As the dawn breaks, I stare out, across the Gulf of Corinth, at the peaceful town of Nafpaktos. Its familiar, imposing Castle, with its great citadel on top of the hill, and its massive walls running down to the little fortified harbor, is slowly bathed by the sun’s rays. But the sight is vastly different, overwhelmingly different today; the sunlight is gleaming on a forest – a forest of densely packed masts! As the sun rises, the hulls of ships begin to take shape. They are galleys! Fighting galleys! And their number is literally uncountable from here, and there must be several hundred of them! Something monumental is about to happen!
It is October – 1571. Greece has been ruled by the Ottomans, even before they had taken Constantinople 118 years ago. It’s the grand era of the Ottoman expansion; they have been encountering and defeating the Catholic West and are now raiding and threatening the lands of Italy, Austria, and even the mightiest of the Catholic kingdoms – Spain, a thousand miles away. The whole Mediterranean has changed from a peaceful trading sea under the Roman Empire to a wild, savage battleground that swarms with brigands and corsairs, that take anything they can overwhelm, and raid seaside towns booty and slaves – their big trade item. Boats are heading my way from Nafpaktos, and it looks like they are seeking “recruits” for their warships, either as fighting men or as rowers. They won’t be asking for volunteers. It’s a “press-gang,” so I’d better head for the hills.
The Ottoman expansion was noted with concern by Western Christianity, but they were not united – in fact, they were adversaries in the trade and battle. Venice, the rich mercantile “Serenissima” (Serene) Republic, was paying tribute (bribing) the Ottoman Grand Vizier Socollu Mehmed Pasha to keep their trading open, but bar the others, and leave one of their territories, Cyprus, alone. The Catholic Pope, Pius V, had been trying so hard to unite the Christian kingdoms into a new “Crusade” to stem the Ottoman threat that he was known as the “Crusading Pope.” (He only had one more year on this Earth.) But his years of effort to rally Christendom were not successful until the Ottomans played a big card: The “Sublime Porte” (the diplomatic title of the Sultan’s administration) suddenly told the Venetians to hand over the island of Cyprus, no ifs or buts. Period. (Socollu, being bribed, had naturally resisted this action but was overruled. A remarkably able administrator and diplomat, having served several Sultans in turn, would be assassinated, 8 years later.)
At that, the Venetians of Cyprus resisted the occupying army of Ottomans and appealed for help. This gave the Pope enough leverage to talk everyone into creating a “Holy League” to stop the Ottomans. After a considerable amount of negotiations – because they were commercial rivals, and nobody trusted the other – an agreement was reached. A growing fleet of over 200 galleys, 60 smaller galliots, and many auxiliaries was joined, built, or glued together. Their purpose was to head East, to intimidate the Ottomans and relieve Cyprus – but not to engage in battle (an actual battle was far too risky because if the Christians lost at sea, so far from their home bases, their fleet would likely be badly destroyed – and then the whole Mediterranean would be overrun by the Ottoman navy and corsairs, and no coastline would be safe.)
In overall command of this combined fleet is a young Spaniard, only 24 years old, inexperienced in warfare, but having the useful talent of being the half-brother of Philip II, Spain’s king. (Spain had paid for half the ships and men of the fleet.) His name is Don Juan of Austria. (He’s due to die from “fever” 7 years later, at age 31.) He has experienced advisers but also must contend with the commanders from the various factions that have different agendas and instructions from their governments. It’s an uncomfortable, forced League.
Receiving news about the formation of the Infidels’ (Unbelievers) League, the Ottomans assembled an opposing coalition that included the Ottoman navy plus a sizable contingent from Egyptian and Western African corsairs. In charge of their fleet is a man, Mayzinoglu Ali Pasha, probably in his late ’30s, who had previously spent some time being governor of Ottoman Egypt. Like Don Juan, he is inexperienced in warfare but has the talent of being a son-in-law of the Sultan. He also has experienced advisers but has the Sultan’s order to go fight and “sweep aside” the Infidels. (He will die fighting.)
