Historical Tales: 7—Spanish - Charles Morris

Spain's Greatest Victory at Sea

On the 16th of September, 1571, there sailed from the harbor of Messina one of the greatest fleets the Mediterranean had ever borne upon its waves. It consisted of more than three hundred vessels, most of them small, but some of great bulk for that day, carrying forty pieces of artillery. On board these ships were eighty thousand men. Of these, less than thirty thousand were soldiers, for in those days, when war-galleys were moved by oars rather than sails, great numbers of oarsmen were needed. At the head of this powerful armament was Don John of Austria, brother of Philip II., and the ablest naval commander that Spain possessed.

At sunrise on the 7th of October the Christian fleet came in sight, at the entrance to the Bay of Lepanto, on the west of Greece, of the great Turkish armament, consisting of nearly two hundred and fifty royal galleys, with a number of smaller vessels in the rear. On these ships are said to have been not less than one hundred and twenty thousand men. A great battle for the supremacy of Christian or Mohammedan was about to be fought between two of the largest fleets ever seen in the Mediterranean.

For more than a century the Turks had been masters of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire, and had extended their dominion far to the west. The Mediterranean had become a Turkish lake, which the fleets of the Ottoman emperors swept at will. Cyprus had fallen, Malta had sustained a terrible siege, and the coasts of Italy and Spain were exposed to frightful ravages, in which the corsairs of the Barbary states joined hands with the Turks. France only was exempt, its princes having made an alliance with Turkey, in which they gained safety at the cost of honor.

Spain was the leading opponent of this devastating power. For centuries the Spanish people had been engaged in a bitter crusade against the Moslem forces. The conquest of Granada was followed by descents upon the African coast, the most important of which was the conquest of Tunis by Charles the Fifth in 1535, on which occasion ten thousand Christian captives were set free from a dreadful bondage. An expedition against Tripoli in 1559, however, ended in disaster, the Turks and the Moors continued triumphant at sea, and it was not until 1571 that the proud Moslem powers received an effectual check.

The great fleet of which Don John of Austria was admiral-in-chief had not come solely from Spain. Genoa had furnished a large number of galleys, under their famous admiral, Andrew Doria,—a name to make the Moslems tremble. Venice had added its fleet, and the Papal States had sent a strong contingent of ships. Italy had been suffering from the Turkish fleet, fire and sword had turned the Venetian coasts into a smoking desolation, and this was the answer of Christian Europe to the Turkish menace.

The sight of the Turkish fleet on that memorable 7th of October created instant animation in the Christian armament. Don John hoisted his pennon, ordered the great standard of the league, given by the Pope, to be unfurled, and fired a gun in defiance of the Turks. Some of the commanders doubted the wisdom of engaging the enemy in a position where he had the advantage, but the daring young commander curtly cut short the discussion.

"Gentlemen," he said, "this is the time for combat, not for counsel."

Steadily the two fleets approached each other on that quiet sea. The Christian ships extended over a width of three miles. On the right was Andrew Doria, with sixty-four galleys. The centre, consisting of sixty-three galleys, was commanded by Don John, with Colonna, the captain-general of the Pope, on one flank, and Veniero, the Venetian captain-general, on the other. The left wing, commanded by the noble Venetian Barbarigo, extended as near to the coast of ∆tolia as it was deemed safe to venture. The reserve, of thirty-five galleys, was under the Marquis of Santa Cruz. The plan of battle was simple. Don John's orders to his captains were for each to select an adversary, close with him at once, and board as soon as possible.

As the fleet advanced the armament of the Turks came into full view, spread out in half-moon shape over a wider space than that of the allies. The great galleys, with their gilded and brightly painted prows and their myriad of banners and pennons, presented a magnificent spectacle. But the wind, which had thus far favored the Turks, now suddenly shifted and blew in their faces, and the sun, as the day advanced, shone directly in their eyes. The centre of their line was occupied by the huge galley of Ali Pasha, their leader. Their right was commanded by Mahomet Sirocco, viceroy of Egypt; their left by Uluch Ali, dey of Algiers, the most redoubtable of the corsair lords of the sea.

The breeze continued light. It was nearly noon when the fleets came face to face. The sun, now nearing the zenith, shone down from a cloudless sky. As yet it seemed like some grand holiday spectacle rather than the coming of a struggle for life or death.

