Galley - Military History - Mediterranean Decline

Mediterranean Decline

Atlantic style warfare based on heavily armed sailing ships began to change the nature of naval warfare in the Mediterranean in the 17th century. In 1616, a small squadron of five galleons and a patache was used to cruise the eastern Mediterranean and defeated a fleet of fifty five galleys at the battle of Cape Celidonia. By 1650, war galleys were used primarily in the wars between Venice and the Ottoman Empire in their struggle for strategic island and coastal trading bases and until the 1720s by France and Spain but for largely amphibious and cruising operation, not for large fleet battles. Even a purely Mediterranean power like Venice began to construct sail only warships in the latter part of the century. Christian and Muslim corsairs had been using galleys in sea roving and in support of the major powers in times of war, but largely replaced them with xebecs, various sail/oar hybrids, and a few remaining light galleys in the early 17th century. Spain still waged classical amphibious galley warfare in the 1640s by supplying troops in Tarragona in its war against France. No large all galley battles were fought after the gigantic clash at Lepanto in 1571, and galleys were mostly used as cruisers or for supporting sailing warships as a rearguard in fleet actions, similar to the duties performed by frigates outside of the Mediterranean. They could assist damaged ships out of the line, but generally only in very calm weather, as was the case at the battle of Malaga in 1704.

For small states and principalities as well as groups of private merchants, galleys were more affordable than large and complex sailing warships, and were used as defense against piracy. The largest galley fleets in the 17th century were operated by the two major Mediterranean powers, France and Spain. France had by the 1650s become the most powerful state in Europe, and expanded its galley forces under the rule of the absolutist "Sun King" Louis XIV. In the 1690s the French Galley Corps reached its all-time peak with more than 50 vessels manned by over 15,000 men and officers, becoming the largest galley in the world at the time. Though there was intense rivalry between France and Spain, not a single galley battle occurred between the two great powers, and virtually no battles between other nations either. During the War of the Spanish Succession, French galleys were involved in actions against Antwerp and Harwich, but due to the intricacies of alliance politics there were never any Franco-Spanish galley clashes. In the first half of the 18th century, the other major naval powers in North Africa, the Order of Saint John and the Papal States all cut down drastically on their galley forces. Despite the lack of action, the French Galley Corps received vast resources (20-25% of the French naval expenditures) during the last decades of the 17th centuries and was maintained as a functional fighting force right up until its abolishment in 1748. Its primary function became to symbolize the prestige of Louis XIV's hard-line absolutist ambitions by patrolling the Mediterranean to force ships of other states to salute the King's banner, convoying ambassadors and cardinals, and obediently participating in naval parades and royal pageantry.

The last recorded battle in the Mediterranean where galleys played a significant part was at Matapan in 1717, between the Ottomans and Venice and its allies, though they had little influence on the final outcome. Few large-scale naval battles were fought in the Mediterranean throughout most of the remainder of the 18th century. The Tuscan galley fleet was dismantled around 1718, Naples had only four old vessels by 1734 and the French Galley Corps had ceased to exist as an independent arm in 1748. Venice, the Papal States and the Knights of Malta were the only state fleets that maintained galleys, though in nothing like their previous quantities. By 1790, there were less than 50 galleys in service among all the Mediterranean powers, half of which belonged to Venice.

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