So, Ali Pasha’s fleet, of 202 galleys, 63 smaller galliots, and unnumbered smaller ships were now assembled outside the little fortified harbor of Nafpaktos, waiting for the Christian League’s fleet to arrive, and the inevitable – almost – confrontation. They called the town “Inebahti” – a typical Turkized version of a Greek name (the Turkized version remains: the locals often call their town “Epahtos.”) The Venetians called it “Lepanto.” Ali Pasha’s fleet had not been idle; in the weeks of waiting, they had sacked the island of Zante, and ventured all the way North in the Adriatic sea, in view of Venice, probably to intimidate the Doge. But they are undermanned – a large contingent of soldiers (cavalry) had decided that the season was too late and the Infidels were not coming, so they had left to do other useful work.
The “Holy” League had assembled at the strait of Messina and headed East to Sami, on the island of Kefalonia. The various commanders held conferences about the fleet’s conduct, universally proposing to avoid an actual battle, as had each been instructed by their masters. This sensible caution was included in the instructions to Don Juan by his half-brother Phillip II. However, news reached them that the Ottomans had overtaken Cyprus, and had reneged on a truce and killed the Venetian defenders and tortured their commander, Marcantonio Bragadino. Thus, the League’s primary strategic goal – the relief of Cyprus – was irretrievably lost, but the barbarity had so incensed the Christians, especially the Venetians, that they no longer listened to wise counsel but made the decision to fight! So the League’s fleet was heading East for the historic clash.
In the Ottoman fleet, wise counsel advised awaiting action, avoiding a pitched battle, partly on the basis that the League would soon fragment itself due to their mutual distrust and inevitable arguments, and they could then take on parts of the Infidels’ fleet piecemeal. Already, an emissary was returning to Venice from the “Porte” with strong recommendations that Venice should accept Cyprus’s loss and would still be better off dealing with the Ottomans than warring against them – they had more territories to lose! (And they did, signing a treaty the following year.) But Ali Pasha had his orders, and for his own reasons, ignored the advice to wait and led the whole fleet West from Nafpaktos to confront the League. So, two nearly equal war fleets headed toward each other, both led by inexperienced hotheads, one of them, very young, planning to throw the dice for all or nothing!
And now, a little bit about their warships. There were near as many auxiliary ships and boats as the main warships, but the ones that did the fighting were all about the same: the oar-driven galleys of the day. These were long, narrow wooden “boats,” about 180 feet long and only 20 feet wide, had one or two masts on which they hoisted large triangular “lateen” type sails on very long yards when the wind was right. But for main “propulsion,” especially in battle, their power came from the rowers. To man the oars, each galley needed 250 men, mostly slaves, and some convicts. Adding sailors and soldiers, a typical galley had, at full complement, 500 persons. The Christians had mostly Muslim rowers, and the Ottomans had Christian rowers (except for the Venetians who had freemen rowers, that also fought.) The slaves were captured or abducted, and if they were so poor they could not be ransomed, they served, most chained for life, in the galleys. As one can imagine, their life was very short, and the purpose of raids for slaves was, to a great extent, to replace their constant loss. If a galley was sunk, the chained slaves went with it. All the galleys had cannon, one large and several smaller ones, all facing forward, and the men were variously armed: The Christians mainly with arquebuses – the early firearms – whereas the Ottomans put their faith in their archers, who could launch 10 arrows in the space of time it took to reload and fire an arquebus twice. But the Christians had an additional, fierce weapon: Six of their ships were the much larger “galleass” types, supplied by Venice, which had multiple cannons and could fire in all directions – one early use of what later became known as a “broadside.” These few ships became a decisive force in the upcoming encounter.
It’s now the dawn of the fateful day, October 7, 1571, a Sunday. Both sides have rested overnight, the League near the tiny island of Oxia, and the Ottomans somewhere West of the cape Antirrion; they are less than 20 miles apart, close but out of sight of each other. Both waited for information about their opponent. It’s interesting to note that – the story goes – Greek fishermen, who were contacted by both fleets and despised both Catholics and Ottomans, having been under the yoke of both, wanted them both to come to harm. So, they told both sides that “the other fleet is much smaller than yours,” encouraging them to attack the other. Other, faulty intelligence also misled the commanders. The two sides saw each other when the Ottoman fleet went past the narrows formed by cape Araxos, West of Patra. It was a shock to both to see an equal size armada facing them! But it was too late, and there was no turning back.
