From the late 16th to the early 18th centuries, the Mediterranean world was dominated by the contest between the Ottoman Empire and the shifting alliances of the various Christian powers for dominance of the seas. The Ottomans were backed by their fearsome allies, the ‘pirate states’ of the ‘Barbary Coast’ of North Africa, the Regency of Algiers (1516 – 1830) the Eyalet of Tunis (1574 – 1705). The people of coastal towns from Greece to Portugal lived in constant fear of raids by the Muslim powers, who would kidnap Christians into slavery, and plunder and burn everything with a zeal seen nowhere else in modern times. Rage over these assaults revived the Crusader-era urge to fight the Muslim ‘other’ for God’s glory, while on a practical level they needed to protect their coasts, while much wealth could be gained from intercepting Ottoman shipping.
In the wake of the crushing Christian naval victory over the combined Ottoman fleets at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), sophisticated propaganda campaigns developed in the Christian states that principally played out in the form of small, cheaply printed pamphlets, generally referred to as “relations” (Spanish: Relación; Italian: Relazione; Portuguese: Relação, etc.), as their titles often commenced with that word, reporting fresh news of specific naval engagements between the Ottomans and the Christian allied forces. Issued shortly after the events themselves (sometimes in the first port that the Christian vessels reached after the action), the Relations tended to follow the same template, based on the firsthand accounts of the (Christian) protagonists, the stories used dramatic, simple language to convey the “heroic” battle action, and were always sure to include salient facts, including statistics on casualties, the number of freed Christian slaves and the amount of loot captured. Normally, the Relations focused upon Christian victories, although in the case of defeats or draws, they emphasized the bravery of the ‘underdog’ Christian mariners and the perfidious and inhuman barbarity of the enemy. The purpose of the pamphlets was both to inform of the public on key events and to stoke religious-patriotic fervour to drum up public support for the costly campaigns against the Turks.
The present extremely rare Relación is part of the long-standing PR campaign mounted by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the small but massively wealthy Italian state ruled by the Medici family. While a modest naval power, Tuscany’s loans financed the fleets of the larger Christian states (ex. Spain, Venice, the Papal States, etc.), while their small but plucky squadrons won many impressive victories, either alone, or as part of larger allied fleets.
In 1561, Grand Duke Cosimo I de’Medici created the Order of the Knights of San Stefano, an elite chivalric-martial unit specifically to fight the Ottomans and their allies. In 1598, his successor Ferdinando I vowed to be a “model of a Christian prince towards the infidels, promoting every type of action in the war of race”, a charge continued by his heirs.
Tuscany was eager to gain credit for its outsized contribution to the ‘new maritime crusade’, so developed a sophisticated international propaganda machine to promote its role. The historian Giovanni Ciappelli records that, in the period from 1599 to 1719, 133 pamphlets were published that detail Tuscan naval exploits against the Ottomans, forming the backbone of Florence’s information campaign.
The Present Work in Focus
The present Relación, while brief, is packed with exciting action. It dramatically describes the occasion when a small Tuscan naval squadron, commanded by the Spanish Admiral Don Pedro de Leyva (it was then common for Tuscan fleets to be commanded by experienced foreign allied commanders), based in Sicily, hunted down a pair of Algerian-Ottoman vessels in the Greek islands. On July 1, 1622, after a ferocious battle, the Tuscans captured the enemy ships, taking many prisoners, liberating many Christian slaves and gaining an astounding treasure.
The present work was published in Barcelona on July 26, 1622, less than four seeks after the battle, and is predicated upon a firsthand account given by Admiral Levya, or one of his men, who pulled into that port, making it likely the earliest published account of the battle. While the content comes directly from the fight, the language was likely “jazzed up” by the publisher Esteban Liberós, who was an experienced pamphleteer, who knew what appealed to the public in Spain, Christianity’s most important country.
The narrative commences by recalling that a fleet of the “The Most Excellent Duke of Tuscany” was docked in Messina, Sicily, awaiting orders from “His Highness Prince Filberto, General of the Seas” (Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, the Viceroy of Spanish-controlled Sicily). The Tuscans had gained word that “the Bey of Algiers wanted to send to the Grand Turk [the Ottoman Sultan] some assistance in the form of men and money for the Navy that he was then arranging to defend the African coast, and the Archipelago [the Greek Aegean islands]”. Given the go-ahead from Prince Filberto, Levya led his fleet out of Messina on June 4, 1622, and after nine days arrived in the Ionian Islands. At “Zante” (Zakynthos) they captured a small Algerian boat, manned by only four crew, and from them gained useful intelligence as to the location of the Algerian-Turkish treasure fleet.
Arriving off the “Island of Negroponte” (Euboea), the Tuscans sighted a large Galley from Ottoman Rhodes (a ships rowed by oars manned by captive Christian slaves) accompanied by a tall sailing ship. The Muslim vessels tried to run, but as the narrator says, “the more they fled, the closer they got to where they will suffer”. As the Tuscans closed in, they eventually realized that escape was futile, so stood to fight.
Off the island of Andros, on July 1, 1622, the contest commenced. The crew of the Muslim ships seemed shocked “as the tired deer usually fades when surrounded by… hungry dogs”. They proceeded to mount a fierce cannonade, breaking the rigging and part of the foremast of the main Tuscan galley. However, the Christians suffered only 2 casualties, which was seen as being due to divine providence.
The Tuscans then rounded upon the Algerian-Ottomans, “as would boars usually throw themselves at whatever thew at them”, enjoining a ferocious battle. The Muslim
sailing ship caught fire, in a scene likened to “Mongibello [Mount Etna] and Vulcan… throwing fire everywhere”. The Tuscans then “approached with dexterity” and “threw themselves at the Turks with naked and bloody swords, dismembering some who… madly defended themselves”.
The Algerian-Ottomans “finally surrendered” when their galley had lost its top mast, and with many of the janissaries sent from Algiers having been slain.
Upon boarding what was left of the enemy vessels, the Tuscans “found more than 140 Christians tied to the chain”, which they duly liberated. They took 243 prisoners (Moors, Turks and janissaries, “all fighting men”), while many more were dead.
Most importantly, the Tuscans found 500,000 ducats in gold and many jewels, housed in gold coffers. This represented an astounding sum, equivalent to many tens of millions of today’s U.S. dollars! This would have dealt a crushing blow to the Ottomans’ overall war effort against the Christian powers.
Levya led the Tuscan fleet back to Messina “where he was received with the joy and applause that such a person and victory deserved”.
A Note on Rarity
All such “relations” tend to be very to extremely rare, as ephemeral works intended ‘for the street’, they have a very low survival rate.
We can trace only a single example of the present work, held by the Biblioteca Nacional de España, while we cannot trace any sales records.
References: Biblioteca Nacional de España: VE/1378-18; Giovanni CIAPPELLI, ‘L’informazione e la propaganda. La guerra di corsa delle galee toscane contro Turchi e Barbareschi nel Seicento, attraverso relazioni e relaciones a stampa’, in Giovanni CIAPPELLI and Valentina NIDER (eds.), La invención de las noticias: las relaciones de sucesos entre la literatura y la información (siglos xvi-xviii) (Trento: University of Trento, 2017), pp. 133-161 (esp. no. 74, p. 156); Antonio GÓMEZ, Con balas de plata VI. 1621-30 (Madrid, 2019), no. D8.