involved at Lepanto, their navy being committed to defend against Islamic naval attacks in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. The French were at odds with the Spanish, and so did not want to be in a coalition with them - indeed, the French had hired Muslim mercenaries to fight against the Spanish. Other HRE nations had signed temporary truces with the Muslims and did not appear at Lepanto.

It was, then, a somewhat unusual combination of navies that defending against the Muslims at Lepanto: “Under the command of Don John of Austria they obtained an overwhelming victory. Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, distinguished himself in this battle, receiving three wounds.

This battle marked a clear turning-point, “destroying the” Islamic “fleet and ending their supremacy in the Mediterranean.”

Considering the primitive bow-gun weapons then in use, the loss of life was remarkable.

Exact numbers of casualties do not exist, “being estimated at 20,000 for the” Muslims, “and 8,000” for the defensive fleets.

The allies brought into the fight 200 galleys and 8 galeasses (large three-masters, carrying cannon).

The Islamic “fleet numbered 273, but of smaller size on the average and fewer cannon.” The Muslims “employed” European “prisoners as galley-slaves and 10,000 or more were liberated by the” European victory.

With the Mediterranean now open, ships could move freely between Africa, Europe, and western Asia. The economic results were mutually beneficial to all three.