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Adventures in Bookland: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley

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The world was strange five hundred years ago. The unity of medieval Christendom had ruptured, breaking apart a thousand years of cultural understanding (even if that had not translated into any lasting peace between the warring European states). Meanwhile, the old bulwark against the advance of the armies of Islam, the impregnable walls of Constantinople, had finally proved pregnable in 1453. Each new Ottoman Sultan had to prove his legitimacy through war and conquest – hence the inexorable drive towards a century and more of conflict.

The Ottomans were originally a nomadic people. Naval warfare was something new to them. But, in the 16th century, they learned fast. Land conquests had made the Sultan master of the Black Sea. Now, he sought to rule the White Sea too.

Standing in his way were the Venetians, the Genoese and the Spanish, under their Habsburg kings, Charles I and Philip II.

The struggle for the Mediterranean was one conducted through generations, with fathers and then sons and even grandsons engaged in the conflict. And it was a brutal conflict, its brutality exacerbated by the demands of the chief engine of this particular naval war: the galley. In the shallow, generally calm waters of the Mediterranean, these oared sailing ships, with their ability to ram and run fast under the pull of the oars, were the most potent vessels, but their potency was earned through human misery: the men pulling the oars. For most sides in the conflict, the chief source of oarsmen was slaves. Slave-taking expeditions became a constant menace, particularly to the southern European states. All sides took part in the trade, but the Ottoman armed forces were predicated upon slavery for their most feared troops, the Janissaries, were slaves, children taken from their, usually Christian, parents, converted to Islam and then raised as soldiers.

Crowley takes this fearsomely complex war and relates it well, breaking down the long struggle into a number of key battles while not neglecting the longer-term diplomatic and economic factors that also played into the war. But, in the end, it came down to four great battles, three island sieges and a concluding naval battle: the siege of Rhodes (1522), when the Ottomans succeeded in expelling the Knights of St John, the successors to the medieval Hospitallers, from the island; the siege of Malta (1565), when the knights held, just, to their new base; the siege of Famagusta (1571), in which the Ottomans took the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus and, by their barbaric execution of the defenders, inflamed Venetian passion to such an extent that the Republic forwent trade for war and became one of the chief instigators of the Holy League that faced the Ottomans in the great naval battle of Lepanto (7 October 1571).

Four great battles in one long war. That the Sultan did not rule the White Sea as he did the Black was down to these men, men like Cervantes, who fought at Lepanto and counted it his most glorious deed, Don Juan of Austria, commander of the Holy League, who danced a galliard on the poop deck of his ship before battle began, Jean de Valette of the Knights, who fought at the siege of Rhodes and then commanded the Knights during their defence of Malta, and many others. Remarkable men for a remarkable conflict, and one that deserves to be better known. Hopefully, Crowley’s excellent book will serve to make that happen.

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