Ottoman Naval Development

In the fourteenth century, the illustrious historiographer, Ibn Khaldin recorded a prediction:

The inhabitants of the Maghreb have it on the authority of the books of predictions that the Muslims will yet have to make a successful attack against the Christians and conquer the lands of the European Christians beyond the sea. This, it is said, will take place by sea.

This prophesy was realized in the early sixteenth century in the form of the Ottoman navy. Nonetheless, the Ottomans have yet to be granted their place in world history as a seaborne empire. This is nowhere more apparent than in depictions of the reign of Bayezid II ( 148 1- 1512). Traditional historiography has characterized the reign of Bayezid as consisting of two halves: before and after the death of his brother Cem. The first half is dominated by Bayezid’s struggle to eliminate his brother, the challenger to the throne. Cem, whose unsuccessful bid for the Ottoman sultanate was supported by the Mamluk sultan Qa’it Bay, died in 1495. Bayezid’s reign after Cem’s death has been portrayed as a less than illustrious period of quiet consolidation. If, however, the second half of Bayezid’s reign is viewed as a period during which a powerful navy was built up, a navy capable of defending and supplying an empire extending far beyond the bounds of Anatolia, then the peaceful characterization of this period becomes somewhat less believable. Bayezid’s navy was used to suppress piracy, protect commodities shipping, and intimidate his enemies, present or potential. Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean fostered the establishment of cordial Ottoman-Venetian trading relations, permitted the subordination of the Mamluk kingdoms (through naval and artillery aid) prior to the Ottoman conquest of Cairo, and allowed for a significant challenge to Portuguese seapower in the Indian Ocean. Seapower was both physical and rhetorical. The threat of the Ottoman navy was used by many states throughout the Mediterranean to gain diplomatic leverage. Nor was the Ottoman navy, as traditional historiography would have it, little more than a group of state subsidized corsairs. Seapower was a vehicle for developing Ottoman trading interests, securing the Ottoman coasts, and supporting the transport and provisioning activities required for Ottoman territorial expansion.

It was at the turn of the sixteenth century that the Ottomans firmly and decisively set out to use seapower as an avenue to “world” hegemony. Naval development began in earnest under Mehmed II. It continued under Bayezid who ordered “ships agile as sea serpents (naheng ahang gemiler)” constructed to fight the Venetians. The reign of Selim was a period during which the military and naval capabilities built up during Bayezid’s reign were utilized and expanded. The conquest of Cairo provided, in part, the revenue and the imperial ethos. Anatolia provided the construction materials and the infantrymen. Upon this foundation Selim was building a most formidable navy, and planning greater naval conquests at the time of his death. The only obstacle in his path was the shortage of skilled sailors. These aspirations became operational on a grand scale with an eastward expansion which halted only at the Indian Ocean in the reign of Selim’s son Suleiman.

After the campaign season of 1502, Sultan Bayezid launched both a major naval reorganization and a broad scale troop mobilization. This troop mobilization in the fall and winter of that year was a direct result of the military success and diplomatic challenge of Ismail Safavi in Iran. The naval reorganization was attributed by Venetian sources to the sultan’s wrath over the Venetian victory that year at Santa Maura. The overall victory in the Ottoman-Venetian wars, however, went decisively to the Ottomans and, by fall of 1502, negotiations were underway for a treaty which would leave Venice without Modon and Coron and liable for a ten thousand ducat annual indemnity to the Porte. Hence, the causes for Bayezid’s naval buildup must be sought elsewhere than in mere vengeance for the defeat at Santa Maura. These causes include the intentions to expand Ottoman Levantine possessions, to punish Rhodes for its attacks on Muslim shipping, and to provide naval support for Ottoman campaigns against the Mamluk and Safavid territories. Short years later a fourth cause was added: the provision of direct naval assistance to the Mamluks against the Portuguese in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

