The Battle of Preveza

by Jacob Herr 6 days ago in history

A Clash of Nautical Titans

The Battle of Preveza

In 1538, the Mediterranean Gulf of Arta would become the battle ground between two opposing forces. As the Ottoman Empire seeks to expand it’s territory and cultural influence into the heart of Europe, the Kingdom of Spain, the Republic of Venice, and even the Papal States, fear for the loss of their status as world powers, their sovereignty as independent nations, and their freedom as human beings. For if their leaders and people were to act blissfully ignorant to the marauding hordes of the Ottoman Turks upon their arrival to their doorsteps, they would surly become lambs of God among the wolves of Allah. Fueled by political and religious ideologies, these diametrically opposed entities would use the latest of military technology and strategy to shed their blood. For the victors would become the most dominant naval force of the Mediterranean Sea; and remembered by the annals of time and history as a new generation of ruthless conquerors or faithful crusaders. The purpose of this essay is to is to analyze the critical intangibles and x-factors which determined the Battle of Preveza’s outcome, and how it shaped it’s political fallout for both the Europeans and the Ottoman Empire.

During the first half of the 16th century, the political atmosphere of Europe and it’s neighboring continents was shifting towards the expansion of global empires. The Kingdom of Spain, under Charles V, acquired control of the Americas to the west, as well as the Italian states of Genoa, Naples, and Sicily to the east. The Republic of Venice, under Doge Andrea Gritti, successfully colonized the Mediterranean islands of the Adriatic, Ionian, and Aegean Seas to further strengthen their naval trade routes. As for the Ottoman Empire, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent began to expand the empire’s borders beyond their desert holdings in the Holy Land. Between 1453 and 1530, the Turks were able to spread their land holdings and cultural influence to lands as far north as Poland, as far south as Egypt and Somalia, as far east as Persia (modern day Iraq), and as far west as Algiers. Their methods of acquiring a balanced use of political diplomacy and barbaric military conquest by means of naval piracy.

"The main thesis is that the reign of Suleiman I (1520-1566) witnessed the formation of of what may be called Ottoman grand strategy. This involved the formulation of of an imperial ideology and a universalist vision of of empire; the collection of information both within and outside the borders of the empire which helped the integration of the Ottomans into European politics and political culture; the elaboration of a foreign policy and propaganda-based party on knowledge acquired through the channels of Ottoman intelligence gathering that furthered the Ottoman’s vision of empire; and the mobilization of the empire’s human and economic resources and military power in there service of imperial policy." (Goffman 77)

"In the late 1510’s the corsairs paid allegiance to the Ottoman sultan who provided him with arms and men and appointed Hayreddin Barbarossa both governor of Algiers and commander of the western Ottoman fleet." (Glete 99)

By 1535, the imperial conquests of Algiers and the remnants of the Byzantine Empire at the hands of the Turks and their mercenary bands of corsair pirates, became of extreme concern for the western European world; particularly to the elite interests of Spain and Venice. Because or their economic dependency on foreign trade within the Mediterranean Sea, the Turkish territories of Algiers, Greece, and Egypt, now pose a very dangerous threat. If the Ottoman corsairs were to attack and control the Venetian & Spanish trade routes and Mediterranean colonies, then their ability to weaken such potential enemies through economic stranglehold; which would then be followed by military invasion upon the opportune moment.

Upon reports of an unsuccessful invasion of the Venetian colony of Corfu by both the Ottomans and France, followed by a series of corsair attacks along the coastlines of Naples and Sicily (Spanish vassal states), emissaries from Spain and Venice were sent to Rome, to appear before Pope Paul III. It was at his inception and request before both the emissaries and their corresponding leaders (Charles V & Andrea Gritti) for the formation of an alliance to counter the Muslim heathens. A Holy League of warships from Spain, Genoa, Venice, and the Papal States to hold their ground in unity, in the name of their God, their leaders, and their countries. Such a concept of naval unity by the European powers was immediately favored by King Charles V.

