Decline of Ottoman Naval Power

How did the Ottomans go from being Lords of the Sea to subordinate on water?

Given their status as nomadic horsemen, the Ottoman Empire had not traditionally been interested in naval investment. However, that changed when Mehmed II attempted to conquer Constantinople in 1453. Given that Constantinople was sandwiched between the Dardanelles Strait, the Sea of Marmora, and the Bosphorus, a naval blockade would be needed to stop the besieged Byzantines from resupplying. As a result, Mehmed ordered the construction of 30 ships.

After conquering the city, Mehmed II expanded the fleet further from 30 ships to 92 ships, which his son Bayezid built on by expanding the naval fleet to 300 ships. By the time Suleiman the Magnificent came to power, the Ottomans had two fleets: one in the Mediterranean for defense and one in the Indian Ocean under Piri Reis, which allowed them to compete with Portugal for the lucrative spice trade.

North Africa and Corsairs

However, the Ottomans were still faced with the problem of expertise regarding naval strategy and leadership. Although the device successfully created a competent military fighting force on land, the nuances of galley warfare were more complicated to master and required experience. As a result, the Ottomans had to find a new solution for naval leadership.


That solution was the employment of Corsairs, who were North African pirates. As such, they already had an extensive understanding of naval tactics and a natural hatred for Christians who patrolled the waters. The most famous of the Corsairs was Hayreddin Barbarossa, who had conquered Tunis after the collapse of the Mamluk Sultanate. However, under the threat of a Spanish attack, he ceded Tunis to Selim I in 1519, becoming admiral of the fleet in the process. It was an alliance of mutual benefit: while Selim received effective leadership, Barbarossa was lent legitimacy and protection. 

Ottoman naval victories

Under the supervision of the Corsairs, the Ottomans managed a number of notable naval victories, beginning with successfully removing the Knights Hospitallers from Rhodes in 1522.

At the Battle of Preveza in 1538, in what was one of the largest sea battles of the 16th Century, Barbarossa led the Ottoman navy to a victory despite having a vastly inferior number of ships, sinking over a hundred Christian ships in the process. This announced a period of Ottoman naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. 

The Ottomans further capitalized on this victory at the Battle of Djerba in 1560. Defending Tunisia, the Ottomans managed to sink 60 Christian ships and take over 5,000 prisoners in the process. Again, this victory over a numerically superior fighting force served as an indicator that the Ottomans were dominant even on Spain’s doorstep by fighting so close to the Spanish mainland.

Siege of Malta

Attempting to capitalize on the Ottoman naval advantage, Suleiman I ordered an invasion of the island of Malta, held by the Knight Hospitallers, after they abandoned Rhodes in 1522. However, things wouldn’t prove so easy for the Ottomans this time. Although they outnumbered the Christian defenders by 35,000 soldiers to 2500, they could not take the island and suffered heavy casualties in the process.

Although this wasn’t a naval battle in the strictest sense, the Ottoman defeat in 1565 served to break the aura of invincibility that had surrounded the Ottomans since the Battle of Preveza. This vulnerability encouraged Pope Pius V to raise support for a new ‘Holy League’ of Christian forces to oppose the Ottomans at sea, lobbying Christian rulers to unite under a single banner against the forces of Islam.

Who was Selim ‘The Sot’?

In 1566, the landscape of the Ottoman Empire changed significantly with the death of Suleiman The Magnificent. Although Selim II seemed at first to be an unlikely candidate for the throne, the rebellion of two of his brothers against Suleiman and the unforeseen deaths of two others through illness thrust him into the political spotlight, and he became Sultan in 1566.

However, Selim II was ill-suited to be Sultan: he was unwilling to follow the army on a campaign as Sultans had traditionally done. This meant that the army struggled to unite under a cohesive command, with generals working to undermine each other so that they might be better positioned for promotion upon the return to Constantinople. Moreover, it is alleged that Selim II spent much of his time intoxicated – a particular problem given that alcohol is considered to be forbidden by practitioners of the Islamic faith. This hypocrisy led to Selim popularly gaining the nickname ‘The Sot’ in popular discourse.

Famagusta and Cyprus

Even though Selim II wasn’t willing to travel on campaign himself, he still had ambitions of territorial expansion, driven in part by the hunger of his Janissary Corps to receive plunder as payment for their loyalty. This led to him declaring Cyprus to be the next target of the Ottoman war machine upon ascending to the throne in 1566, sending out a galley fleet to conquer them.

