Venice’s Indecisive Leader, Decisive Loss, 1470

From: City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley (Random House, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4978-5023:

On the morning of July 11 [1470], after three days of heavy gunfire, [Sultan Mehmet II] was about to launch what he hoped might prove the final assault when he was stopped dead in his tracks.

Ottoman lookouts suddenly became aware of the Venetian fleet sweeping down the Euripus channel from its northern end. There were seventy-one ships, short of Longo’s recommended hundred, but still a sizable force, including a powerful squadron of fifty-two war galleys and one weighty great galley, much feared by the Turks. They were under sail, making strong headway down the strait with the breeze and the tidal bore behind them. At a stroke Mehmet II was horribly vulnerable. The fleet had only to smash the pontoon bridges to sever the Ottoman line of retreat and isolate it on the island. Mehmet was said to have shed tears of impotent rage at the imminent ruin of his plan; he mounted his horse ready to escape from the island. On the walls of the citadel the defenders’ spirits rose. Relief seemed certain. Another hour and the bridges would be broken.

Then, quite inexplicably, the fleet stopped and anchored upstream. And waited.

Niccolò da Canal, captain-general of the sea, was a scholar and a lawyer rather than a seaman, more used to carefully weighing legal options than to decisive action. At that moment the lawyer’s instinct came into play. He was worried for the safety of his ships against gunfire and unnerved by the strange shifts of the current. He ordered the fleet to pause. His captains urged him forward; he resisted. Two Cretans begged to charge the first pontoon bridge in the great galley with the momentum of the wind and the tidal bore. Some of the sailors had family in the city; the will was there to do or die. Reluctantly permission was granted. The galley raised sail, but just as it was under way, da Canal changed his mind. It was commanded back by cannon shot.

On the walls, the defenders watched all this—first with joy at the prospect of rescue, then with disbelief, finally with horror. They sent increasingly desperate signals to the static fleet—torches were lit and extinguished, then the standard of Saint Mark was raised and lowered. Finally, according to Angiolello, “a great crucifix, the size of a man, was constructed and carried along the side of the city facing toward our fleet, so the commanders of the fleet might be moved to have some pity on us in ways that they could well imagine for themselves.” To no avail. Da Canal took his fleet back upstream and anchored. “Our spirits sank,” remembered Angiolello, “and [we] were left with almost no hope of salvation.” Others cursed: “May God forgive the individual who failed to perform his duty!”

Mehmet was quickest to react. Responding to this surprising turn of events, he immediately announced an all-out attack early next day and personally toured the camp on horseback promising the troops everything in the city by way of plunder. He then commanded a large detachment of handgunners to the upper bridge to protect it from da Canal’s fleet. In the dark hours before dawn, to the customary din of drums and trumpets, he ordered forward his least reliable troops—“the rabble”—to wear down the defense. As they were shot down, the regulars advanced over the trampled corpses and stormed their way in. The whole population, men, women, and children, participated in a last-ditch defense, barricading the narrow lanes and hurling scalding water, quicklime, and boiling pitch on the enemy as it battled forward, foot by foot, street by street. By midmorning, they had reached the central square; from the fortress on the bridge, the defenders hoisted a black flag as a last despairing plea for help. Da Canal responded too little and too late. A halfhearted assault was mounted on the pontoon, but when the sailors saw the Ottoman flag fluttering from the walls, the captain-general raised his anchor and sailed off, leaving the despairing populace to a ghastly fate….

Those who surrendered were slaughtered on the spot. Others were pointedly taken to the Church of the Holy Apostles to be killed. Their heads were piled up outside the patriarch’s house. In cold fury, Mehmet ordered any of his men hiding profitable captives to be beheaded along with their victims; he had the galleys searched accordingly.

So many tried to escape over the bridge that it collapsed, hurling them into the sea, but the fort in the middle was unreachable and still holding out. Eventually, the defenders surrendered with a promise of safe conduct. When this was reported to Mehmet, he turned furiously on the pasha responsible: “If you gave your word [to spare their lives], you did not remember my oath.” They were all killed. In some accounts, it was reported that the bailo was among those on the bridge and that Mehmet had agreed to spare his head. He complied to the letter: The bailo was sandwiched between planks and sawn in half. More likely he had died at the walls. It does appear that the sultan exacted terrible revenge. Particularly enraged by the mere boys who had shot down his men so effectively, he had all the male survivors ten years and older, about eight hundred, brought into his presence. Their hands were tied behind their backs; they were made to kneel in a large circle, then beheaded one by one, creating a pattern of corpses. The bodies were thrown in the sea, the surviving women and children marched off into slavery.

Despite Mehmet’s oath, a few did survive, among them Giovan-Maria Angiolello, taken off as a slave; and a monk, Jacopo dalla Castellana, who was probably able to disguise himself. His short account ends autobiographically: “I, Brother Jacopo dalla Castellana, saw all these events, and escaped from the island because I speak both Turkish and Greek.”

The Venetian fleet ineffectually tracked the enemy convoy back to Gallipoli, then trailed home in disgrace. The news from Negroponte was, if anything, more devastating than that from Constantinople seventeen years earlier.

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