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E + 23 : Lepanto - A Strategic Dilemma

Lepanto is today called Nafpaktos - the AFAET just outside the medieval harbor

Today is Lepanto Day. Our destination is the Bay of Lepanto (Nafpaktos), where in 1571 the fleets of the Holy League (Spain, Genova, Venice & Papal Navy) and the Ottoman Empire clashed. It was a fight of epic proportion. Each sides deployed more than 200 galleys and 70’000 troops. It was one of the biggest sea battles in history. There were 20’000 casualties, mostly Turks. The Ottoman Navy lost 50 galleys, another 117 were captured. Many historians believe that this was the decisive battle between Christian Europe and Muslim Ottomans that stopped the Turks advance to the West.

Pope Pius III commissioned this painting one year after

the Victory at Lepanto - the three figures at the bottom

left represent Spain, the Papacy and Venice

Am not so sure whether I agree. It is correct that Lepanto was a water shed event. The Ottoman Empire rebuilt its fleet quickly but grand naval campaigns were replaced by occasional raids into the Western Mediterranean. Turkey was still a formidable power. The siege of Vienna in 1683 serves as testimony. But there were seismic shifts in the world economy which affected the Mediterranean and its balance of power. The old economic area of the Indian Ocean was being replaced by the Atlantic. The silver from Bolivia allowed Charles V, the German Emperor and Spanish King, to check the advance of the Ottoman Empire. The Portuguese built a trade empire in the Indian Ocean with colonies in Goa, Diu, Hormuz, Mozambique and Mombasa, re-routing the trade flow of Asian goods to Lisbon.

Painting from Fernando Bertelli in the Library of the Pope in the Vatican - the tactical positions are pretty accurate - the Fleet of the Holy League to the left - the Turks to the right

How would the Ottoman Empire respond to these challenges? As every big Empire, it needed money. The custom fees on Asian trade goods, which had filled the coffers of the Ottoman’s Treasury for years, were dwindling. Also, the Turks were not participating in any of the new economies being built across the Atlantic. Nor did it take part in the scientific revolution which started in the West.

The Ottoman's Sphere of Influence from 1531 - 1571

Building a fleet of 200 galleys cost about USD 20bn in today’s money. But what did it achieve? Not that much. Within the Sultan’s inner circle, a big debate was going on whether the Ottoman Empire should pursue a global strategy or remain a traditional Middle Eastern Power. The latter one was less risky and quite profitable. The first one entailed huge new and not well understood risks but offered also immense rewards.

The Site of Lepanto today - a Peaceful Sea

Lepanto was right in the center of this debate. After the victory at Preveza in 1534, the Turkish fleet gained naval superiority in the Mediterranean. As a fleet, it could operate unchallenged even in the most western parts of the Mediterranean. But naval superiority is not supremacy which is necessary to dictate events. Barbarossa could never take the harbors of Syracuse, Malta, Taranto, Otranto, Ancona, Naples, Cagliari, Cartagena or Cadiz where the Spanish and Genovese fleet found refuge. When operating in smaller squadrons, the Turks could get caught as happened to Turgut Reis in Corsica in 1540 where he was captured and served as slave on a Genovese galley for several years.

The Ottoman Empire had several options to address these challenges:

1. It could get involved in the Atlantic to intercept the Spanish Silver fleet which financed all of Spain’s war efforts. Morocco was already a vassal and the Turkish Admiral Uluc Ali Reis (Occhialli) maintained a naval base on its north shore. Turkey would have to build an ocean-going fleet of caracks though for which it lacked both the technology and the manpower. The absence of Turkey in modern science was truly limiting. Building a thriving sciences community required more freedom than the Ottoman authorities were willing to concede.

A Portuguese Carrack from 1585

2. It could increase its naval assets in the Indian Ocean to remove the Portuguese and re-route the trade of Asian goods again through its domains. A small Ottoman fleet was already in Suez and supported the locals fighting the Portuguese. Ottoman military personnel took a prominent role in the siege of Diu in 1538. Again, Turkish galleys were not suitable for the Indian Ocean – again, an ocean-going fleet was needed which the Ottomans did not have

The Portuguese Fortress of Diu in Gujarat, India

3. Last but not least, it could remove Venice from the war camp and make it a vassal. Half of the Christian galleys fighting at Lepanto were Venetian. The Serenissima was already paying tributes to the Ottomans before 1537 – but Suleiman the Magnificent pushed them into the alliance with Spain when attacking Corfu. Whether Venice could have defended its role as Europe’s warehouse whilst being a Turkish vassal is a question difficult to answer.

Anchorage Place of the Turkish Fleet on the Eve of the Battle of Lepanto

The debate about Turkey’s strategic options waged for a few years but in the end resulted in nothing. Its Mediterranean fleet was too expensive for what it achieved, building an ocean-going navy too risky and interfering in the Indian Ocean would annoy the powerful Mughal Empire. Turkey did not need another enemy. The Ottoman Empire thus shifted its military spending towards its land forces and returned to asymmetric warfare in the Mediterranean.

None of these bigger strategic considerations were obvious to the sailors, oarsmen and soldiers at Lepanto. Their commanders were eager for a fight. It could have been avoided though. 7 October 1571 was already late in the campaigning season. The Turkish could have simply stayed under the protective guns of the Lepanto castle and waited. The fall weather would sooner or later have forced the Holy League to pull back. Lepanto was a big tactical victory for Christian Europe – but Turkey would have to change its strategy anyway.

View on Nafpaktos on the way down from the Castle which was once a small Greek Acropolis

Nothing reminds us today of the events of 450 years ago – the sea looks like any other. The weather was hot, there was almost no wind. We reached Lepanto after 6 ½ hours of sailing from Paxos. Once the temperatures had dropped a bit, we climbed the Venetian castle which offered the most spectacular views. The site of a gruesome battle was peaceful again.

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