A floating fortress, the galleass was the ultimate and unwieldy result of an effort to combine both oars and broadside, taxing human muscle to the limit. Heavy cannon and high bulwarks made them dangerous attackers – and also impossible targets, for if they could not run down an enemy, they had little need to run away from one.

Galley fleets became larger during the sixteenth century as trade grew along the shore, and the predators prospered. Mostly these were ships exclusively engaged in raiding, from ports such as Muslim Algiers, the greatest port on the Barbary (North African) shore, or from Christian Fiume, at the head of the Adriatic. Increasingly, the economy of the galley came to depend on slaves rather than freemen for the crews. By midcentury, almost every fleet, except that of Venice, which continued almost exclusively to recruit freemen, was rowed by slaves, prisoners of war, or convicts. On each ship, there would be more than 100 men, most chained to their rowing station, with sometimes a few oarsmen free to move within the constraints of the narrow deck. Most lived out their lives within the two feet allotted to them. They slept, ate, defecated, bled, suppurated, and often died at the same bench. Rats and cockroaches thrived in the decaying piles of food scraps mixed with ordure and urine that built up beneath their feet. A wise galley captain, knowing how rapidly epidemic disease would spread under such conditions, would regularly wash down the rowing decks of his vessel. When the rats and lice had bred uncontrollably, the ultimate solution was to put the crew ashore under guard, unship the masts, fill the galley with stones, and sink it in the shallows until the deck and superstructure were wholly underwater. The vermin that could not, or would not, “desert the sinking ship” drowned.

At dead of night, in fog, or in the half-light of dawn, the presence of a galley was evident long before it became visible. The rank smell of the rowing deck could be detected at up to two miles’ distance. It was said that you could tell a former galley slave or sea soldier in later life by the excessively strong perfume he wore, as if to blot out the olfactory memory of earlier evil days. On a galley, rarely more than 150 feet in length, all the gradations and nuances of society were obscured by the miasma of filth and decay. The soldiers in half armor, the musket men and gunners, even the officers and commanders, were never out of contact with the degraded humanity that pulled the ship toward its destination.

However, for the chained men, whether slaves on the ships of the Ottoman sultan and the corsair captains of North Africa, or condemned prisoners on the galleys of the Most Catholic King of Spain or the Most Christian King of France, to serve at the oars was a form of living death. Their end might come in many ways. They were unlikely to starve, for it was not in the interests of any galley captain to lose his skilled rowers needlessly. Beans, corn, and a little meat, with wine on the Christian ships, were the staples, while buckets of freshwater were always available at each bench to slake the thirst of the rowers. Each man would drink about two liters a day at the height of the summer sailing season. Once a rower had become conditioned to the life, and survived the first few months, his whole body adapted to the rhythm of the oars. Some oarsmen lasted for thirty years or more. Disease was the most likely end to their suffering, for cuts and wounds inevitably festered in such conditions. The weak, sickly, or moribund would simply be unchained and tossed overboard. Only the strokes could expect better treatment: strong and reliable pacesetters could bring a ship up to maximum speed more reliably than the whip of the boatswain.

In times of war especially the demand for rowers was insatiable, and there were never enough men to fill the benches. Many of the galley slaves were the victims of countless raids along the shores of the sea, where the great prize was human flesh. An imperial Ottoman galley would stand off the coast out of sight and the commander would order spies to scout the local settlements. Then at night a party would be sent ashore, to burn the villages, kill the old and very young, and round up as many of the able-bodied men as could be found. The galley would be gone by first light, or sometimes a flotilla would descend on a region and stay for longer periods, spreading depredation for many miles around.

The men who filled the benches on most Christian warships were either Muslim villagers or prisoners of war. But they also included many Christians ground out through the machinery of the law. In Spain, debt, sedition, even petty crime could bring a sentence to the galleys. As the demand for oarsmen rose, so the flow of criminals through the courts who were condemned to the galleys increased. Often those who had served their time at the oars and were due for release were held back. These forzados, or pressed men, were technically free but in every other respect were treated as harshly as they had been before. In France, the Catholic authorities sent a steady stream of Protestants to serve in the galleys, while the papal prisons were regularly emptied to fill the rowing benches. Yet others freely chose the life of the oarsman. The corsairs of the Barbary Coast were, in effect, the shareholders of a business enterprise, where they supplied their muscle power and risked their lives for part of the profits of their raids. The Slav Uskoks of Dalmatia were freemen under the protection of the Holy Roman Empire. They followed an old profession: banditry by sea had been a part of Mediterranean life for millennia. Thus, on the same rowing bench there might be a free sailor, a prisoner of war, a slave, and a criminal serving a sentence of years of labor at the oars.

Skilled sailing masters regarded their crews like trained animals, knew their individual capacities and limitations. Each rowing bench would be balanced, for the fundamental skill of galley warfare lay in mixing new blood with experienced oarsmen. Men were chosen by their size, weight, and strength to produce the maximum power, and with this aim, though the conditions of life were harsh and degrading, few captains deliberately mistreated their crews. A naval gun in the mid–sixteenth century was deadly to around 200 yards, but a galley rowed at maximum speed could cover that distance in half a minute, much less time than it took to reload. No galley crew could, however, sustain top speed for more than about twenty minutes, and exhausted or demoralized oarsmen for much less. It was well known among captains that Venetian and North African galleys were considerably faster and more agile than those of Spain and France. In part it was a matter of design and the heavy deadweight of the large fighting crews the latter carried. But there was also a factor of spirit and morale. The Spanish ships, rowed exclusively by captives and convicts, consumed men as remorselessly as the silver mines at Potosi, which provided the money that built so many of the galleys. Neither the ships nor the mines were designed as a form of punishment and social control, but that is what they became. In Venice and the Muslim lands, a free oarsman could become a rich man from prize money. In Algiers or Constantinople, a Christian galley slave who “turned Turk” could end up as a galley captain or even as the admiral of the sultan’s navy.

