on 5 June 2008
The conflict between Ottoman Turkey and Christian Spain for mastery of the Mediterranean basin had a huge influence on the development of the modern world, yet is probably not something you know very much about, even if you studied history at school. Roger Crowley deals with the key period of this struggle during the 16th Century in a page-turner of a narrative peopled with almost larger-than-life personalities - Suleiman the Magnificent, Bluebeard the Pirate (actually there were father and son Bluebeards) - Andrea Doria, the mercenary Admiral, and a supporting cast of Kings and Popes. What becomes clear is how very close the Ottomans came to extending their Empire into France, Italy and Spain, and how much better organised they were than the European powers who faced them.
The centrepiece of the book is the siege of Malta. The heroism of the defenders would not be believed if it were fiction, and the complex tale is told with exemplary clarity.
You may find parallels in the 21st Century, but Roger Crowley wisely doesn't labour them. Read it twice!
on 4 December 2008
Read a review in the Wall St. Journal which wetted my appetite. Being a history buff it intrigued me. The book was an excellent read, covering the Seige of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto and the Contest for the Center of the World in the sixteenth century. The constant battle for supremacy in the Christian/Muslim world with it's shattering disregard for human life. After it was all over little had really changed and that state of affairs continues to this day. Magnificent descriptions of battles, especially the sea battle at Lepanto which is described as "Europe's Trafalgar" during which 40,000 were killed in four hours and really ended the crusades of the time.
There is a lot to relate to in today's world.
This is a pacy, easy-to-read overview of the steady westward movement of the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth century Mediterrean and it's crunching full stop at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Like the many books on the Crusades, it has modern resonances and maintains an even-handedness throughout.
The strengths are the descriptions of the siege of Malta- in particular - and the cataclysmic battle of Lepanto. The weaknesses are a little bit of 'reaching' to make this area, perhaps, more fundamental to modern Europe than it actually was - describing the conflict as a 'world war' for example and the failure to convey what the combatants in a naval battle are actually trying to do or achieve. How does a sea battle 'work'? I am sure the author was trying to avoid the level of detail that takes a book like this - very much a popular history - into a military history sales cul-de-sac, but I felt this undercut some of the tension. The siege description was far more gripping.
Nevertheless in a decent epilogue, Roger Crowley makes the pithy point that rising prices and cheap labour costs in the Christian West did as much to undermine the Ottomans as Don Juan's galleys. Capitalism wins again!
The perfect companion for all military history enthusiasts is the ROMA VICTRIX WINE BEAKER Calix Imperium, Roma Victrix Pewter wine beaker
This engaging history, based mostly on secondary sources, has a strong narrative arc, in three parts: the groping of the Ottoman and Spanish Hapsburg empires towards a confrontation in the sixteenth century; the unsuccessful siege of Malta by the Ottoman empire in 1565; and the destruction of a Turkish fleet at the battle of Lepanto in 1571. The author tries to be even-handed, but at crunch points his adverbs ('luckily', 'unfortunately') side with the Christians - though this may be just for purposes of having a satisfying narrative, since at both Malta and Lepanto the Christians are presented as underdogs who win against unlikely odds. The author suggests that Christian Europe was lucky to have survived the two encounters, and that an Ottoman victory in either case might have ultimately resulted in an Ottoman invasion of Rome.
I do not have enough background in the period to evaluate that claim, but have the sense that this book is best read as a dramatic telling of the narrative history, rather than for its analysis. The author's use of quotes suggests a stronger interest in telling the story engagingly than in getting the analysis exactly right. For example, discussing the inflationary effect of Spanish New World silver on naval conflict between 1540 and 1570, Crowley writes, "Warfare had always been costly; in the sixteenth century it rocketed. The price of ship's biscuit - a critical expense in sea warfare - quadrupled in sixty years; the commensurate total cost of operating Spanish war galleys tripled; price increases rippled across Europe and lapped at the shores of the Ottoman world too. War had become an expensive game. 'To carry out a war, three things are necessary,' remarked the Milanese general Marshal Trivulzio presciently in 1499, 'money, money, and yet more money.'" To his credit, Crowley dates the quote - lifted from another 2004 book on the battle of Lepanto - and adds the qualifier 'presciently'. Still, whatever its original context, the quote can't have been referring to the inflation caused by Spanish gold. There are several other moments in this book where I found myself thinking, that's a colorful detail, but it doesn't really support the point being made. However, the reading was a pleasure.