Suddenly the shrill war-cry of the Turks rang out on the air. Their cannon began to play. The firing ran along the line until the whole fleet was engaged. On the Christian side the trumpets rang defiance and the guns answered the Turkish peals. The galeazzas, a number of mammoth war-ships, had been towed a half-mile in advance of the Spanish fleet, and as the Turks came up poured broadsides from their heavy guns with striking effect, doing considerable damage. But Ali Pasha, not caring to engage these monster craft, opened his lines and passed them by. They had done their work, and took no further part, being too unwieldy to enter into close action.

The battle began on the left. Barbarigo, the Venetian admiral, had brought his ships as near the coast as he dared. But Mahomet Sirocco knew the waters better, passed between his ships and the shore, and doubled upon him, bringing the Christian line between two fires. Barbarigo was wounded, eight galleys were sent to the bottom, and several were captured. Yet the Venetians, who hated the Turks with a mortal hatred, fought on with unyielding fury.

Uluch Ali, on the Christian right, tried the same manúuvre. But he had Andrew Doria, the experienced Genoese, to deal with, and his purpose was defeated by a wide extension of the Christian line. It was a trial of skill between the two ablest commanders on the Mediterranean. Doria, by stretching out his line, had weakened his centre, and the corsair captain, with alert decision, fell upon some galleys separated from their companions, sinking several, and carrying off the great Capitana of Malta as a prize.

Thus both on the right and on the left the Christians had the worst of it. The severest struggle was in the centre. Here were the flag-ships of the commanders,—the Real, Don John's vessel, flying the holy banner of the League; Ali Pasha displaying the great Ottoman standard, covered with texts from the Koran in letters of gold, and having the name of Allah written upon it many thousands of times.

Both the commanders, young and ardent, burned with desire to meet in mid battle. The rowers urged forward their vessels with an energy that sent them ahead of the rest of their lines, driving them through the foaming water with such force that the pasha's galley, much the larger and loftier of the two, was hurled upon its opponent until its prow reached the fourth bench of rowers. Both vessels groaned and quivered to their very keels with the shock.

As soon as the vessels could be disengaged the combat began, the pasha opening with a fierce fire of cannon and musketry, which was returned with equal fury and more effect. The Spanish gunners and musketeers were protected by high defences, and much of the Turkish fire went over their heads, while their missiles, poured into the unprotected and crowded crews of Ali's flag-ship, caused terrible loss. But the Turks had much the advantage in numbers, and both sides fought with a courage that made the result a matter of doubt.

The flag-ships were not long left alone. Other vessels quickly gathered round them, and the combat spread fiercely to both sides. The new-comers attacked one another and assailed at every opportunity the two central ships. But the latter, beating off their assailants, clung together with unyielding pertinacity, as if upon them depended the whole issue of the fight.

The complete width of the entrance to the bay of Lepanto was now a scene of mortal combat, though the vessels were so lost under a pall of smoke that none of the combatants could see far to the right or left. The lines, indeed, were broken up into small detachments, each fighting the antagonists in its front, without regard to what was going on elsewhere. The battle was in no sense a grand whole, but a series of separate combats in which the galleys grappled and the soldiers and sailors boarded and fought hand to hand. The slaughter was frightful. In the case of some vessels, it is said, every man on board was killed or wounded, while the blood that flowed from the decks stained the waters of the gulf red for miles.

The left wing of the allies, as has been said, was worsted at the beginning of the fight, its commander receiving a wound which proved mortal. But the Venetians fought on with the courage of despair. In the end they drove back their adversaries and themselves became the assailants, taking vessel after vessel from the foe. The vessel of Mahomet Sirocco was sunk, and he was slain after escaping death by drowning. His death ended the resistance of his followers. They turned to fly, many of the vessels being run ashore and abandoned and their crews largely perishing in the water.

While victory in this quarter perched on the Christian banners, the mortal struggle in the centre went on. The flag-ships still clung together, an incessant fire of artillery and musketry sweeping both decks. The Spaniards proved much the better marksmen, but the greater numbers of the Turks, and reinforcements received from an accompanying vessel, balanced this advantage. Twice the Spaniards tried to board and were driven back. A third effort was more successful, and the deck of the Turkish galley was reached. The two commanders cheered on their men, exposing themselves to danger as freely as the meanest soldier. Don John received a wound in the foot,—fortunately a slight one. Ali Pasha led his janizaries boldly against the boarders, but as he did so he was struck in the head by a musket-ball and fell. The loss of his inspiring voice discouraged his men. For a time they continued to struggle, but, borne back by their impetuous assailants, they threw down their arms and asked for quarter.