Each imperial Ottoman vessel carried a complement of highly trained janissary infantry, some armed with sword or yataghan and others with the famous Turkish bow, which could penetrate almost any armor at 100 yards’ distance. A skilled archer could fire up to six arrows a minute, with great accuracy. It took years of training to bend the bow and use it, and increasingly janissaries adopted the harquebus or musket used by their enemies. Janissaries did not normally expect to fight on board enemy ships. The galley served as their transport and usually they would be put ashore to fight a land battle or besiege a fortress. Some wore chain mail armor, but they scorned the plate cuirasses, greaves, and steel morion helmets worn by the Spanish soldiers. In any depiction of a battle of the period, there was no doubt as to which were the Christian forces and which the Muslim. Steel helmets, breastplates, and shields on one side, and turbans and flowing robes on the other. These differences developed not just from distinct tactical and strategic demands, but from divergent attitudes to war.

The Christians possessed a wonder weapon, as potent as the Greek fire of earlier centuries. In the fleet that was slowly assembling at Messina were six galleys quite unlike any in the Ottoman flotillas. From her long experience of Mediterranean warfare Venice had by inspired improvisation created the weapon that would prove decisive. Standing out above all the other vessels at anchor were six tall heavy ships, quite different to the low sleek war galleys that surrounded them. These were galleasses, heavy broad-beamed sluggards propelled partly by sail and partly by huge oars, each pulled by seven men or more. The galleasses were a hybrid between the Mediterranean type of warship and the sailing vessels of the Atlantic. Above the rowing deck, all along each side, was a range of heavy cannon which could deliver a broadside of shot that could shatter a more lightly built galley. These were to be floating fortresses, weapons unique to Venice.

The galleasses had not yet been tried in battle. Yet one galleass had the firepower of five ordinary galleys, and Don John was convinced that the six in his fleet would, under the right conditions, give him the edge over the Ottomans. When, finally, the great armada sailed from Messina, he ordered that all the ships should proceed at the lumbering pace of the galleasses so that he would not come to battle without the advantage of this secret weapon. Why only the Venetians had developed a ship that could devastate the most powerful galley afloat will never be known. Perhaps it was simply that the materials were to hand. Laid up in the Arsenal were ten large merchant galleys, which were no longer in use for trade with the East. The Venetians also had an abundance of bronze cannon and, putting the two together, created the galleass.

It is unlikely that the Ottomans would have developed the galleass on their own, although they were quick to build them once they had seen their power in battle. It was not through lack of skill and knowledge—Turkish gunners and siege artillery were of high quality. Rather, it was that they knew their way of war was superior. It was bound up with codes of honor that equated only very imprecisely with European notions of chivalry. In the West, honor was a concept that pertained only to the topmost layer of society; most of mankind stood outside the codes of chivalric conduct. It was considered absurd for anyone not bound by noble origins to adopt knightly graces. So Miguel de Cervantes, who was one of the thousands waiting for Don John in Messina harbor (and who was to lose his arm in battle at Lepanto), would make his eponymous hero, Don Quixote, a madman in his neighbors’ eyes. His insanity lay in living by the ancient rules of knighthood that did not apply to him. But in the fleet of Ali Pasha, even the most humble Muslim fighting man was a Quixote, trapped in the spider’s web of honor: loyalty to family, to tribe, to God constrained his every move. The Christian fleet gathered at Messina had been made holy warriors only by papal decree, an event notable for its extreme rarity. For the most part war, even in a good cause, did not carry that weight of divine sanction. But every Muslim soldier and sailor was, lifelong, bound to struggle in God’s cause. Nor was it just a matter of ends, but also of means. The Holy Qur’an, which many had learned by heart, told them clearly: “Surely Allah loves those who fight in His Way in ranks as if they were a firm and compact wall.” The lowliest foot soldier was honored and remembered for how he had fought and not merely because he had been victorious.

The battle at Lepanto would mark a defining moment in the struggle between Christendom and Islam: on the Christian side, war was fast becoming secularized. Where once the pope had decreed (ineffectually) that the crossbow was not to be used in conflicts between Christians, now no barriers were placed on any engine of war, however frightful. The galleass was remarkable not for its technology, but for the ease with which it was created, adopted, and immediately used in battle. In the Muslim ranks, by contrast, every innovation could become a matter for argument and even resistance. Honorable war was still fought with the weapons known to the Qur’an—swords, spears, lances, bows and arrows. The good Muslim soldier was the man who leaped into the breach or onto the deck of an enemy vessel without armor and only the strength of his arms to protect him. Guns and artillery were necessary, but carried no mark of courage. Perhaps for this reason few of the developments and innovations in gun technology emerged in the Islamic world. Implicit if unstated was the general belief that it was better to fight in the right way and lose a battle than to fight without honor. Europeans might talk about traditions, caste, and honor, but quietly discarded them in practice—occasions such as when officers courteously invited their enemy to fire first became legendary precisely because they were so rare. In contrast, the armies of “Islam” might adopt new weapons but were increasingly hobbled by their ancient ethic.

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