Sunday, July 19, 2009

William Urban: EMPIRES OF THE SEA

By William Urban

Economic and political growth and decline are much on people’s minds nowadays. Since gazing into the future is about as effective as staring into a crystal ball, looking in the past gives us at least some perspective.
This history by Roger Crowley — subtitled “The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World” — is a trilling read about the climatic struggle between Christendom and Islam that had begun five hundred years earlier, with the Turks almost overwhelming the Byzantine Empire, then the crusaders driving all the way to Jerusalem, then the long Muslim offensive across the Sea and into Europe. There is nothing particularly new in the account, except perhaps to realize how much there is to learn about events that every historian is vaguely aware of having taken place, but does not quite know how to fit into other important events of that era — the Protestant Reformation, the Dutch Revolt, the religious wars in France, and the Great Armada.
What Crowley demonstrates is that all these better-known events were less important than the threat represented by the Ottoman sultan, Suleiman the great. From his siege of Vienna in1529 to the battle of Lepanto in 1571, it appeared that Suleiman would press deeper into Catholic Europe, solidifying his hold on Hungary and the Balkans, raiding coastal villages in Italy and Spain (with considerable help from the Catholic king of France), and interrupting trade. Many more white Europeans were being carried into African slavery than Africans were to servitude in the New World.
Crowley does not absolve Christian Europe from all blame for this. The Knights of St. John (a Catholic military order) used their base on Rhodes for pirate attacks on Muslim shipping until Suleiman captured it in a dramatic siege in 1522, then made Malta into the center of their operations. All sides — neither Christendom nor Islam being completely unified at all times — required prisoners to row their war galleys; those slaves, chained to their seats, hardly knew whether to hope for victory or defeat whenever two naval forces clashed — if their ships were sunk, they went down with the vessel, but what other hope of freedom was there? Ransom was possible, but only if one had rich relatives.
One has to feel sorry for poor Spain at this moment. Phillip II was paralyzed by fear of another naval disaster such as Djerta in 1560 that had opened his coasts to attacks by Moorish pirates; he struck back at domestic Moors who had converted to Christianity, believing they were aiding the pirates; he allowed his general in the Low Countries to commit atrocities against Dutch Protestants, believing that this would restore religious unity and peace; and one day he would take care of Queen Elizabeth, who was allowing her pirates to attack Spanish fleets bringing gold and silver from the New World, gold and silver Phillip needed to prosecute, half-heartedly, the war with Suleiman.
There were heroes at Lepanto. Don Juan of Austria, as Phillip’s illegitimate half-brother was known, was young, but he had the personality to inspire soldiers and was intelligent enough to listen to his elders’ advice (and wise enough to tell when to ignore it). He was made commander of the quarrelling Christian states which provided ships and had secretly ordered their commander to avoid battle. Then there was the pope, who provided the money to pay the soldiers and who stiffened the backbones of politicians and generals alike.
Crowley has written a timely book. Only a few years ago Harvard historian Samuel Huntington provoked controversy by predicting that our next conflict would not be a war between states, but a clash of civilizations. Foremost of these clashes, but not the only place where western secular and democratic institutions would be challenged, was with Islamic fundamentalism. Crowley shows that the crisis of the mid-sixteenth century was much more serious than ours today, if that is indeed what we have. A divided West somehow met the challenge. The West has largely forgotten this struggle, but not the Muslim world — it was western naval supremacy, not only in the Mediterranean, but in the Indian Ocean, that led to the political and economic decline of the Ottoman Empire. When that empire collapsed in 1918, the most important symbol of Islamic unity was shattered.
Al Qaida wants a return to the glory days of Suleiman, only this time with Arabs, not Turks, in charge. Its leaders would do well to read this book, too, since the Ottoman sultans understood that power and prosperity resulted from good government, not the enthusiasm of zealots.

Review Atlas (July 16, 2009), 4.

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