'Empires of the Sea'

A dramatic retelling of the 16th-century clash of Christian and Muslim armies.

Empires of the Sea By Roger Crowley Random House 315 pp. $30

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-recognizable 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 being played out across the shimmering waters of the Mediterranean. 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 young and energetic leader in Suleiman, eager to prove his military might. He conquered Hungary, then turned 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, pitting Catholic rulers Charles V and Philip II of Spain, the Pope, and the Knights of St. John against ever-increasing armies and navies of Suleiman the Magnificent and his son, Selim, ably abetted by their allies, the Barbary pirates.

To those unfortunate enough to be living along the coasts of southern Spain or 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.

Whole towns and villages were sacked, the inhabitants slaughtered or enslaved and taken aboard galleys bound for the markets of North Africa. Despite the appeals of the pope, the response of the European rulers 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 give 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 their smaller army and the failure of aid to reach them, they held out over several months of terrifying attacks in a dramatic display of courage, grit, and great leadership.

Victory celebrations were held across Europe.

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. It both horrified and energized the Venetians 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 signaled the end of either 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.
From the outset, Crowley’s research 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.

Crowley also offers exquisitely delicate insights and undulating descriptive passages. Yet in his descriptions of the battles, his prose is 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 us to reconsider our verdicts on the past. Crowley’s “Empires of the Sea” is an honest history of an underestimated and oft-neglected subject and it is certainly one of those rare books.

M.M. Bennetts is a freelance writer living in Hampshire, England.

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