Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Gunpowder and Galleys

Guilmartin, John Francis. Gunpowder & Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the 16th Century. London: Conway Maritime Press, 2003. 352 pp. Preface, acknowledgements, photographs, maps, appendices, bibliography, index. $36.25 hardcover, ISBN 1-85177-954-1. 

While the war galley was the dominant naval vessel in the Mediterranean Sea during through the sixteenth century, the great naval commanders of the age were not able to use it to establish dominance over other nations. Modern naval historians and strategists view this as evidence of incompetence, timidity, or treason on the part of commanders like Genoa’s Andrea Doria and Spain’s Don Juan, and are unable to explain the sterling reputations of these figures, or to explain why their contemporaries declared seemingly indecisive battles as great victories. In Gunpowder & Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the 16th Century, John Francis Guilmartin contends that the failing is not with the sixteenth leaders of galley fleets, but with naval historians blinded by the nineteenth century theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan, which continue to dominate naval strategy in the twenty-first century.

Writing in 1880s, Mahan argued that the proper target of a nation’s navy was the enemy’s fleet. After defeating the opposing navy, it would then be free to destroy or capture the enemy’s merchant vessels, and blockade its ports, starving it into submission. Mahan’s thesis survived changes in naval technology from sail to the nuclear age, and continues to so dominate naval strategy that naval historians have great difficulty divorcing themselves from it to look at historical naval practices from the perspective of their practitioners. Guilmartin’s goal is two-fold: to illustrate the fallacy of applying Mahanian naval strategy to environments alien to it, and to illustrate why galleys remained dominant throughout the Mediterranean for so long after the development of effective gunpowder artillery. This approach allows him to illustrate why the great naval engagements of the sixteenth century Mediterranean – Prevesa, Malta, Djerbe, and Lepanto played out in the manner they did, and in the case of Lepanto, why they were decisive in the long-term.

The basis for Guilmartin’s argument lies in the realities of galley design, and the limitations and benefits they provide in the relatively calm waters of the Mediterranean. Relying on human muscle to derive propulsive and combat power, galleys required regular stops for provisioning. While a single vessel could simply beach on the coast to find fresh water or even meat, the locations capable of providing water or food for fleets of fifty vessels were few and well known. This radically restricted the operating radius of fleets of galleys to no further than they could row or sail in two weeks. It also prevented galley fleets from maintain close blockades of ports and entrances to the Mediterranean for long stretches of time. These two facts are the core of Guilmartin’s assault on the use of Mahanian theory as a model for galley warfare. Galleys quite simply were not capable of maintaining the dominance of the sea required to choke off an enemy’s trade even if its fleet could be destroyed.

The economic basis of galley warfare in the sixteenth century also tends to limit the utility of Mahanian thought as means of analysis. Unlike the national navies from the eighteenth century on, sixteenth century galleys were frequently operated by individual contractors seeking profit as much as glory. This meant galley captain’s goal was not so much to destroy the enemy, as it was to capture the ship, crew, and any cargo. This economic goal influenced combat tactics as much as armaments did. Heavy rams disappeared from the prows of galleys, replaced by cannon, beaks, and boarding platforms. Cannon were used primarily for anti-personnel fire at the moment of boarding, not as a means to sink the vessel.

These realities of galley warfare dictated an environment of commerce raiding and anti-piracy actions. Large fleet actions came only when nations sought to capture bases for themselves, as at Prevesa, when Christian forces met an Ottoman fleet in order to prevent it from threatening Corfu or taking additional territory on the Dalmatian coast. Guilmartin uses Prevesa as a means to illustrate the problems with Mahanian theory in the Mediterranean context, but also to illustrate what he calls the inherently amphibious nature of galley warfare of the sixteenth century. At Prevesa, the Ottoman fleet under Barbarossa waited under the protection of shore guns and a narrow outlet from the Gulf of Prevesa to the Mediterranean. If the Christians forced their way through in small groups, they would be unable to form in line to fight, and the Ottoman galleys would destroy them as they entered the Gulf. The shore guns prevented the Christian fleet from gaining the same advantage if the Ottomans sallied forth, as the emerging fleet would wait under the protection of the batteries while forming up. This forced Andrea Doria to attempt to capture the Castle dominating the entrance to the Gulf of Prevesa. This effort failed, and when the Christian fleet withdrew for logistical reasons, Barbarossa attacked with galleys crewed by well-fed and rested rowers.

Using Prevesa as the starting point for a detailed discussion of galley warfare in the Mediterranean, Guilmartin launches into discussions of the design of galleys, crew requirements and training, the development of naval artillery, and the evolution of personal gunpowder weapons. He contends that social, cultural, and economic factors play a large role in the design of galleys, how they were armed, and how they were crewed. Gunpowder and Galleys follows to evolution of galleys through the sixteenth century to what Guilmartin describes as the peak of galley warfare at Lepanto in 1571. Contemporary sources hail this clear victory of Christian forces as a turning point in the contest for the Mediterranean between the Ottomans and the Holy League, but it is difficult for Mahan oriented historians to understand why since no territory changed hands and the Ottoman fleet returned to threaten Christian territories the next year.

Guilmartin provides the social and cultural detail necessary to understand the form of the disaster for the Ottomans, and why full-rigged sailing vessels of North Atlantic design came to dominate the seventeenth century. As the sixteenth century progressed and cannon became more available, galleys carried increasing amounts of gunpowder-based ordnance. The result was that galleys became larger, requiring more rowers and more men at arms for boarding operations. The larger crews reduced the operating range of fleets even further, placing an increased emphasis on capturing fortified ports for galleys to use for provisioning.

Lepanto is decisive not only for its illustration of the utility of large amounts of naval artillery fired obliquely by Venetian galleasses, but for its long-term impact on the makeup of both Ottoman and Western forces. Ottoman men at arms still favored the accurate and powerful composite bow, while Christian forces, particularly Spanish forces increasingly relied on arquebuses and muskets. When thousands of carefully trained Ottoman archers were killed at Lepanto, it took a generation to replace them. Spain, relying as it did on gunpowder weapons could train replacements in a matter of weeks if they had the money to do so. Guilmartin contends that the increasing availability of both cannon and musketry radically altered the nature of naval combat, forcing the adoption of increasingly large vessels, which eliminated the dominance of oar-powered galleys.

In order to make this argument, Guilmartin relies on primary sources, supplemented with key secondary sources that provide special insight into the nature of oared vessels and the Mediterranean region. Most prominent are Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II and Admiral W.L. Rodgers’ 1937 study of the performance of U.S. Navy racing cutters. While Braudel provides critical details regarding the Mediterranean social and economic issues, Rodgers’ research illustrates the performance envelope of both galleys and oarsmen. These two works inform Guilmartin’s understanding of the environment Mediterranean navies operated in, as well as the nature of galley operations, and provide the context needed to understand the results of the battles he describes.

Finally, Gunpowder and Galleys contains six appendices devoted to discussions of the development of firearms, ballistics characteristics of cannon, construction of naval artillery, and the crew complements of an average Spanish galley that enhance his argument, and allow readers to further evaluate his use of evidence. Like the rest of the work, the appendices are carefully documented for the benefit of naval historians. If for nothing else, Gunpowder and Galleys is useful for the comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources devoted to sixteenth century galley warfare.

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