Tuesday, May 26, 2009


The jihad/crusade clash between Islam and Christianity is not just recent. At present I am reading Italian Renaissance scholar Niccoli Capponi’s Victory of the West: The Story of the Battle of Lepanto. It’s a bloody account. A 16th century struggle that foreshadows Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Ghastly things done by both sides, then as now.

Earlier the Turks had beseiged the Cyprus town Famagusta. After a heroic defence against overwhelming odds the town surrendered on a promise of safe passage. Instead brutal slaughter and rape took place, the heads of the defeated Venetian lords displayed on the walls.

In 1571 at Lepanto the victorious Spanish and Italians butchered the Turkish seamen floundering in the debris of their defeated galleys. The book does not spend much time on the actual battle. Instead it gives a fascinating account of events leading up to it and the consequences. It’s an important date if not a definitive one. Rather, it is indicative of a historical shift.

In one way it was a miracle that the coalition between Spain, Venice and the Papacy was stitched together and then held. Intrigue, in-fighting and jealousy dominated negotiations and the fleet. My knowledge of Phillip of Spain was based around his marriage to Mary and then his clash with Elizabeth, the fighting in Flanders and the Armada. Capponi’s book reveals how he was also at the same time coping with enemies in the Mediterranean.

He also describes the expense of equipping and keeping a galley navy. Phillip tried to get the Papacy to pay for as much as he could squeeze out of it. The Venetians were always after the best deal. The Florentines had their own games to play. The French had established good trading relations with the Turks so they did not want to come to the party. (They had the safeguard of distance).

Outnumbered the Christian coalition won an upset victory in enemy waters. Technological superiority carried the day. Their munitions were much better. Their tactics proved superior.

The battle didn’t stop the westward surge of the Turks. They retained control of conquered Cyprus. Shortly afterwards they re-captured Tunis. Indeed a century later the Ottoman army reached the gates of Vienna. But it slowed the surge down and prevented the Mediterranean becoming a Turkish preserve. They no longer harassed the Italian coasts with impunity.

The Mediterranean had lost its centrality. The Atlantic-facing nations of Europe could now access the Orient and the New World by sea. Their galleons could outgun and out-sail the galleys. The bloody battle of Lepanto was the last gasp of an old system that had been overtaken by technological change.

But ninety minutes on an October day in 1571 in another close-run thing did have significance. Capponi, by placing them in context, does them justice.

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