Empires of the Sea

Empires of the Sea:  The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley.  Random House, New York, 2008.  $30.00.  315 pps.

Often histories of 16th century Europe focus on the unfolding dramas of Northern Europe–the religious ferment of the Reformation, or Tudor England, that romping Renaissance soap opera featuring the ever-recognisable Henry VIII and all those wives, and his fiery daughter, Elizabeth I, patron of Shakespeare.

Yet curiously, simultaneously, a sequence of tumultuous power struggles was convulsing the southern regions of Europe–a series of battles for military, religious and economic domination was played out across the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean, which wholly dwarf the familial power-plays of the north.  Empires of the Sea:  the Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World, is Roger Crowley’s neatly encapsulated history of this defining epoch.

After taking Byzantium (Istanbul) in 1453, the Ottoman Turks looked west.  They consolidated their power, and set their sights on Rome.   They had a new, young and energetic leader in Suleiman, eager to prove his military might and add his chunk of conquered real estate to the imperial portfolio.  He conquered Hungary, then turned his attention to Rhodes where the ageing relics of the mediaeval world, the Knights of St. John, held sway, and succeeded in driving them out.

Over the next decades, the velocity and brutality of this power-struggle between the Christian west and the Muslim east mushroomed–between the Catholic rulers, Charles V and Philip II of Spain, the Pope and the Knights of St. John, on the one hand, and the ever-increasing armies and navies of Suleiman the Magnificent and his son, Selim, ably abetted by their tame North African pirate navies.

To those unfortunate enough to live along the coasts of southern Spain, Italy, or upon the islands of the Mediterranean, it was an age of unrivalled terror.  At any moment, the savage forces of the pirates, Barbarossa, or his brother, Dragut Rey, might bear down in a lightening strike.  Within a day, whole towns and villages were sacked, their inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved and bound aboard galleys for the markets of North Africa.  Despite the appeals of the pope, the response of the European rulers to this threat was invariably dithering, incoherent, or occasionally, apathetic.

In 1565, the Ottomans sent the largest fleet ever assembled to lay siege to the island of Malta, the conquest of which would given them control of the whole of the Mediterranean.

The Knights of St. John prepared to meet this assault as best they could.  And somehow, despite the failure of aid to reach them, and their significantly lower numbers of combatants, they held out over several months of terrifying and ferocious attacks, in a most dramatic display of courage, determination, grit and great leadership.  The victory celebrations were held Europe-wide.

The Turks did not acknowledge defeat at Malta, and by 1570, they had recovered enough to send a navy and siege engines to Cyprus.  Yet the final conquest of that island with its acts of unparalleled barbarity was to have unforeseeable consequences (including probably the key to understanding Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice).  It both horrified and energised the Venetians, forcing them off the diplomatic fence, and unified the Christian powers, bringing them together for a final decisive battle to defeat the Turkish fleets at Lepanto in October 1571.

But while this hardly signalled the end of either the Turkish expansionism or the Barbary Pirates, the religious and cultural boundaries of Europe were now fixed, and never again would East meet West in such a conflagration, nor would the Mediterranean provide the arena for such a decisive naval action.

From the outset, Crowley’s research of his subject is thorough and exact.  He liberally provides key Christian eye-witness accounts from the period, detailing the royal and diplomatic uncertainties, and underscoring the huge anxieties of the age–the equal of Churchill’s jeremiads about Germany’s rearmament in the Thirties.  He offers exquisitely delicate insights and undulating descriptive passages when writing of the places.  Still, in his descriptions of the battles, his prose is so lean, so taut and tense, it is impossible not to be caught up in the harrowing action.

Though he never revels in gore, the unadorned facts invariably produce cover-your-eyes, heart-thumping moments.  Had Dick Francis turned his hand to history rather than racecourse thrillers, this would have been it.

It is rare that a book comes along which requires we reconsider our verdicts on the past.  Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea is an honest history of an underestimated and oft-neglected subject and it is definitely one of those rare books.

(This review first appeared in The Christian Science Monitor.)


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