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Spain’s Greatest Victory At Sea
by [?]

On the 16th of September, 1571, there sailed from the harbor of Messina one of the greatest fleets the Mediterranean had ever borne upon its waves. It consisted of more than three hundred vessels, most of them small, but some of great bulk for that day, carrying forty pieces of artillery. On board these ships were eighty thousand men. Of these, less than thirty thousand were soldiers, for in those days, when war-galleys were moved by oars rather than sails, great numbers of oarsmen were needed. At the head of this powerful armament was Don John of Austria, brother of Philip II., and the ablest naval commander that Spain possessed.

At sunrise on the 7th of October the Christian fleet came in sight, at the entrance to the Bay of Lepanto, on the west of Greece, of the great Turkish armament, consisting of nearly two hundred and fifty royal galleys, with a number of smaller vessels in the rear. On these ships are said to have been not less than one hundred and twenty thousand men. A great battle for the supremacy of Christian or Mohammedan was about to be fought between two of the largest fleets ever seen in the Mediterranean.

For more than a century the Turks had been masters of Constantinople and the Eastern Empire, and had extended their dominion far to the west. The Mediterranean had become a Turkish lake, which the fleets of the Ottoman emperors swept at will. Cyprus had fallen, Malta had sustained a terrible siege, and the coasts of Italy and Spain were exposed to frightful ravages, in which the corsairs of the Barbary states joined hands with the Turks. France only was exempt, its princes having made an alliance with Turkey, in which they gained safety at the cost of honor.

Spain was the leading opponent of this devastating power. For centuries the Spanish people had been engaged in a bitter crusade against the Moslem forces. The conquest of Granada was followed by descents upon the African coast, the most important of which was the conquest of Tunis by Charles the Fifth in 1535, on which occasion ten thousand Christian captives were set free from a dreadful bondage. An expedition against Tripoli in 1559, however, ended in disaster, the Turks and the Moors continued triumphant at sea, and it was not until 1571 that the proud Moslem powers received an effectual check.

The great fleet of which Don John of Austria was admiral-in-chief had not come solely from Spain. Genoa had furnished a large number of galleys, under their famous admiral, Andrew Doria,–a name to make the Moslems tremble. Venice had added its fleet, and the Papal States had sent a strong contingent of ships. Italy had been suffering from the Turkish fleet, fire and sword had turned the Venetian coasts into a smoking desolation, and this was the answer of Christian Europe to the Turkish menace.

The sight of the Turkish fleet on that memorable 7th of October created instant animation in the Christian armament. Don John hoisted his pennon, ordered the great standard of the league, given by the Pope, to be unfurled, and fired a gun in defiance of the Turks. Some of the commanders doubted the wisdom of engaging the enemy in a position where he had the advantage, but the daring young commander curtly cut short the discussion.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “this is the time for combat, not for counsel.”

Steadily the two fleets approached each other on that quiet sea. The Christian ships extended over a width of three miles. On the right was Andrew Doria, with sixty-four galleys. The centre, consisting of sixty-three galleys, was commanded by Don John, with Colonna, the captain-general of the Pope, on one flank, and Veniero, the Venetian captain-general, on the other. The left wing, commanded by the noble Venetian Barbarigo, extended as near to the coast of AEtolia as it was deemed safe to venture. The reserve, of thirty-five galleys, was under the Marquis of Santa Cruz. The plan of battle was simple. Don John’s orders to his captains were for each to select an adversary, close with him at once, and board as soon as possible.