One can imagine the view: two parallel lines of galleys, with many smaller vessels behind them, sailing head-on at each other slowly, at walking pace, flags flying, trumpets blaring, tympani beating, oars dipping and raising rhythmically, gunners, soldiers, and archers waiting for the “moment.” These fleets were enormous for the time, in both numbers and people. Accounts vary somewhat, but the consensus is that there were the 6 Venetian galleasses and 206 fighting galleys, opposing 222 similar Ottoman vessels. Even if undermanned, as most were, adding the auxiliary vessels, well over 150,000 souls, are about to meet in a life or death struggle! On the Christian front, young Don Juan was splashing around on a fast boat, haranguing his galleys in turn, crucifix in hand, to give them courage – to the annoyance of his experienced commanders. (Of course, he wore a splendid, arrow-proof suit or armor, and most sailors didn’t.) On the Ottoman side, there were mass prayers to Allah to protect them and defeat the Infidels. They wore no armor except faith. And the distance was closing…closing…
The boats’ side-by-side arrangement made for two parallel, curving, opposing lines, each about 5 miles wide, their northern ends close to the shallows West of what is now called Messolongi, where the fight started. The League had placed their 6 “galleasses,” these formidable large galleys with multiple cannons, ahead of their line. In the shallows, the Ottomans were destroyed by the galleasses and superior Venetian tactics, but their commander, Agostino Barbarigo, was killed, as was his opponent, Mahomet Sirocco. In the center, the flagship galleys of both Don Juan (“Real”) and Ali Pasha (“Sultana”) fought in a melee, boats grappling each other with hand to hand fighting – almost like a land battle on wooden decks. During the desperate fight, the Ottoman leader was killed, and his head was placed on a spear to bring consternation to the Muslims. In the South, the more experienced corsair Uluch Ali managed to outmaneuver the Genoan commander Gianandrea Doria (adopted son of his far more illustrious uncle, Admiral Andrea Doria.) Uluch Ali, seeing that the battle was already lost in the North, escaped with most of his galleys, doing terrible damage to the galleys of the Knights of Malta in his path, to live another day and to eventually become the Grand Admiral of the Ottomans – this once galley slave was to die full of honors at age 68 in Constantinople. (Doria was to inherit Marques and Prince’s titles from his uncle, marry well, father a Catholic Cardinal, and die at 67.)
It took two hours for the battle to be decided and another two for the mop-up. The resulting devastation figures had not been seen since Roman times and would not be seen again until World War I. Within that short, 4 hour space of time, 50 Ottoman galleys and galliots sunk against 12 Christian. There were 117 Ottoman galleys captured, against 1 Christian (by Uluch Ali.) The estimates vary widely in terms of humanity, but the Ottomans lost at least 20,000 men and 8,000 captured, against over 7,000 Christian dead. The overall figures of wounded, or missing, is much higher. The League claimed they freed more than 15,000 Christian slaves from the Ottoman galleys. Thirty thousand people were dead or drowned. It was over.
There were reprisals: The Christian fleet simply withdrew with their spoils without trying to acquire any territory. Their League already started to disintegrate amid mutual disputes and bitter accusations as to individual conduct in the battle. Though beaten, the Ottomans retained control of Greece and wrested terrible reprisals from nearby towns, like Patra, accusing Greeks of supporting the Christians in the fight. (There is a detailed list of the names of individual League galleys that were owned and manned by Greek mercenaries, including their captains’ names – although some fought on the opposite side as well.)
So, what was the historic result of this monumental day? The Ottoman expansion into the West Mediterranean was permanently stopped. (The struggle on land did not end until the battle of Vienna 122 years later.) It will be another 250 years before the Greeks will revolt in 1821. So, as I watch this peaceful sea in front of me, and the impressive relic of the stone bastions above Nafpaktos, I think of the fateful times, when some called it Lepanto, and how different the view would have been in those dramatic days of October 1571.
Incidentally, one of the Spanish sailors on a galley named “Marquesa” was a young man who injured his arm in the fight. In much later years, he wrote about it, as he had become a successful writer. Perhaps you know his name: Miguel Cervantes, the author of “Don Quixote.”