The strongest impression the book leaves - greater for me than any lessons about geopolitical history -- was of the sheer brutality, not just of war, but also of what passed for peace around the Mediterranean in the 1500s. Crowley presents piracy and the wholesale destruction of both Christian and Muslim communities as commonplace. Indeed, the maritime economy ran on a particularly vicious form of slavery -- captive rowers at the oars of pirate ships and warships -- that chewed up lives at an appalling rate. That brutality ultimately makes it hard to root for either side in the wars Crowley describes; it's mostly a relief that they finally reached a stalemate after Lepanto.
on 22 June 2009
Another cliff-hanger from Crowley as he tears aside the veil of a `clash of civilisations' to show the people beneath, some of whom, yes, fought for Christianity or Islam, some of whom like Hayrettin Barbarossa fought for revenge and profit as much as for the Prophet. Some like the countless thousands of galley-slaves fought to stay alive (the supply of whom stripped coastal regions and perpetuated the war in a self-feeding cycle).More realpolitik than religion, this is Pirenne's divided Mediterranean, both sides aping the defunct Roman Empire, trying to project their version of it. Starting with the siege of Rhodes and Famagusta whose commander met a gruesome end, skinned alive and the skin stuffed and dressed in finery and sent to the Sultan, this book tells the next chapter of Ottoman expansion after the Fall of Constantinople and a grim remorseless story it is.
Thematically structured into two parts, the siege of Malta and the battle of Lepanto, both presented as huge triumphs in the West, Cervantes describing Lepanto as the `greatest event witnessed by ages past, present and to come', slight setbacks in the East.
As for Malta, forget the Alamo which held out for two weeks, the fight to hold St. Elmo's fort which held out for a month would read like a pot-boiler if it were not true, down to the very end when its captain Miranda had himself tied to a chair because of his wounds and waited by the gate with his pistols and his swords for the Janissaries who stormed the building.
Lepanto where the two fleets blundered into each other, produced an apocalyptic battle that is hard to credit when reading the story in the comfort of an armchair. The rate of death, 40,000 in the first four hours, would not be equalled until WWI.
A loss which the Ottomans were able to replenish within a year, but the value of Lepanto and Malta was to show that the Ottomans could be beaten on land and at sea. The West gave up trying to reconquer the Holy Land and the Ottomans refocused on Eastern Europe where logistical overstretch and a moribund intellectual outlook eventually did for them. Both recognised the de facto split in the Mediterranean which exists to today.
Narrative history at its best. I can't wait to see what he does next.
on 21 October 2008
Crowley does an extraordinary job putting together three extraordinary stories that marked the 16th Century in the Mediterranean: The siege of Rhodes, the siege of Malta, and the Battle of Lepanto. These stories, especially that of the siege of Malta, makes the book read like a novel, most enthralling and nail biting.
Although Crowley has written a very accurate and detailed account of these clashes between the Christian and Muslim worlds, one gets the impression, that he tends to minimize the role of Christian leaders, their armies and the importance of their victories, and maximizes that of the Ottoman side. For example, he doesn't give much importance to the conquest of Tunis by Emperor Charles V, while he gets to the detail with other minor Turkish exploits.
The author is notably pro Turkish throughout most of the book, presenting the Christians as more religious fanatics than the Muslims, when probably both were exactly the same. The fact that Crowley lived for a long period of his life in Istanbul may explain this and that he recreates himself longer when detailing the fascinating ottoman world. This is perfectly clear, when at the end of the book he goes through the list of mausoleums and great internments of all the ottoman main characters, while he ignores the final resting place of the Christian kings and admirals.
