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D - 41: Infamous People of the Mediterranean - Turgut Reis

Today, am going to write about a bad ass taking the risk that some of my Turkish friends may be offended. But in life it is important to call a spade a spade. Glorifying bad people is never a good idea. The person we talk about today is Turgut Reis, Captain Turgut, or Dragut, as he was called in Europe. Wikipedia calls him “a Muslim Ottoman Commander, Governor and Noble… recognized for his genius.” I beg to differ. But let’s talk about facts.

Turgut Reis – one of the few pictures I could find

Turgut Reis (1485 – 1565) was in many aspects a contemporary of Pope Pius V whom we met yesterday. Twenty years older than the Pope, he lived in the same turbulent time when everything seemed to change.

Born near Bodrum he joined the Ottoman Army at the age of 12, as all young man did who were yearning for a military career. Noticed for his talent in hitting targets with bow and arrow, he was trained in the use of guns from early on. At the age of 32, he participated as Artillerist and Master of Siege Guns in the Egyptian Campaign of 1517 and entered Cairo with the victorious Ottoman forces. When his Commanding Officer died, Turgut had to find a new job and joined Sinan Reis, a Sephardic Jew and naval commander under the Turkish Admiral Barbarossa whom he met in Alexandria. Turgut’s timing could not have been more fortunate.

The 16th century was the time when canons became standard equipment on warships. In 1453, the Ottoman Army had demonstrated that guns could breach even the strongest town-walls when it conquered Constantinople. But their two guns were enormous beasts firing stone balls weighting 1’200 pounds and needing 200 men to operate. Loading them took more than an hour. By 1475 however, Venetian and Portuguese engineers had figured out how to strengthen hulls and decks of ships to put canon on. The guns were muzzle loaded, bronze cast and could fire iron balls of 25 kg over an effective distance of 500 yards. The rate of fire increased to one round every 90 – 120 second. The Ottoman Navy quickly realised the potential of the new technology and started equipping their galleys with guns. Turgut was the man to put this new technology to use. His ability to hit Venetian ships and make them surrender earned him his own command. By 1520 he was so well known that Admiral Barbarossa wanted him in his main fleet.

Plan of a 36 oars French Galley with the platform for five naval guns in the front

Hitting large commercial vessels was easy since galleys could freely manoeuvre and choose their angle of attack. Using guns against galleys was more challenging. By putting guns into the galley bow, Turgut figured out how to use them in fleet actions. Galleys travel with 3 – 4 knots or 5.5 – 7.5 km per hour. During battle, they doubled the speed to 11 – 15 km/h approaching each other with 360 – 500 meters per minute. They could cross the effective firing range within one minute. Thus, galleys had just one shot per gun - at the opening of the battle. There was not enough time to reload. Since iron canon balls did relatively little damage and simply smashed through a galley, Turgut replaced them with canister shots – shells full of shrapnel or smaller balls. When they hit they killed up to 25% of a galley’s crew and swept the deck before it was boarded. The logic was brutal but effective.

Early examples of canister shots used by the Ottoman Navy

Under Barbarossa’s leadership, Turgut Reis’ career began to prosper. He was soon promoted to Chief Lieutenant and given command of a fleet of 18 vessels. He captured fortresses and strongholds on the Sicilian and Calabrian coast, intercepted ships sailing between Spain and Naples, was active in the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic and won the reputation as a skilled naval officer who was impossible to outwit. In the battle of Preveza he commanded the rear of Barbarossa’s fleet and significantly contributed to his victory. Fighting these engagements was brutal, crews were often beheaded when captured alive, their commanders ransomed for lots of money. It was a brawl where often luck decided who would survive.