"Again he strove hard for peace, seconded by Pope Paul III, who shared Charles’ desire to set a united Christendom against the Turk. … For the Turkish peril had assumed greater proportions than ever. … Venice which owing a serious divergence of aims and interests, had sometimes sided with the Turk against the rest of Christendom, now called on Charles for help, and a large-scale Turkish raid upon Apulia (July, 1537) inclined him to listen to the call." (Davies 98-99)

In February of 1538, Pope Paul III approved of the international Holy League. To command such an ambitious alliance at sea, Admirals Marco Grimani of the Papal States, Vincenzo Capello of Venice, and Andrea Dorea of Spain (despite originating from Genoa) were summoned to Rome and given blessings by the Pope for God’s protection and support when confronting the heathen mariners. Their assignment was to sail the Spanish, Venetian, and Papal fleets out of the port of Corfu, seek out the Ottoman fleet of the pirate Barbarossa, and destroy him at all costs. For the reputation of Hayreddin Barbarossa as a tenacious, ruthless, and psychopathic pirate was known and feared, from the Black Sea to the Iberian Peninsula.

"As dey (governor) of Algiers he expanded the hinterland, took over the slave trade, fought off the Spanish, and imposed his will on other pirates with the help of European renegades. In command of an Ottoman galley fleet in the name of Suleiman I, in 1534 this red-bearded (‘‘barbarossa’’) pirate and nominal Ottoman vassal captured Tunis. … Barbarossa built a Barbary battle fleet that scourged the western Mediterranean, raiding for slaves and capturing prizes on a grand scale. When not corsairing, this fleet supported the Ottoman navy." (Nolan 64)

"At least three of the sixteenth-century commanders-in-chief of the Ottoman Navy, including the famous Hayreddin Barbarossa, had a background as corsairs in Algiers." (Glete 54)

Between February and September of 1538, the necessary preparations were made by Spain, Venice and the Papal States to construct their quota of warships for the Holy League, along with amassing a recruitment of sailors to combat the enemy both from a distance and hand-to-hand. during this time Admirals Doria, Capello, and Grimani retained high confidence of a successful campaign. This was because the force they would be amassing and commanding would simply be one of the largest unified naval task forces, up to that time. Their force would contain over 60,000 armed sailors and 300 vessels. Compared to Barbarossa’s standing force of only 12,000 active corsairs, and only 120 vessels, the Turks would be outnumbered five to one.

Another advantage was that the Holy League was heavily funded by the Church’s financial office, in Rome, as well as the gold shipments coming into Spain from their colonies in Central & South America. Their money being put towards this naval crusade, was able to provide the most recent styles of ships and weapons technology; galleon warships, arquebus muskets, wheel lock pistols, and straight swords forged with Toledo steel.

"From the late 15th century, but especially preeminent in the 16th century, a revolutionary new sailing ship of war (the galleon) appeared that made oceanic trade a reality and far-flung commerce raiding possible. It had a narrow waist (‘‘fine lines’’), two or more gun decks housing ship-smasher cannon, and batteries of chase guns fore and aft. … Its preeminence flowed from several key advantages. First, it combined greater hull capacity and a small crew that consumed less food and water than a galley crew, allowing more goods to be carried farther than ever before. Next, its clinker-built hull was strong enough to mount broadside cannon for defense against pirates and enemy warships. This, too, displaced crew as cannon, not men, became the main fighting instrument in war at sea. Third, the galleon sported full rigging; that is, a combination of square sails for power and lateen sails to aid maneuvering. Along with the new sternpost rudder, this rig gave the galleon unmatched maneuverability. Finally, the long, narrow hull of race-built versions made the galleon sleeker and faster than any warship of comparable size." (Nolan 335-336)

"The arquebus was a major advance on the first ‘‘hand cannon’’ where a heated wire or handheld slow match was applied to a touch hole in the top of the breech of a metal tube, a design that made aiming by line of sight impossible. That crude instrument was replaced by moving the touch hole to the side on the arquebus and using a firing lever, or serpentine, fitted to the stock that applied the match to an external priming pan alongside the breech. This allowed aiming the gun, though aimed fire was not accurate or emphasized and most arquebuses were not even fitted with sights. Maximum accurate range varied from 50 to 90 meters, with the optimum range just 50–60 meters." (Nolan 29-30)

"As plate armor replaced mail and stabbing rather than slashing became the preferred use of blades against other armored men, knightly swords were thinned and tapered to a sharp thrusting point, usually reinforced with additional metal needed to punch through iron plate. …In Iberia, ‘‘Toledo steel’’ became synonymous with the Reconquista." (Nolan 827-828)

On the opposite side of the spectrum, Admiral Barbarossa’s corsairs, were never financed with the same amount of money as their European counterparts. Leaving them to rely on creative strategies of attack with inferior and outdated tools of war; galley ships, swivel guns, recurve bows and arrows, and curved swords of Damascus steel.