First, the Ottomans needed a navy revamped to fcus outside the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This navy was then directed to purposes of defense and expansion that later proceeded outward in concentric circles; the territorial conquests mirrored the spheres of Ottoman economic interest in the Aegean, Mediterranean, Red Sea, and eventually the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. Vigorous shipbuilding activity was underway in the Ottoman arsenals during the wars with Venice from 1499 to 1503. Sadeddin mentions the preparation of a fleet of three hundred ships in the first year of the war. A German knight, Arnold von Harff, claimed, with considerable exaggeration, that he saw that same year eight hundred Turkish war galleys and countless other vessels in the harbor at Istanbul. Bayezid called in the entire Ottoman armada for repairs in the winter of 1500-1501 and ordered the preparation of for hundred ships including two hundred galleys mounted with large cannon, fifty heavy galleys, and for hundred fifty of the smaller galiots and fustas. This work took place at selected sites, with the armada at Midilli alone numbering some one hundred twenty vessels including forty galleys early in 1502. The sultan requisitioned laborers for the fleet, especially carpenters and caulkers, as well as building materials from Chios, a “request” that the Christian administration of the island could not afford to refuse.

This construction cannot be explained only as a requirement of the combat with Venice. By fall of 1502, it was apparent that a peace treaty was in the offing. In the intervening years before the conquest of Cairo in 1517, Venice and the Ottomans were at peace. Their naval relations, though characterized by a healthy distrust, were generally amicable. Yet, just as the peace treaty set aside the threat from the Porte’s primary opponent in the Mediterranean, Bayezid began a policy of naval expansion which would ultimately make the Ottomans the dominant naval power in the region. During this same time-, the French and Spanish were contenders for naval power in the western Mediterranean, the Portuguese gained control of the Indian Ocean, and the Rhodians remained an insistent, if essentially insignificant, naval threat of the Anatolian coast. Although the Spanish would become a formidable sea power, their success in the western Mediterranean was arguably a function of the direction-east-that the sultan chose for the utilization of his navy.

The Ottoman naval reorganization begun in the fall of 1502 was a three-stage operation. It involved the repair of the fleet, the dismantling of some ships for reconstruction and the building of entirely new ships. Reconstruction efforts were directed at the largest ships which were either taken apart or sold to private entrepreneurs. Materials from the ships, which were taken apart, were used to build heavy and light galleys. These efforts were aimed at producing lighter, more maneuverable ships, which were not only more adaptable to joint naval actions but were also less likely to be captured.

While these efforts were underway Bayezid ordered the mobilization of sixty to seventy thousand men, both oarsmen and sailors. This number is more than even a fleet of three hundred ships could utilize; however, it indicates that the Venetian authors of the reports were impressed with the sultan’s levy of seamen. The high number may also be an indication of the divergence between the number of sailors and oarsmen levied and the actual numbers who showed up. In order to finance the naval expansion, Bayezid combined a number of sources of income. He obtained some revenue from the sale of the largest ships. He ordered each of his sons to provide for the construction of six heavy galleys, and a number of his sancak begs to finance three light galleys each. In addition, the merchants of Salonica (both Greeks and Turks) were ordered to pay a tithe and to finance mariners. The fact that only the merchants of Salonica are mentioned as paying the special naval levy does not mean that it was limited to this city alone. There is, however, a certain logic to the idea of levies on the coastal merchants. They were likely to be engaged in commerce supplied by shipping along the Anatolian coast, from the Aegean islands, and across the Mediterranean from Beirut and Alexandria. This shipping was susceptible to corsair raiding especially on the part of the Rhodians. If the naval expansion was aimed, in part, at the protection of Ottoman shipping, then the merchants who profited from it were a likely source of revenue. The bulk of the financing for the fleet, however, came from the imperial treasury supplemented by the special levies such as the oarsman tax (kürekҫi akҫesi).

By the end of the year 1503, the Ottomans had an impressive array of ships at their disposal . In his report to the Venetian Senate, the returning bailo of Istanbul, Andrea Gritti, gave a detailed account of the Ottoman fleet and its activities. Gritti counted the Galata fleet as including thirty light galleys, twelve galleys bastarda, two galeazza (unnavigable), and some assorted fustas and gripos. At Gallipoli there were sixty galleys and fustas. Three of these galleys, with thirty, twenty-six, and twenty-two banks of oars respectively, had been constructed by an Italian shipbuilder named Andrea Dere. At Avlonya in the Adriatic the Ottomans had eleven galleys which had been seized during the war and nine fustas (mostly in bad order) . At Volissa on the west side of Chios were an additional eight heavy galleys and thirteen light galleys. Gritti’s account does not include estimates of naval forces at other Ottoman ports such as Macri and Samsun, but it is clear that Bayezid had a large fleet at his disposal which had not been retired at the end of the war.