Naval battle between Ottoman and Genoese galleys – after the initial exchange of fire the fight became a melee as each crew tried to board the other ship (Cornelius de Wael)

Venice lost a large part of its fleet at the Battle of Preveza and as we heard earlier, the Genovese and Spanish galleys pulled back. As a consequence, the Mediterranean lay open, completely unprotected. It was an invitation for Turgut to raiding enemy coasts, towns and villages. His forces often landed secretly during night, looted their targets, beheaded the defending soldiers and enslaved women and children for sale in the North African slave markets. The “non-productive” part of the population – the sick and old – were either killed or let survive to spread the terrible news. Turgut raided the coasts of Calabria, Sicily, Sardinia, Liguria, and Corsica and many of the small islands such as Malta or Capraia. On one of his raids in 1540, he stopped at the Bay of Girolata in Corsica (we will visit it during our second week) and was surprised by a Genovese Fleet under the Command of Giannettino Doria, Andrea Doria’s nephew. He was captured and served the next four years on a Genovese galley as prisoner of war.

Giroleta on the West Coast of Corsica – the Genovese Fort was built after 1540

In 1544, during one of the Italian Wars between France and Spain, Turgut’s mentor, Admiral Barbarossa, blockaded Genoa with his fleet and negotiated the release of Captain Turgut for 3’500 Gold ducats (the price of a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice). Andrea Doria came to regret this decision.

For the rest of his life, Turgut hated the Christian powers with passion. He scaled up his methods of raiding and sacking. The civilian population was so afraid of him that they abandoned their villages on the coast and moved inland to mountain tops which were ideal to fortify and easy to defend. The entire cost of the western Mediterranean is full of such - now almost empty - villages. Only bigger towns with modern fortifications and ramparts could repel Turgut’s attacks. He usually had 20 galleys with him with 3’000 men on board. The strong fortifications of towns such as Syracuse, Taranto, Augusta or Bonifacio still testify how seriously the threat was taken. Islands were less lucky. There was no place to hide. Turgut’s most infamous raid occurred in 1551 when he enslaved the entire population of Gozo, the northern of the two Maltese islands. He led 5’000 people into slavery. Reading the testimony of these fishermen, farmers, wives and children who had no involvement in the politics of their rulers is heartbreaking. Wikipedia lists the names of the places Turgut sacked over several pages without ever saying what this actually meant for the affected people.

Captain Turgut continued with this low scale warfare to his death and got generously rewarded by Suleiman the Magnificent. It was an inexpensive war that paid for itself. When Admiral Barbarossa died in 1546, Turgut Reis was appointed as his successor and made Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. Over the coming years more promotions and titles followed. He was appointed Governor of the Island of Djerba in southern Tunisia, named Beylerbeyi (Governor) of Algiers, made Sanjak Bey of Tripoli and eventually, in 1553, got the title of Beylerbeyi of the Mediterranean.

Map of Tripoli made by Piri Reis, the famous cartographer

As Admiral, Turgut's skills dominated the sea. When Andrea Doria was asked at the age of 84 to kick Turgut out of the western Mediterranean, he met his former captor again. Doria’s and his fleet met at the Battle of Ponza in 1552. But the 40 galleys of Doria were no match for Turgut’s 100 galleys. After loosing 7 ships, Doria was forced to pull back and retreat. The Western Mediterranean was again open for another three years of pillaging. The civil population of the Baleares, Corsica, Sardinia and the Spanish mainland would bear the brunt of these attacks.

In 1565 we see Turgut again as he participates in the Siege of Malta. Not as the senior commander but as advisor. Had his plans been implemented, the siege may well have been successful. Turgut was skilled and knew his business. He was killed in action in front of Fort St Elmo when canon ball splinters hit him.

The death of Turgut Reis in 1565 in Malta

Turgut was definitely a skilled naval commander and an accomplished leader of his men. His military success is impressive. But we have to ask ourselves what his raiding tactics actually achieved. None of them hit his enemies in their core. Spain, Genoa, Venice and the Papal States maintained their ability to build new fleets, strike back on the North African Coast (more about Charles V. Grand Strategy in another blog), harden their possessions with coastal fortifications and stay in the war. Could not find a number of how many civilians Turgut killed or led to slavery but simply adding what I found results in more than 50’000. How this could have achieved the Ottomans war goals is beyond me. Turgut achieved one thing though. He stiffened the will of people to fight back. Lepanto in 1571 was a direct consequence. Under today’s International Humanitarian Law, waging war against a civilian population is a war crime. I know these laws did not exist then. But why is it cool to name ships after someone we would consider a war criminal today?

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