The Ottomans faced little resistance upon arriving at Cyprus, taking most of the island relatively quickly. However, the Ottomans faced significant difficulty in taking the Christian fort of Famagusta, which had strong physical defenses. At Famagusta, the Venetians managed to hold out for nearly a year, despite being outnumbered by 8500 soldiers to 100,000. The Ottomans were rumored to have suffered 52,000 casualties trying to take the fort and were frustrated enough to sue for peace in August 1571, offering the Venetians an honorable return home untouched. However, upon agreeing to the deal, the Ottomans seized the Venetian General Marco Antonio Bragadin and flayed him to death while slaughtering the other Venetian defenders, building anger and resentment across Europe.

Numbers at Lepanto

The Holy League’s Christian force, assembled and ready, set out from Italian ports to meet the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. Initially, it would be easy to conclude that the Ottomans had the superior fighting force: they outnumbered the Europeans by 251 galleys to 208. However, that doesn’t tell the full story. The Christians had within their arsenal 7 Venetian Galleasses, extremely large capital ships with raised sides that allowed soldiers to board other vessels without being boarded themselves, which eventually allowed the Holy League to break through Ottoman ranks.

Moreover, there was a significant numerical difference between the two sides. The Christians had 35,000 soldiers, whereas the Ottomans only had 30,000. Moreover, many rowers onboard the Ottoman ships were enslaved Christians, meaning that if an Ottoman ship was captured, they could be freed and join the Christian ranks. On the other hand, many of the rowers for the Christian fleet were willing volunteers, meaning the Ottomans had no prospect of mid-battle reinforcement from their enemy’s ships.

Battle of Lepanto

At the Battle of Lepanto, the Christian Holy League was expertly led by Don John of Austria, who commanded an elite group of Spanish warriors, known as Tercios, on the Spanish flagship called The Real. Upon Don John’s command, these Tercios concentrated their energies on their Ottoman capital ship, killing Ali Pasha, the leader of the Ottoman fleet. This destroyed the Ottoman morale.

Soon, the Ottoman force was leaderless and routed. When the Ottomans returned to port, their fleet, which had set out as the largest ever assembled with 251 galleys, was reduced to 40 battles. Over the course of the battle, there were nearly 40,000 casualties.

Moreover, the battle was mostly fought with hand-to-hand combat, leading some historians to describe it as a land battle fought at sea. The deadly chaos of the battle led to most powers adopting their fleets to focus on sailing and cannon, signaling the end of large-scale galley warfare.

Why did one side win?

There are two major schools of historiographical thought surrounding the Battle of Lepanto.

According to the leadership thesis, the Ottomans lost the battle because Ali Pasha, their command, was a land-based commander who knew little about naval warfare. Indeed, he was selected for the role after a career as a Janissary due to his loyalty to the Sultan. The conflict between him and Sirocco, an Ottoman governor, led to the Ottoman forces being disjointed during the battle, with disastrous timing leading to the ineffective deployment of Ottoman reserves.

According to the material thesis, the Ottomans lost the battle because they were low on men and provisions. Indeed, after significantly higher than anticipated casualties besieging Famagusta, many modern estimates place the Ottoman fleet as roughly ten men short per ship. This was coupled with the fact that the troops were exhausted after a summer raiding the Italian coast and low on weaponry. In fact, the Ottomans were so low on weapons at Lepanto that there are European reports of the Janissaries throwing oranges, though these were likely apocryphal.

Impacts of Lepanto

There are also significant historiographical debates about the importance of the Battle of Lepanto. According to Roger Crowley, Lepanto “did have consequences, and they were significant.” Those aligning with Crowley’s school of thought argue that Lepanto was a major turning point and brought about the end of the Ottoman expansion.

On the other hand, Historian Kate Fleet of Cambridge University believes that Lepanto “was not significant, either in terms of undermining Ottoman naval strength or in adjusting the balance of power in the Mediterranean”. This is for two reasons. First, Professor Fleet argues that the Siege of Malta in 1565 meant that the Ottomans were already in decline, meaning Lepanto didn’t make a difference. Second, it only took the Ottomans 6 months to rebuild their fleet at their naval dockyard in Kasimpasa because of their deep treasury, perhaps indicating that the Ottomans did not suffer a significant material detriment. However, this doesn’t consider the large-scale losses in experienced sailors.

Lepanto in Literature

For Christians, the Battle of Lepanto brought forth a sense of papal joy throughout the domains of Catholic powers. Paintings and frescoes were commissioned to commemorate the victory, and writers like Miguel de Cervantes romanticized the leaders of the Holy League: in his Magnum Opus Don Quixote, the nobility of Don John is parodied.

Lepanto also featured as the background for William Shakespeare’s Othello, showing that even despite the large distance between the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain, the effect of Lepanto was seen as an important cultural touchstone.

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