"The galley, or oared warship, was an extraordinarily successful ancient ship design that lasted millennia rather than centuries. In one form or another oared warships dominated all coastal waters up to the 15th century, and into the early 17th century in the Mediterranean and other shallow or enclosed seas. … Most galleys were single, double (‘‘bireme’’), or triple (‘‘trireme’’) oared. A few had four or five racks of oars but size and additional weight of ship and crew set sharp upper limits to galley size and speed. Three men to an oar was normal. Later hybrid oar-and-sail ships such as the xebec used as many as eight men per oar because they had a high freeboard requiring longer oars; this caused great energy loss for each oarsman. These were mongrel, dead-end ship designs representing a transition from the true galley to the true ship of sail. The basic features of a war galley were these: they lay low in the water so that shorter oars could be used, saving crew energy; they were long and narrow to seat the maximum number of oarsmen and reduce drag; they had collapsible masts and lateen sails. Wind power was their primary mode, with human muscle saved for short bursts of battle speed or in becalmed waters." (Nolan 336-337)

Compared to larger artillery pieces, the swivel gun was a small to mid-sized (up to six feet long) breech-loading cannon firing grapeshot or some other canister shot in an anti-personnel role. They were deployed as secondary artillery on galleys or on the high castles of roundships from where they could fire down onto the enemy’s deck. (Nolan 827)

"Commonly used by Ottoman troops, the Turkish recurve bow was about five feet long. It was made of wood, bone, and horn and held together by sinew and various glues. As with every composite bow, each layer of construction added elasticity. In addition, its tips curved forward, which imparted extra energy to iron-tipped arrows when the bow was strung and shot. It had a killing range up to 250 yards." (Nolan 877)

"Ottoman swords and knives were mostly of Iranian, not Arab, origin. The ‘‘kilic’’ was the most common blade. It was only slightly curved and did not taper to a point. … The Ottomans also used a sword with a reverse curve to the blade, the famous ‘‘yatag ̆an,’’ better known in the West as the ‘‘Turkish sword.’’" (Nolan 828)

The campaign (though extremely short) officially began on September 22, 1538. At the port of Corfu, the Holy League admirals arrived with their corresponding fleets. Originally, their plan was to act as a defensive force against the Turks. However the plans changed 5 days later, when news of Barabrossa’s fleet was reported to be sailing northbound towards the entrance of the Adriatic Sea, but their current location was unknown. Following a consensus from the admirals and various other officers, including Admiral Doria’s nephew (Captain Giovanni Doria), it was decided to have the Holy League sail southward towards Lepanto. There, they would continue to carry out their plan to stage a false fight to lure Barbarossa’s galleys into a trap, and use the superior firepower of the galleons to decimate his fleet. By the evening of September 27, the Holy League sailed only 30 miles south, and lowered their anchors in the Gulf of Arta; just beyond the Venetian colony of Preveza. Yet it was to Admiral Doria’s surprise and shock to witness what appeared to be the unthinkable, the next morning. Hayreddin Barbarossa had discovered the location of the Holy League and ordered all of his ships to sail headlong towards the European fleets, at full sail. By the time Doria was able to spread the warning to Admirals Capello and Grimani, have the galleons weigh anchor, set sail, and prepare for battle, three hours had past, and the Ottoman galleys had begun to bombard and besiege the first wave of ships. The Battle of Preveza had begun.

For the next 10 hours, the Turks successfully routed the Holy League. Because their galley ships were much smaller and more mobile than the galleons, they were able to slip between the gaps of European vessels and send boarding parties to the opposing decks of both broadsides. Once the boarding parties commenced hand-to hand combat on multiple ships, almost simultaneously, the lines of communication between the Papal, Venetian, and Spanish fleets broke down; making it almost impossible to coordinate a proper counter-attack. This method of offensive maneuvers by the Ottomans, eventually caused the enemy morale to drop so low, that Admiral Doria orders a full retreat of the Spanish fleet back to Corfu (despite urgent pleas by the Papal and Venetian fleets to keep up the fight). At the end of the day, Barbarossa and his fellow pirates declared victory at Preveza. 13 Holy League ships were sunk, another 36 were captured, and over 3,000 Holy League sailors were either killed or taken prisoner. The Ottomans never didn’t lose a single ship, despite their casualty number of 1,200 lives.

