Today in European history: the Battle of Djerba ends (1560)

The Ottomans win a major naval engagement against a Habsburg-led Christian league.

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The 16th century was a time of massive territorial expansion for the Ottoman Empire, mostly under two sultans: Selim I (d. 1520) and Sulayman I (d. 1566). Between the two of them they added Egypt, most of the Levant, Iraq, the Hejaz, Hungary and other parts of central Europe, and much of North Africa to the empire. Selim more than doubled the size of the empire he inherited, and Sulayman’s conquests extended its dominion considerably beyond that. This century also saw the rise of the Ottomans as a genuine naval power in the Mediterranean. Don’t get me wrong, the Ottomans had been developing their navy for decades, and it played an important role in many of their conquests in the 15th century, including the capture of Constantinople and their brief foray into southern Italy. But it’s in the 16th century when we see Ottoman fleets fighting, and sometimes winning, major naval engagements against established European maritime powers like Venice.

There is a trio of noteworthy Mediterranean naval battles in the 16th century: the Battle of Preveza in 1538, the Battle of Djerba in 1560, and of course the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The third, a significant Ottoman defeat, is considered one of the great battles in history and cited as the last hurrah of the ubiquitous galley before naval warfare fully entered the Age of Sail. Preveza proved to be the decisive battle of the Third Ottoman-Venetian War, which drove Venice out of the Peloponnese and left the Ottomans in control of a significant portion of the Dalmatian coast. Presumably you’ve pieced together that we’re here to day to talk about the middle engagement, which stands out in part because of its location. Where Preveza and Lepanto both took place around Greece, the 1560 Battle of Djerba took place just off the coast of Tunisia.

As shown on this handy map

Djerba’s location reflects the fact that, at its naval high water (no pun intended) mark, the Ottoman Empire was actually on the verge of expanding its range into the western Mediterranean. The empire’s progress into the western Mediterranean would hit what we now know was its peak (hindsight is great, isn’t it?) shortly after Djerba, with its failed siege of Malta in 1565, but at the time it was not out of the question that the Ottomans and their corsair clients in Algeria and Tripolitania could turn the whole Mediterranean into an Ottoman lake, the way the Romans had done many centuries previously.

The one part of North Africa that wasn’t an Ottoman vassal by 1560, aside from independent Morocco, was Tunisia. At this point it was still under the control of the Hafsid dynasty, which had fallen from its 15th century heights and was a vassal of Habsburg Spain. Ironically the Ottomans had hastened this process via their 1534 conquest of Tunis, which was reversed by Habsburg Emperor Charles V (Charles I for the folks in Castile and Aragon, d. 1556) in 1535 under the proviso that the Hafsids would from that point on function as Habsburg clients. But then the Habsburgs were among the Christian forces that lost at Preveza, and Charles led a thoroughly disastrous attempted invasion of Ottoman Algeria in 1541, and suddenly Tunisia looked very vulnerable again.

To be honest, the whole central Mediterranean looked vulnerable—was vulnerable, really, which is why Ottoman Grand Admiral Piali Pasha (d. 1578) and a senior Ottoman corsair commander, Turgut Reis (AKA “Dragut”, d. 1565) spent the 1550s hopping around to places like Corsica, Elba, southern Italy, and the Balearic Islands. None of their conquests survived very long, but the combined effect of their raids made it apparent to the Habsburgs and other Christian leaders that the balance of power at sea was in danger of shifting fully in the Ottomans’ direction. Spanish King Philip II (d. 1598), who succeeded Charles upon his death, asked Pope Paul IV (d. 1559) to organize another Holy League of sorts, with the goal of capturing Turgut Reis’s home base, Tripoli. The alliance that emerged included contributions from Genoa, Venice, the Duchy of Savoy, the Papal States, the Knights of Malta, and of course from Spain itself.

There seems to be a general consensus that the combined Christian fleet included between 50 and 60 galley warships as well as a large number of smaller combat and support ships. It was under the overall command of Genoese admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria, the nephew of the famed admiral Andrea Doria. It’s unclear how large an army they’d put together to capture Tripoli but given the evidence about the fleet size it was probably in the 10,000-15,000 neighborhood. The exact figure doesn’t really matter because they never made it to Tripoli anyway. After coming ashore in mid-February and finding little water, with a storm threatening to wreck their fleet, on March 7 the Christians put back out to sea and decided instead to seize and fortify the island of Djerba. They believed that a durable fortification on Djerba would allow them to control the sailing lanes out of Tripoli and harass Ottoman fleets, which served the same purpose as capturing Tripoli in terms of disrupting Ottoman naval expansion.

The Ottoman fleet, which included around 86 warships but probably fewer galleys than the Christian league, showed up at Djerba in early May. This was not a large fleet, obviously, and the reason seems to be that this Christian (I don’t mean to keep playing up the religious aspect of this conflict but “Christian” is the simplest catch-all term for the alliance) attack on Tripoli had taken the Ottomans by surprise. Instead of taking the time to build a large fleet, Piali Pasha had to race for Tripoli with whatever ships he could muster in short order. But if the Christians had caught the Ottomans a bit off guard, the arrival of the Ottoman fleet at Djerba caught the Christians completely unprepared. They’d only just finished building their fortifications and had to race to get back aboard their ships to meet the Ottomans at sea.

Even caught by surprise, the combined Christian fleet was more than capable of either giving the Ottomans a tough fight or undertaking an orderly and well defended withdrawal. But the Christians did neither, opting instead to panic and flee in disorganized fashion. Or, well, to attempt to flee, because the Ottomans ran down a number of Christian vessels and either seized or sunk around 60 of them. They killed thousands and captured thousands more, most of whom would have been enslaved. Doria managed to escape, though, so good for him I guess. He left Djerba’s fortress completely isolated and its defenders totally abandoned. It took a three month siege but ultimately it fell to Turgut Reis’s forces.

The Ottomans, under corsair captain Uluj Ali Pasha, captured Tunisia in 1569, lost it to John of Austria in 1573, then retook it in 1574. Technically they held it until 1881, when it became a French protectorate, but from the early 18th century on Tunisia was an Ottoman vassal in name only. But despite winning at Djerba and despite gaining control of Tunisia shortly after, the Ottomans never really threatened the western Mediterranean again. The siege of Malta followed Djerba, and then Lepanto. While neither defeat was crippling—Lepanto took place shortly after the Ottomans had captured Cyprus, which they regarded as by far the more important engagement—their combined effect was to leave the Ottomans an eastern Mediterranean power only. As it eventually would on land, the Ottoman Empire had hit its limit at sea.