The Muslim v. Christian battle for the Mediterranean

Roger Crowley has written a fascinating account of the war for the Mediterranean that the Turks called the White Sea. Empires of the Sea, The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World is an important book that covers a roughly 50 year period from 1521 when Suleiman the "Magnificent" of the Ottoman Turk empire began his conquest of Rhodes.

It ends with the Christian naval victory at Lepanto in one of the largest sea battles in history. In between both sides attempted to control the sea and both had their pirates, but none were more brutal that the Muslims Barbarossa. Christians were kidnapped and turned into galley slaves whose conditions made the trans Atlantic slave trade look like a vacation cruise. The number of Christians taken as slaves far exceeded the African slave trade of the same period.

The slaves were chained to their oars and were never permitted to leave them until their death which was usually within two years of capture. They had to eat sleep and relieve themselves while chained to the oars. They were regularly beaten to get them to work harder in battles with Christian ships that were being attacked.

After the Christians were driven off the Island of Rhodes both sides drifted in to raiding strategies with the Muslims doing most of the damage. The Spanish used some of the wealth they took from the new world to build fleets to take on the Turk challenge but often these fleets incurred expensive disasters.

It was not until Don Juan, the illegitimate half brother of King Phillip of Spain, was given command of the Christian fleet and with the urging of a new Pope that the Christians had a credible threat. The Christians had just survived a brutal siege of Malta. BTW, the book discloses the story behind the Maltese Falcon.

The Christians also had a tactical innovation that proved decisive. They sheared off the rams of their heavier galleys and put more cannons forward which allowed them to shoot down on the Turkish ships. At the battle of Lepanto 40,000 men were killed in four hours time. Around 100 ships were destroyed and the Christians captured another 137 Muslim ships. Of the dead 25,000 were Muslims another 3,500 were captured and 12,000 Christian slaves were freed.

One of the other aspects of the Christian victory was Muslim denial. It reminded me of Saddam's rationalizations after the first Gulf war.

It is a good book that shows how close the Christians came to losing the Mediterranean and its surrounding shore lines.

When I was in grade school I lived in Lepanto, Arkansas, but I was never told the significance of the name. Now I know.


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