The future author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, served on one of the Christian galleys in what he called the greatest naval sea battle in history and the most important to that time for the safety of Europe. The Turks had been massing an enormous fleet for an invasion of Italy. The preparations began to be reported on many months in advance. It was the year 1571 when that fleet was gathered near a port in Greece, not far from the Gulf of Lepanto.
For over a year, Pope Pius V had tried to alert the great powers of Europe to the coming menace. But England, France, and the regional powers of what later became Germany were preoccupied with the turmoil of the Reformation.
Only Don Juan of Austria, the bastard son of the king of Spain, was stirred by the danger. Despite his youth, despite his modest standing, Don Juan sent out urgent appeals and eventually gathered a sturdy fleet, outfitted with new warfare technologies invented in the West and rapidly mass-produced by the fledgling ship-building and armament firms of what was later to be called “Western capitalism.” He gathered fleets from Venice and Genoa, from Spain, and from the Knights of Malta. In a deliberately preemptive strike, blessed by the pope, this small fleet set sail to catch the Turkish armada before it left the waters of Greece.
The Venetians, on the left flank of the battle line, were especially passionate. Not long before, the Turks had so battered an island port maintained by Venetians (and others) that the Venetian commander, Marcantonio Bragadino appealed for a truce. The Turks promised him and his subjects safe passage — and then took him prisoner, beat him, cut off his nose and ears, put a collar on him, and made him crawl like a dog before the conquering army. In a little cage, he was hoisted up on the mast of the galley so that all in the fleet and on land could see him. Then he was brought down flayed mercilessly, his skin carefully stripped from his body as he died (the skin was later stuffed with straw and sent off to Constantinople as a trophy). Thousands of Venetians and others were slaughtered on the spot, or driven off in captivity for service on Turkish galleys or in Turkish harems.
But other elements of the Christian fleets were also angry. For decades now, the Turks had used their near-supremacy in the Mediterranean to make constant raids on the Christian communities near to the sea, and hauled away young women and men for the harems, and stronger men for the galleys.
Indeed, many of the galley slaves pulling the oars of the Turkish fleet sailing proudly and confidently into the Gulf of Lepanto were Christians captured in these and other ways. There they were starved, beaten, and living in their own waste, kept just strong enough to pull on the great oars, to which they were chained. Furiously, below decks, some of these galley slaves were struggling to break through their chains once the battle was joined. Finally some did, and rose up from below deck swinging their chains and causing mayhem among already embattled Muslim sailors.
The two greatest naval forces ever assembled — 280 ships in the Turkish Armada, some 212 on the Christian side — came into each other’s sight on the brilliant morning of October 7. So confident was the Turkish admiral, Ali Pasha, that he sailed proudly at the center of his own Armada, bringing with him on vessels just to his rear his entire fortune, and even a part of his harem.
Historians tell us that all over Europe a pall fell. Few had hopes that the Christian fleet could avoid the doom that seemed to hang over Italy. The pope had urged all Christians to say the rosary daily on behalf of the brave crews on the Christian galleys. The rosary is a simple prayer that can be said in almost any setting, and had already achieved a certain popularity among humble folk. With each decade of the Hail Marys they had been taught to reflect upon a different event in the life of Jesus. The beads went through one’s fingers as regularly as the blood through one’s body, as regular as heartbeats and the breathing of the lungs.
To make a long story short, Don Juan aimed his own galley directly at the heart of the Turkish armada, directly at the clearly colored sails of the Ali Pasha’s galley, with its great green flag, inscribed 28,000 times with the name of Allah in gold. The Venetian vessels sailed furiously into the Turkish right wing, and with the help of the revolt of the galley slaves collapsed that wing. Six of the largest Christian vessels had been outfitted with a platform elevated above normal levels on which rows of devastating cannons were arrayed. Blasts from these new cannons were withering, and within minutes sank dozens of Turkish ships. The sea, witnesses said, was covered with flailing sailors, floating turbans, pieces of wood and sail.
The passion for defending their own civilization against ruthless invaders also strengthened the muscles of those engaged in the close, bloody, violent hand-fighting when one vessel came alongside another. But it was mainly the new firepower of the smaller Christian fleet that quickly sank With their new fire power the smaller Christian fleet quickly sank galley after galley until, after not too many hours, the Turkish center also collapsed, as if cut through by a hot knife. The Admiral’s galley was captured, along with 240 more Turkish ships.Only on the other flank some Christian vessels hesitated, approached the enemy half-heartedly, and thus spurred defections by still other vessels. Although even there some acts of heroism appeared, a number of Turkish vessels were able to slip away through that gap in the battleline.
The Christian victory was far more complete than anyone had dreamed. The victory seemed to many quite miraculous, and victory was immediately attributed to Our Lady Queen of the Rosary — soon to be called by a new title, Our Lady Queen of Victory. All over Europe, from city to town, church bells rang out continuously when news of the impressive victory arrived. Ever since, October 7 has been celebrated as a feast day by the Catholic Church.
Whole great rooms of palaces in southern Europe have been given over to immense paintings celebrating episodes in that epic battle. All Europe, historians recount, drew a deep breath of relief and gratitude. It was as if an oppressive cloud had been lifted, some wrote. G. K. Chesterton wrote a rousing epic poem about the great event, a magnificent treat to read to young children — and even for mature adults.
Since Osama bin Laden and others often cite these battles, for which he is still seeking revenge, it is not unwise for the people of the West to bear them in mind. Besides October 7, 1571 — the great victory by Jan Sobieski’s Polish cavalry over the Turks outside the gates of Vienna on September 11-12, 1683 — deserves to be remembered. But there were also other great battles — some victories, some defeats — over that thousand-year period that still live in memory, or should.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.