However, the book is fully recommendable, and anybody interesting in this period of history, and in the last of the crusades, will surely enjoy it.
on 1 March 2015
Having now read this book, I must profess myself perplexed by the glowing reviews (the reason why I bought it myself).
It has entertaining accounts of the major battles for which it can be read with good values, however, outside of these chapters the book suffers from an extreme pro-ottoman/muslim perspective that colors almost all it covers.
Indeed the application of warped perspective is unique amongst the many history books I have read over the last 20 years and often left me wondering if it is a political piece of history instead of an recount of actual events.
Had hoped for an insightful and entertaining view through the period of time, the area and the motivations and drives of the powers involved. Got something that reminded me of outer political left wing history writing.
If you are looking for an entertaining history book to fill your time, go things like Battle Cry of Freedom by McPheerson or 1812 by Adam Zamoyski or Peter the Great by Massie. You will be much better served and cheerfully free of warped perspectives.
on 4 August 2008
The clash of civilisations is not a new notion. Civilisations have clashed for thousands of years, as rival tribes and nations with varying cultural mores and religious beliefs have struggled for supremacy.
In recorded history, Greek fought Persian, Roman fought Carthaginian (and countless others), and Christian fought Muslim.
It's the latter that we think of today when we shudder at the memory of 9/11 or sigh over the pointless loss of life in the Middle East.
This is a struggle that has flared up intermittently since the First Crusade in 1096 brought a motley crew of robber knights, religious zealots and sundry opportunists to wrest the holy places of Palestine from the hands of their Muslim overlords.
The crusades petered out towards the end of the 13th century, but at least one of the organisations that was born in the blood and sand of the Middle East survives today. They are the Knights of Malta, and while we know them as providers of an excellent voluntary ambulance and first aid service, their history was not always as peaceful.
The Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta figure largely in a marvellous new book which chronicles one phase of the Christian-Muslim conflict, the bitter struggle for mastery of the Mediterranean between 1521 and 1580.
In Empires of the Sea Roger Crowley brings back to mind half-remembered history lessons - the fall of Rhodes, the rise of the Barbary corsairs, the siege of Malta and the decisive battle of Lepanto.
Most people now who think of Malta in military terms focus on the siege during World War II when the tiny mountain top between Sicily and North Africa withstood months of attack by the German and Italian air forces. For its endurance, the island and its people were collectively awarded the George Cross, the highest British civilian award for gallantry.
But almost 400 years earlier, the Maltese and their then rulers, the Knights of St John, were tenacious in the defence of their stronghold against a huge Ottoman army which besieged them from May to September 1565.
The Ottomans, referred to by most of their oppponents as the Turks, although they comprised many more races, were experts at siege warfare. Crowley has already written about their capture of Constantinople and this book starts with the attack on Rhodes in 1522 after which the Knights were allowed to sail away to Malta. Among those who left was a young knight, Jean de la Valette, who as Grand Master of the order presided over and inspired the successful defence of Malta forty years later.
La Valette is just one of the giant personalities who people this account. On the Ottoman side are the sultans, Suleiman the Magnificent and his son Selim; the military commanders, Ali Pasha and Mustapha Pasha; the fearsome corsair Barbarossa; and many more.
For Christendom there are Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, and after him his son, King Philip of Spain; the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria; the Venetian Sebastiano Venier; and the great Romantic hero Don Juan of Austria. Don Juan was the illegitimate son of Charles, half-brother of Philip, and his victory at the crucial naval battle of Lepanto in 1571 sparked innumerable poems, songs and dramas. He was even celebrated by GK Chesterton in his poem "Lepanto" as late as 1915.
If the personalities are giant, the events are huge. Vast amounts of gold were poured into building and equipping ships on both sides, and at times the losses were enormous. The naval battles were fought with galleys, rowed often but not always by slaves, which rammed each other to provide platforms for fierce hand to hand fighting.
