Monday, June 21, 2010

Dim Dums Throbbing....

Who was Don John of Austria, and how exactly did he set his people free? Colm Culleton on the history behind Chesterton's most celebrated poem...

The Battle of Lepanto

"Lepanto" is the Italian name for the Greek town of Nafpaktos, which means "dockyard", because Heraclidae built a fleet there very long ago. To locate it on the map, find the long, narrow Gulf of Corinth. The Gulf is open to the west, where it is guarded by two main islands: Cephalonia to the north and Zakinthos (Zante) to the south. (Beside Cephalonia is the tiny island of Ithaca, but nobody famous ever came from there.) About 40 miles into the Gulf, on a bend on the northern shore, is Lepanto.

Originally, Lepanto belonged to the Locri Ozolae, but in 455 BC it was captured by Athens, which established there the Messenian helots, who were the bitter enemies of Sparta. But Sparta captured the town in 404 BC, after which it passed in turn to the Achaeans, the Thesbians, and Philip of Macedon, who gave it to the Aetolians. In 191 BC, it was conquered by after a fierce siege of two months. During the reign of Justinian, it was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake. It was held by the Turks from 1498 to 1687; by the Venetians for two years; then the Turks again until 1827, at which time it became part of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece. Today Nafpaktos holds about 10,000 people, all of whom Orthodox Greeks.

The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October, 1571. At this time, the Turks were all-conquering, having won north Africa and the lands around the Black Sea. They had ejected the Knights of Malta from Rhodes; and in the previous year they had conquered Cyprus (after a long siege of Famagusta), which was then a strategic outpost belonging to the powerful trading nation of Venice. But most important was the Turks’ conquest of the Balkans, which put them within easy reach of Venice itself. At the Battle, the Christian side contained ships from Venice, Spain, Genoa, Savoy, and the Knights of Malta (who took the southern flank in the battle). They had been assembled by the Pope, who then - like now - was frightened for the safety of the Christian West. They were "the Holy League". Their leader was a Spaniard, Don John of Austria, the eldest son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; and his flagship was the "Real" ["royal"]. Conspicuously absent were France, and the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth.

The great advantage of the Christians were the six new war-ships hurriedly built by Venice, called "galliasses". These were much more powerful than the old galleys. They had 40-50 guns, crucially mounted along the rail as well as at bow and stern (the galleys’ guns were mounted only at bow and stern). Also, they had higher decks, making them more difficult for enemies to board. But things started badly, when Don John considered that some of the Venetian ships were undermanned, and he insisted on transferring some of his Spanish sailors to them, to the great chagrin of the Venetians.

At the start of the Battle, each fleet contained about 200 galleys and 70 support ships.

The Turks were led by Ali Pasha, and his second-in-command was the pirate Uluç Ali Pasha. By early October, they had been anchored for six weeks inside the fortified harbor of Lepanto, but on October 5 they moved westward into the outer Gulf. Still unsure of his enemy's position, Ali Pasha dropped anchor for the night in a bay fifteen miles from the entrance to the Gulf, just off the tiny island of Oxia. (Indeed, most of the battle took place there, and not near Lepanto at all.) The Turks remained there all next day, anxiously awaiting word from their scouts. At first light on October 7, lookouts signalled that the enemy was approaching the entrance to the Gulf, only 15 miles away. Ali Pasha commanded the centre squadron, which faced the one commanded by Don John.

According to the practice of the day, one of two rival fleets would fire one gun as a challenge to fight, and his opponent would fire twice to signify that he too was ready. This day it was the Turks who made the challenge, quickly followed by a double round from Don John. The Turks hoisted a large green silk banner decorated with the Muslim crescent and holy inscriptions in Arabic. The Christians flew the Cross.

The very first Christian salvo sank many Turkish galleys and badly damaged others. The Christians fought with such incredible ferocity that the battle soon became a slaughter. On the Turks’ right wing, not one galley escaped. The battle itself was over by four o'clock, but the Christians continued to chase down Turkish ships. The sea was strewn with dead bodies from both sides. The crusaders lost 17 ships (including four of their six galliasses), and 7,500 men. The Turks lost 190 ships and over 20,000 men, plus the 15,000 Christians slaves who had powered their ships. (All figures are approximate.) One of those wounded was Cervantes, who lost the use of his left arm, after earlier having needed to be ransomed from the Barbary pirates. Sunset saw the approach of bad weather, so the Christians anchored in a sheltered bay on the northwest of the Gulf. The exultant officers joined Don John to celebrate the victory. Turkey was left without a navy for the first time in centuries.

Word of the fleet's splendid victory at Lepanto quickly spread throughout Europe. Hundreds of poems, songs, and paintings were produced all over Christendom in commemoration of the victory. In Venice, the Doge ordered a week of celebrations, and October 7th was declared a perpetual holiday.

Lepanto was of great importance for ending the myth that the Turkish navy was invincible (though they remained supreme on land). Without it, the Turks would have reigned supreme throughout the Mediterranean. Alas, the success was short-lived, since the Turks appeared the very next year with a new fleet of 250 ships.

Don Juan himself did not live long to enjoy his famous victory: he died in 1578.

posted by Colm Culleton

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