Book review: Empires of the Sea – The Final Battle for the Mediterranean

Empires of the Sea book coverRoger Crowley’s book is an account of the naval battles for control of the Mediterranean during the sixteenth century. Predominantly a conflict between the Muslim Ottoman empire and the Christian Spanish empire, the fighting saw many others sucked in – and many people of each religion fighting on the ‘wrong’ side – but that does not detract from the underlying clash between two different empires with very strong religious overtones.

The clash of religions – and indeed civilisations – is largely forgotten in much of western Europe, but it still has a legacy that is pulled on, in particular by those seeking to justify violent extremism in the name of either religion. Many of the roots of violent Serbian nationalism, on awful display in the 1990s, lie in the Serbian history of Christian and Muslim armies clashing on its territory. Whilst this book concentrates on events further south and at sea, it nonetheless sets the broader scene too.

As the Ottoman empire looked to expand into the centre of the Mediterranean and into central and western Europe, it faced a series of military campaigns as it sought to besiege and then take fortresses on islands and coastline across the area. Many victories were won, but Malta held out and then at Lepanto the Turkish navy was destroyed. Lepanto was, until the battle of Loos in 1916, probably the single bloodiest day in military conflict with around 40,000 killed.

After both defeats the Turkish military was quickly rebuilt, but the two defeats stopped expansion and cost time. Eventually peace treaties were signed as the Ottoman empire slipped from the height of its powers, facing its own internal difficulties and a western Europe increasingly strengthened by the flow of money from expeditions and colonies in the Americas.

The barbaric nature of much of the conflict is described, mixed in with occasional displays of piety, charity and humanity. The pirates of north Africa have a particular gruesome history, including widespread use of slavery before the trans-Atlantic slave trade started. It is unlikely that north Africa just happened to have some of the worst of humanity present there and at the same time; it is more likely that the pirate history demonstrates how far too easily people can be sucked down to the worst of behaviour. When one pirate sets the lead demonstrating leadership and control by violence and inhumanity, others spiral downwards in a bloody attempt to make their own mark, each egging the other on to worse and worse acts.

There was also a brutal practicality behind the many horrors faced by galley slaves who rowed warships of the time. As Crowley points out, rowing slaves were the fuel supplies of the time. As inhumane conditions drove slaves to their deaths, the commanders were driven to hunt out more and more slaves to keep their ships running: “The galleys created their own need for war”.

Curiously, although occasional acts of generosity were used to motive galley slaves – such as promising freedom ahead of a battle if victory were to be won, none of the commanders described by Crowley appear to have decided that the way to get the best out of people was to treat them well rather than to treat them badly.

The question of quite where religious beliefs really fit in this picture is left mostly untouched. The worst of both Islam and Christianity was frequently on display as civilians were murdered, paranoid violence was meted out to those of suspect loyalty on the flimsiest of pretexts and prisoners tortured for public entertainment. Holy places were both seen as sites of refuge – and frequently despoiled.

How people squared such barbarism with the humane parts of their own holy books is left untouched and, despite the strongly religious rhetoric frequently displayed, Crowley points out numerous incidents of large numbers of Christians fighting for Muslim forces and vice versa.

Both the strategies and tactics of the naval conflict are though well described in this book. The non-Ottomans come in for heavy criticism for poor leadership, squabbling and disorganisation, with both their victories on land at Malta and at sea at Lepanto being painted as owing large amounts to luck. In contrast, the Ottoman organisation is frequently praised, even though the book starts with the Ottoman empire at its height and its pages recount how it failed to go further despite numerous attempts.

For all the praise heaped on the Ottoman war machine, by the end of the book it was as restricted to the eastern Mediterranean as at the start – and that in many ways was the victory for its opponents, for whilst they lost ground in the eastern Mediterranean, the homelands of Spain, the Papacy, Venice and others all remained intact.

If you like this, you might also be interested in The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe by Andrew Wheatcroft.

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Buy Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580 by Roger Crowley here.

Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580 by Roger Crowley
My rating (out of 5): 5.0
An enthralling read about events which still shape our modern world
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