The book reads like a thriller. It is narrative history, and the narrative it relates would scarcely be credible if it were presented as a work of fiction.
Heroes and villains abound, often in the same camp. Both sides are capable of great cruelty and great courage. In the siege of Malta La Valette stands in his armour in the front line of the defence as the Turks swarm up the rubble of a defensive wall.
At the last minute, on the most dangerous day of the siege, as in the most clichéd war movie, the cavalry literally comes over the hill and attacks the undefended enemy camp in the rear. The almost-triumphant Turks break off the attack to retrieve their valuables and re-take their camp, and valuable breathing space is gained.
Tales of individual heroism crowd the bigger picture. The commanders fought alongside their men. At Lepanto Ali Pasha, the Ottoman chief, shot dozens of arrows at his enemies as his flagship was captured. Don Juan danced a galliard on the gun platform as they sailed towards the enemy. A man hit in the eye by an arrow plucked it out, eyeball and all, tied a cloth around his head and continued fighting.
The battle was a turning point in history - never again did the Ottomans pose such a threat to the West. Up to this, even Rome was at risk from their ambitions.
Having just finished this book, I am inclined to go back to the beginning and start all over again. I certainly hope to do so before I visit some of the places where great and terrible deeds were accomplished. If you enjoy your history embellished with colour and enlivened with anecdote, this is the book for you.
One quibble, though: it's surprising that Faber, the publishers of poetry, were not more assiduous in their editing. Scrabbling is one word that is grossly over-used by the author, and discrete does not have the same meaning as discreet.
on 11 January 2009
This is a splendid book for the general reader. In about 300 pages Crowley describes the Christian/Muslim 16th Century conflict in the Mediterranean. The end of that century also marks the end of the supremacy of the Mediterranean in the West, which until then had been the centre of Western Civilization. Crowley creates a picture in words as the reader is transported, Google-Earthlike, from Philip II sitting like a spider in the centre of a web directing the business of the Spanish Empire to Suleiman flamboyantly extending the Ottoman Empire. The description of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 is so vivid that I felt I was an observer standing on the poop of Don John's flagship. It seems to have had a similar effect on Roger Crowley because he wrote that Lepanto was the biggest battle in the West until Loos in 1916 (sic). Loos was fought in 1915 and I believe the battle of Tannenburg between Russia and Germany in 1914 was considerably bigger. More relevant is the fact that in terms of men and ships Lepanto was not surpassed until the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War 2.
Today's technology enables the reader to use Google Earth to see the battle sights. Forts St Elmo and St Angelo in Malta can be viewed looking as I imagine they were 500 years ago. The reader can see the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth the same as when Don John of Austria saw it before Lepanto.
The only material concern that Crowley did not discuss was the question of hygiene in the Siege of Malta. Until the Boer War, army losses due to sickness and wounds were greater than those killed in action. The Knights of St John as part of their hospitaller remit cared for the sick. I understand that they minimized sickness in their galleys by transferring the slaves to cells in Fort St Angelo when the boats returned from operational duty and temporarily lowering the boats to the bottom of the harbour so that they could be freed of the slaves' excrement and other accumulated filth. I understand that sickness among the besieging Ottoman forces was a major concern. I would be surprised if sickness was a similar problem in the Knight's forces.
Although the events happened up to 500 years ago the conflict is topical: players and locations are different, but the struggle between the West and militant Islam goes on. One could substitute George Bush and the United States for Charles V and Spain, for example. Although there are examples of chivalrous behaviour between opposing commanders of the like of Don John of Austria and the Ottoman fleet's commander, Ali Pasha, the behaviour of Lala Mustapha, the Ottoman commander before Famagusta was of unspeakable brutality. His action of having the surrendering Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadin, skinned alive whilst under the protection of a truce is so horrific that it continues to poison relations between Turkey and the West, to this day..
Empires of the Sea is well worth having. What splendid movies that include the Siege of Malta or the Battle of Lepanto could be made!
Roger 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.