The shipbuilder Dere is again mentioned in Leonardo Loredano’s report to the Venetian Senate in March 1507. His story illustrates the continuation of shipbuilding activity, gives some insight into the training of the Ottoman sea captains, and emphasizes the competition among states for skilled craftsmen. The sultan’s shipwright told Loredano that he had prospered while in the Ottoman service. He indicated, however, that he might consider leaving Istanbul if Venice came up with a sufficiently lucrative offer. This was especially so because Dere’s superior, the kapudan (captain-general of the Ottoman fleet) Daud Pasha, had died. When Daud was alive, Dere recalled, he would call his shipbuilder to his room and go over navigation charts with him, asking all about the Aegean ports, especially about Zara (a Venetian possession) and its defenses. After hearing this story, Loredano suggested that Venice would be well advised to try to persuade Dere to return to Italy, before the Ottoman navy benefited even further from his knowledge. Good shipwrights were a prized commodity in any case in the Mediterranean, even if they were not possessed of tactical information. In the end, however, Dere, saying that he had served the sultan for many years, seemed content enough to stay where he was.

Lack of a sufficient naval opponent and the expense of keeping large fleets manned insured that much of the Ottoman armada was demobilized at any given time. In the winter, the Ottoman fleet in the Bosphorus, consisting of one hundred twenty or so vessels, was beached and guarded by a large number of sentries. Meanwhile, however, the Ottomans had not ceased to manufacture great numbers of cannon, both iron and bronze, as well as other types of naval munitions. This production was facilitated by a large number of artillery masters at Istanbul working, according to Loredano, continuously. The Porte was able to produce sufficient artillery to arm its own expanding navy and to create a surplus as well. This surplus, in turn, would allow the Ottomans to provide cannon for the Mamluk fleet being prepared at Suez to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. While the bulk of the Ottoman armada remained demobilized in various naval stations, small fleets could be mobilized as needed for the various objectives of the state. Significant among these objectives was the protection of Ottoman commodities shipping through defense of the Anatolian coastal areas. Rumors persisted throughout the Mediterranean after 1503 that the Ottomans intended to launch an armada. But the Ottomans launched no major fleet offensive until 1515. During this time of relative peace, however, fleets of from fifteen to forty vessels were kept regularly cruising in the Aegean. These fleets provided transport, security against corsairs for Ottoman shipping, and general coastal defense. They were also used for commercial purposes and for special diplomatic missions.

Piracy was endemic in sixteenth-century seas, and the newly constructed Ottoman fleet seems to have been used primarily against corsairs. Piratic acts combined with a grain shortage prompted Bayezid in 1504 to send out eight armed galleys and fustas to prevent smuggling and the seizure of grain ships by pirates. These ships were instructed to punish Kara Durmuş, a corsair, who had acquired a small fleet in the course of the Venetian wars and was now operating in the waters near Chios, apparently under the patronage of the sancak beg of Manissa, Celal Beg. Kara Durmuş, with a fleet of twenty-two fustas, a brigantine and a galiota, was interfering with Ottoman shipping and raiding the Anatolian coasts. This number of vessels seems large for a single corsair, although most of the ships were the small and maneuverable fustas which could be operated in close to shore. Kara Durmuş may have formed loose and temporary alliances with other small-time corsairs, who united for defensive purposes during some raiding activities while at other times pursuing their interests individually. In 1505, a fleet, numbering fourteen to eighteen ships, under the command of Kemal Reis, a hero of the Ottoman-Venetian wars, was mobilized and charged with the task of pursuing Kara Durmuş and preventing corsairing activities based on Rhodes. This use of Ottoman vessels in patrolling activity suggests that a uniform definition of “navy” is inadequate to explain the nature of naval action in the sixteenth century. Visions of large-scale sea battles and of shipboard Muslim crusaders must give way to a more mundane version of Levantine sea power.


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