jueves, 8 de octubre de 2015

As a description of the age-old conflict between Christianity and Islam, it is a story which resonates today


by Victor Davis Hanson

The Victory of the West:
The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto

by Niccolò Capponi

The Sermon on the Mount is a long way from the Qur’an, but the Christian soldiers of the sixteenth century knew well enough that weakness in the face of the Ottoman galleys sweeping the Italian coast meant death or conversion. Until the next world, violence alone ensured the survival of Christendom—and so, after their victory at the great Battle of Lepanto, Spanish and Italians butchered scores of defeated Turkish seamen thrashing in the bloody seas, determined that the sultan would lose all his skilled bowmen and rowers. In their way of thinking, any Jihadist left alive would mean only more Christian dead in the near future.

The clash on the Mediterranean between the West and Islam often turned even more horrific. In the months before the battle near Lepanto, the Venetian captain Marcantonio Bragadin surrendered the garrison at Famagusta to an overwhelming Turkish invasion force. Despite promises of safe passage out of Cyprus, mass slaughter and rape ensued, with the heads of the Venetian lords lined up for display in the town square. Bragadin first had his ears cut off, then was forced to carry earth as a captured slave. After having Bragadin hanged from a galley yard, the Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa ordered him flayed alive. He expired about halfway through the grisly torture, but his tormentors continued. His hide was stuffed with straw, clothed, and paraded as a trophy before being sent to Istanbul.

After the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the landmark Christian-Muslim clashes of the past were continually evoked in popular dialogue, as if they were apparent precursors to the current Western struggle against radical Islam. So Poitiers, the Crusades, the Fall of Constantinople, Grenada, the Siege of Vienna, and Omdurman were all referenced—not just by Westerners but just as often by bin Laden and his associates, whose fatwas blared grievances about the lost “al-Andalus” and the infidel “Crusader kingdoms” in the Middle East.

Yet no East-West clash resonates more so than Lepanto, the great sea battle of October 7, 1571, that involved more than four hundred ships and eighty thousand seamen, and, along with Actium, Salamis, and Ecnomus, may well have been one of the most deadly single-day naval battles in history. Fought off the northwest coast of Greece near the Curzolaris Islands—not far south from Augustus’ great victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium—Lepanto proved the last great clash of oared ships that resulted in an unforeseen victory of Christendom over the sultan’s feared Ottoman fleet.

But while Christian Europeans at the time saw their victory as a divine gift that saved their civilization, its geopolitical significance has always underwhelmed modern historians. The Christian League was an ad hoc alliance of convenience, riddled with internecine fighting and intrigue. It was never really much more than the galley fleets of Spain, the Papal States, and Venice. England and France kept clear. Both had long ago cut their own deals with the Ottomans. Indeed, during the winter of 1542 the French had even allowed the Ottoman corsair Barbarossa the use of their harbor at Toulon to refit, as he conducted raids along the Italian coast.

For most countries with ports on the Atlantic, it was far better to get rich trading with the Turk than to fight him. As Niccolò Capponi writes in his new book, The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto:

By the beginning of the sixteenth century Christendom was in a very sorry state. Gone were the crusading ideals of old; people turned deaf ears to the alarmed utterances of preachers and popes about the necessity of stopping the Turkish advance. For most European governments the Ottoman threat was low on their list of concerns—they were more interested in maintaining their positions in the rich eastern markets—while a few states were quite ready to abet, or at least not hinder, the sultan’s expansionist policies for the sake of their own commercial interests.

So the battle was hardly an epic struggle of a consolidated Europe against the Eastern threat. If the Ottomans had united most of the Muslims of the Middle East under the Grand Porte, Europe was trisected by Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The best admirals in the Turkish fleet were often Italian renegades. Galley rowers were in no small part Christian slaves. The best Turkish galleys themselves were either copied from Italian designs or captured from the Spanish and Venetians and refitted.

On the voyage out to meet the Ottoman fleet, Don Juan of Austria—the bastard son of King Charles V of Spain, half-brother of King Philip II, and the nominal head of the allied Christian fleet—almost arrested some of his allied Venetian admirals. One, Sebastiano Venier, had hanged some murderous seamen employed by the Spanish, which nearly precipitated a war between the two allied fleets on the eve of the battle.

It was never quite clear how many Christian ships would actually show up to sail eastward toward Lepanto, the winter port of the Ottomans, much less how the galleys were to be provisioned and their crews paid. By October and the onset of rough seas, many admirals in the fleet thought the season to go chasing the huge Ottoman fleet was long over.

Even when the Christians won and nearly destroyed the Ottoman armada, Europe was too disunited to capitalize on the enemy’s setback. It never recaptured the lost Cyprus, much less sailed up the Dardanelles to retake Constantinople. In contrast, the Ottomans quickly replaced their galleys, hired new crews, and went on the offensive again in the eastern Mediterranean, recapturing most of their fortresses in North Africa within a year.

What is it then about Lepanto that, more than six hundred years later, still makes it a symbol of a supposedly indomitable Christian West? The heroic efforts of an aged, obsessed Pope Pius V to cobble together a makeshift fleet of last resort to put a stop to the continuous westward surge of Islam? The singular calm of the twenty-six-year-old Don Juan, who danced a jig on his flagship Real in the very seconds before the battle—after offering one of the tersest and most famous pre-battle harangues in military history: “Gentlemen, this is not the time to discuss but to fight.”


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