September 28 is actually the anniversary of a couple of notable dates in Middle East history. For example, if you’re a fan of lost causes, it’s the date in 1995 when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo II accord, which was supposed to provide for Palestinian autonomy leading to future (HA!) talks on an independent Palestinian state. On this date five years later (2000), then-Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon did his part to bury Oslo II as deep as he possibly could by “visiting” the Al-Aqsa/Temple Mount area and precipitating the Second Intifada. If the lives and times of Arab strongmen are more your thing, then you probably already know that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died on this date in 1970.
But since I like older stuff and this is my blog, let’s ignore those recent events and talk about the (naval) Battle of Preveza, which happened on this date in 1538 and was the decisive battle in the third of seven (!) Ottoman-Venetian wars (most of which didn’t go well for the Venetians) that took place between the 15th and 18th centuries (this one ran from 1537-1540).
Venice was never much of a land power, but they were one of the great naval powers of the Mediterranean for a long time, which I think is one of the sadly overlooked details of European and world history. It was inevitable that, as the Ottomans began to build up their naval strength in the mid 1400s, they would butt heads with the Venetians, who saw their domination of Mediterranean shipping lanes as an almost existential matter. And they did butt heads, in 1463-1479 (when the Ottomans captured the large Greek island of Euboea and most of the Morea, or the Peloponnese region of Greece) and again in 1499-1503 (when the Ottomans consolidated their control over the Morea).
When the commander of the Ottoman navy (Kapudan-i Derya, or “Captain of the Sea,” also called the Kapudan Pasha), the famous Hayreddin Barbossa (d. 1546), captured several Greek islands that were Venetian property in 1537, the two naval powers headed for a third war. Venice appealed to Pope Paul III (d. 1549), who quickly formed a Holy League composed of Venice, Habsburg Spain, the Papal States, Genoa, and the Knights Hospitaller from Malta, all under the command of Habsburg Emperor Charles V’s best naval commander, the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria (d. 1560). By 1538 they were ready to put an end to the Ottomans’ naval expansion.
Preveza is located on the west coast of Greece, though at the time it was an Ottoman port and was highly coveted by the Venetians (who eventually took it from the Ottomans in the 18th century after several unsuccessful attempts).
That’s a pretty strategic location for an Ottoman Empire that wants to project naval strength west and for a Venetian Republic that would like to be able to sail its ships through the Adriatic and into the Mediterranean without being harassed. Moreover, the Ottomans always had their eye on the Ionian island of Corfu (also visible on that map above), which was strategically located both from a naval perspective and from a “we might like to invade Italy again some day” perspective.
The Ottoman fleet was actually outmanned and outgunned, as it had fewer ships than the Holy League and some of its ships were galiots (also known as “half galleys”) while the major Christian ships were apparently full galleys and even some larger galleons–Venice was the first naval power to experiment with the larger, sail-powered ship class that ultimately came to dominate naval warfare. The Christians also had a whole lot of smaller barques. Barbarossa was a hell of a naval commander (Charles supposedly tried to bribe him to switch allegiances at one point, but Barbarossa decapitated the man sent to make the offer), but Andrea Doria was no slouch either, having become famous as the commander of the Genoese navy (we’ll revisit this point shortly).
One of the keys of the naval engagement turned out, ironically, to be control of the land around the area where the battle was fought. The Holy League attempted to capture Preveza’s fortress but was unsuccessful, while Barbarossa was able to put troops ashore at Actium, which is better known to fans of Roman history as the site of Marc Antony’s figurative depantsing at the hands of Octavian and Agrippa in 31 BCE, but which also happens to be very close (“within cannon range” close) to Preveza.
After their Preveza setback, the Christians weren’t willing to risk another landing to dislodge the Ottomans from Actium, but this meant that the Christian fleet had to avoid getting within range of Ottoman guns on shore, and since the wind could inadvertently blow the Christian ships toward the coast, this meant that they had to anchor near the island of Lefkada to the south.
Doria figured that Barbarossa wouldn’t give up his favorable spot near Actium to chase his larger fleet south. So he must have been surprised when, as he was working on a plan to draw Barbarossa out on the morning of September 28, he was informed that, no, Barbarossa had chased him south. Not only was Doria caught off guard, he was also disadvantaged by the lack of wind, which made it hard for the smaller-sailed Christian barques to move around and thus left them at the mercy of the Ottoman ships. Doria tried to get the Ottomans to engage with his larger ships out at sea, but Barbarossa mostly refused to take the bait. The Ottomans sank several Christian ships and captured many more, and didn’t lose a single vessel (although several Ottoman galleys that had tried to take out the Venetian flagship, a galleon, were badly damaged).
Now here’s where things take a peculiar turn. The next morning, when the winds allowed, Doria packed the fleet up and got the hell out of Dodge. There was no real reason for him to flee–his fleet had taken some losses, yes, but it still outnumbered the Ottomans and still had the advantage in large, heavily-armed vessels (most of which, apart from that Venetian galleon, hadn’t really gotten into the fight the day before). Virtually everybody else in the fleet (the Venetians, the Papal fleet, and the Knights Hospitaller) wanted to stay and fight. But Doria wouldn’t hear of it, and if he and the Spanish and Genoese ships were leaving, the remaining fleet would lose its commander and its numbers edge and pretty much had to go too. Why did he check out so quickly?
Well, I think we can identify two reasons. First, Doria wasn’t just the commander of the Habsburg and Genoese fleets; because of the way navies were organized back then, he actually owned a lot of their ships. He was fine sending the Venetian and the Maltese fleets out to get bombarded, but he doesn’t seem to have been willing to risk his own property in the fight, and that’s probably got something to do with our second reason, which is that Andrea Doria kind of hated the Venetians. Venice and Genoa were massive rivals for Mediterranean supremacy through the 1400s, until Genoa finally lost the contest and its autonomy and became a satellite of the Habsburg Empire. In hindsight, he was the wrong choice to command a fleet that was assembled to protect Venetian commercial interests in the eastern Mediterranean, since he personally couldn’t have cared less about protecting Venetian commercial interests in the eastern Mediterranean. I’ve even read suggestions that Doria had arranged his sudden retreat with Barbarossa before the battle, but I don’t think there’s hard evidence to support that theory.
With the Holy League’s fleet off the board, Barbarossa cleaned up most of the rest of Venice’s Greek island holdings and its remaining territories in the Morea, so that when the war finally ended in 1540 it ended on Ottoman terms. The Third Ottoman-Venetian War wasn’t all that much of a “war,” what with there being only the one really big engagement, but it sure did end decisively. One thing that eluded the Ottomans, however, was Corfu. That island was so well-fortified that the Ottomans were never able to capture it, and it only fell out of Venetian control during the Napoleonic period, when it went first to France and then to Britain, which bequeathed it to Greece along with the other Ionian islands in 1864.
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