Immediately following the battle, it was determined by a court of inquiry that the main factors and circumstances which led to the Holy League’s defeat were due to the overconfidence of high command, underestimating the enemy, weather conditions too poor to properly exercise siege warfare at sea, lack of proper and effective communication between the Spanish, Venetian, and Papal fleets, Admiral Barbarossa’s extensive knowledge of the battlefield history of the geographic area, and his understanding of weaknesses within the European war machine.

"The Ottoman fleet was in the Gulf of Preveza on the Greek coast south of Corfu. It was a classical place for naval actions - the Battle of Actium was fought here in the year 31 BC." (Glete 101)

"Events however, soon showed the impossibility of an effective alliance with Venice. A battle in the Gulf of Preveza (September 27th, 1538) was turned from victory to something not far from defeat by lack of coordination among the ill-assorted allies." (Davies 99)

"Doria’s maneuvers in that battle were the result of secret instructions from Charles, who hoped to avoid battle and win over the Turkish admiral, Khaireddin, but they appeared to be what Grimani had planned to do, namely, use the cannon fire of his large round ships to weaken the enemy before the light galleys engaged. … Doria’s maneuvering on that day, was on the whole a failure, for while his fleet was not destroyed, it retired disorganized and demoralized." (Lane 361)

The blood spilt on that day, was henceforth amended in October of 1540. After another two years of successful raids and fortress captures by the corsairs, a peace treaty an independent peace treaty was signed by the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. Under the articles of the treaty, all islands in the Ionian and Aegean Seas (and territory along the eastern half of the Adriatic Sea) under Venetian control, would be surrendered to the Ottoman Empire, the Venetian government would pay an indemnification of 300,000 ducats of gold, to Sultan Suleiman I, Venetian ships and ports would no longer be attacked by Barbarossa or any other of his pirates under his command, trade networks would be established and open between the Venetians and the Ottomans.

Other events which occurs following the Holy League’s defeat and the treaty of 1540, included the death of Doge Andrea Gritti in December, 1538 and the reign of Doge Pietro Lando who authorized the Venetian-Ottoman treaty. Hayreddin Barbarossa retired from his life of piracy and his service to the Ottoman Navy. He would pass away in Istanbul, in 1545. Yet, most importantly, between 1539 and 1571, the Ottoman Empire would would remain the most dominant naval force in the Mediterranean Sea, until their defeat by King Philip II of Spain, At the Battle of Lepanto.

"The Battle of Lepanto", by Paolo Veronese, circa 1572

Works Cited

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  • Glete, Jan. “Warfare at Sea, 1500 - 1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe”. Routledge Inc. 2000. Print. March 22, 2020.
  • Goffman, Daniel. “The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe”. Cambridge University Press. 2002. Print. March 22, 2020.
  • Nolan, J., Cathal. “The Age of Wars of Religion, 1000-1650: An Encyclopedia of Global Warfare and Civilization”, Greenwood Press. 2006. Print. March 22, 2020.
  • Lane, C., Frederick. “Venice: A Maritime Republic” The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1973. Print. March 22, 2020.
  • Heywood, J., C. “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies”. Review of “Gun-Powder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century” by John Francis Guilmartin, Jr. Cambridge University Press. 1975. pages 643-646. JSTOR. Web. March 22, 2020.
  • Felker, C., C. “Technology and Culture”. Review of “Command at Sea: Naval Command and Control since the Sixteenth Century” by Michael A. Palmer. The Johns Hopkins University Press. July, 2007. pages 648-649. JSTOR. Web. March 22, 2020.
  • Murphey, Rhoads. “Seyyid Muradi’s Prose Biography of Hizir Ibn Yakub, Alias Hayreddin Barbarossa: Ottoman Folk Narrative as an under-exploited Source for Historical Reconstruction” Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Volume 54, Issue 4, 2001, pages 519-532. JSTOR. Web. March 22, 2020.

Jacob Herr
Jacob Herr
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