This week in history: The Battle of Lepanto illustrated differences between Islam and the West

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

On Oct. 7, 1571, the Christian navy of the Holy League battled against the might of the Muslim Ottoman Fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. Though outnumbered, the Christians were victorious largely because of Europe's developing capitalist system and willingness to innovate, which allowed for the swift creation of a powerful fleet.

Since the Islamic conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman armies had made increasing inroads into Europe and embraced a new Islamic triumphalism. After consolidating its hold over the Balkans, the Islamic force had attempted to take Vienna in 1529. After a protracted siege, the Ottomans were forced to fall back, though they viewed this episode as a minor setback that would soon be made right. For early 16th-century Ottomans, still flush with the victory over the Byzantine empire decades before, the eventual establishment of a worldwide caliphate was only a matter of time.

Halted on land, Ottoman forces increasingly sought to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean. Blessed by the pope, several Italian states joined together with Spain to confront Ottoman aggression and defend their holdings. The Christian fleet sailed to the Gulf of Patras, on the eastern coast of Greece, and there they located the forces of the Ottoman navy.

The Ottoman forces outnumbered the Holy League's, in both men and ships. The Ottomans boasted perhaps 250 vessels, while the Christians sailed perhaps 210. Additionally, the Holy League brought roughly 70,000 soldiers and sailors, while the Muslim force counted approximately 80,000. The Ottoman sailors, Jannisary shock troops and other forces, all the way up to their admiral, Ali Pasha, were slaves to the sultan, completely at his command. In contrast, most of the men who led the Christian force were free aristocrats, who were allowed to question their superiors and make suggestions freely.

In his book “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power,” historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the battle:

“Many of the European galleys, particularly the Spanish vessels, were larger than their Ottoman counterparts. Their higher decks allowed boarding parties to jump down into the Turkish ships, while hundreds more of the Christian gunners remaining on board poured shot downward with impunity on the beleaguered enemy archers. The Christians — the Spanish especially — were also comfortable with mass charges, in which discipline, cohesion and sheer weight might overwhelm the individual bravery and martial skill of the Janissaries.”

Hanson notes that 150 Muslims and Christians had been killed every minute of the four-hour battle, making the total number of dead somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000.

The Holy League did indeed win the day. In his seminal, 1920 work, “The Outline of History,” H.G. Wells wrote of the battle's legacy: “It was not until the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571 — the battle in which Cervantes, the author of 'Don Quixote,' lost his left arm — that Christendom, to use his words, 'broke the pride of the Osmans and undeceived the world which had regarded the Turkish fleet as invincible.'”

In his book “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” historian Bernard Lewis wrote of the reaction from both sides to the battle: “In Europe, indeed, this was acclaimed as a major triumph. All Christendom exulted in this victory. ... The Turkish archives preserve the report of the Kapudan Pasha, the senior officer commanding the fleet, whose account of the battle of Lepanto is just two lines: 'The fleet of the divinely guided Empire encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels, and the will of Allah turned the other way.'”

So why did the outnumbered Spanish and Italian states prove victorious? According to Hanson, the primary reason was Europe's emerging capitalist system and willingness to innovate and the Ottomans' failure to develop similar institutions.

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