The deck was covered with the bodies of the dead and wounded. From beneath them the body of Ali was drawn, severely, perhaps mortally, wounded. His rescuers would have killed him on the spot, but he diverted them by pointing out where his money and jewels could be found. The next soldier to come up was one of the galley-slaves, whom Don John had unchained from the oar and supplied with arms. Ali's story of treasure was lost on him. With one blow he severed his head from his shoulders, and carried the gory prize to Don John, laying it at his feet. The generous Spaniard looked at it with a mingling of pity and horror.

"Of what use can such a present be to me?" he coldly asked the slave, who looked for some rich reward; "throw it into the sea."

This was not done. The head was stuck on a pike and raised aloft on the captured galley. At the same time the great Ottoman banner was drawn down, while that of the Cross was elevated with cheers of triumph in its place.

The shouts of "victory!" the sight of the Christian standard at the mast-head of Ali's ship, the news of his death, which spread from ship to ship, gave new courage to the allies and robbed the Turks of spirit. They fought on, but more feebly. Many of their vessels were boarded and taken. Others were sunk. After four hours of fighting the resistance of the Turkish centre was at an end.

On the right, as related, Andrew Doria had suffered a severe loss by stretching his line too far. He would have suffered still more had not the reserve under Santa Cruz, which had already given aid to Don John, come to his relief. Strengthened by Cardona with the Sicilian squadron, he fell on the Algerine galleys with such fierceness that they were forced to recoil. In their retreat they were hotly assailed by Doria, and Uluch, beset on all sides, was obliged to abandon his prizes and take to flight. Tidings now came to him of the defeat of the centre and the death of Ali, and, hoisting signals for retreat, he stood in all haste to the north, followed by the galleys of his fleet.

With all sail spread and all its oarsmen vigorously at work, the corsair fleet sped rapidly away, followed by Doria and Santa Cruz. Don John joined in the pursuit, hoping to intercept the fugitives in front of a rocky headland which stretched far into the sea. But the skilled Algerine leader weathered this peril, losing a few vessels on the rocks, the remainder, nearly forty in number, bearing boldly onward. Soon they distanced their pursuers, many of whose oarsmen had taken part and been wounded in the fight. Before nightfall the Algerines were vanishing below the horizon.

There being signs of a coming storm, Don John hastened to seek a harbor of refuge, setting fire to such vessels as were damaged beyond usefulness, and with the remainder of his prizes making all haste to the neighboring port of Petala, the best harbor within reach.

The loss of the Turks had been immense, probably not less than twenty-five thousand being killed and five thousand taken prisoners. To Don John's prizes may be added twelve thousand Christian captives, chained to the oars by the Turks, who now came forth, with tears of joy, to bless their deliverers. The allies had lost no more than eight thousand men. This discrepancy was largely due to their use of fire-arms, while many of the Turks fought with bows and arrows. Only the forty Algerine ships escaped; one hundred and thirty vessels were taken. The Christian loss was but fifteen galleys. The spoils were large and valuable, consisting in great measure of gold, jewels, and rich brocades.

Of the noble cavaliers who took part in the fight, we shall speak only of Alexander Farnese, Prince of Parma, a nephew of Don John, whom he was destined to succeed in military renown. He began here his career with a display of courage and daring unsurpassed on the fleet. Among the combatants was a common soldier, Cervantes by name, whose future glory was to throw into the shade that of all the leaders in the fight. Though confined to bed with a fever on the morning of the battle, he insisted on taking part, and his courage in the affray was shown by two wounds on his breast and a third in his hand which disabled it for life. Fortunately it was the left hand. The right remained to write the immortal story of Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Thus ended one of the greatest naval battles of modern times. No important political effect came from it, but it yielded an immense moral result. It had been the opinion of Europe that the Turks were invincible at sea. This victory dispelled that theory, gave new heart to Christendom, and so dispirited the Turks that in the next year they dared not meet the Christians at sea, though they were commanded by the daring dey of Algiers. The beginning of the decline of the Ottoman empire may be said to date from the battle of Lepanto.