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This extract relates an extraordinary episode that took place in the sea just off the city walls, a fortnight into the siege. The pope sent four Genoese sailing ships to help Constantinople. These were sighted off the city walls on the morning of 18 April 1453. Sultan Mehmet at once dispatched his large fleet of galleys, under his admiral Baltaoglu, to capture the ships before they could make it into the safety of the defenders’ harbour in the Golden Horn – which was sealed from attack by a boom.
The look-out for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning, and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols, and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet’s gave a message to commander and fleet that was unequivocal; ‘either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive’. The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and ‘many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breastplates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle’. The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought farther out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.
By early afternoon the four ships were off the southeast shore of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning manoeuvre into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men ‘with ambition and hope of success’. They came on steadily, ‘with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory’. The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: ‘they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins and stones.’ The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to manoeuvre accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.
The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse counter current across the open mouth of the Horn and towards Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral ‘shouted in a commanding voice’ and ordered the fleet to close in and board.
The swarm of galleys and long boats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, ‘like dry land’. Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a serious of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armour, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests ‘they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet’. Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armoured men falling backwards into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast ‘that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water’, the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. ‘There was a great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other’, recorded Kritovoulos, ‘hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din’.
For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, ‘like demons’, recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty long boats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one long boat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armoured soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which ‘defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francisco Lecanella rushing to help’. In time however it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practised manoeuvre and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that ‘the sea could hardly be seen’.
The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and towards the Galata shore As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that Ottomans must win ‘for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded and the killed’. Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter.
And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to moved forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged towards the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships ‘and tore his garments in his fury’ but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships farther. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.
In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of ‘at least twenty galleys’ was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbour to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was ‘greatly chagrined. Whipping up his horse, he went off in silence.’