THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO,
THE DUKE OF NAXOS AND DON QUIXOTE
By Arthur Benveniste
from HaLapid, Summer 2001
On October 7, 1571, two great armadas, one Christian and one Moslem, met at the mouth of the Gulf of Patras, off Lepanto, Greece. The battle is significant for several reasons: It was the last naval battle in history in which both navies used galleys propelled by slaves chained to oars and it marked the end of Turkish ascendancy in the Mediterranean and opened the door to Christian dominance of that sea. One of the sailors of the Christian fleet was severely wounded. The wounded seaman lost the use of his left hand and had to give up a career at sea. He took up writing. His name was Miguel de Cervantes, and with his right hand he produced Don Quixote.
But, what was the cause of this battle and, of greater interest to readers of Halapid, what was the crypto-Jewish connection?
The war, like all wars, had many causes, but one of the more significant ones was the fact that France owed 150,000 ducats to the Duke of Naxos. Turkish Sultan Selim II had conquered the Island of Naxos and appointed his close friend, Joseph Nasi, as Duke. Nasi had been been born in Portugal to a family that had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Joseph was baptized in the church and raised under the Christian name João Miguez. His aunt was the well-known Doña Gracia Nasi. When Joseph followed his aunt to Constantinople, he married his cousin, Brianda, Doña Gracia's daughter. His famous aunt was now his mother-in-law. Earlier, he had become a principal in the House of Mendes, the family firm, and a major trading and banking company of the age. Mendes ships often assisted crypto Jews in fleeing Iberia, the firm's agents arranged for bills of credit to save their assets..
As a financier, João/Joseph often dealt with the royal houses of Europe, and a loan to the king of France was made while he was still openly a Catholic. For their own safety, the family had to emigrate from Iberia and eventually they settled in the Ottoman Empire. Here they returned to Judaism and to their Jewish names.
Joseph, as he was now known, became a close friend of Prince Selim, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent. When Selim ascended the throne, he rewarded his Jewish friend with the Dukedom.
When King Charles IX of France learned of this, he disavowed his debt to the new Duke, insisting that the loan was taken from the Christian, João, and that nothing was owed to the Jew, Joseph.
Joseph, however, owed money to the new sultan and could not pay it unless the French loan was collected. In 1569 Sultan Selim II gave the Mendes/Nasi banking family permission to seize merchandise from French-flagged ships in the port of Alexandria. The French protested to Constantinople, and Sultan Selim notified King Charles that the merchandise would be returned when the loan was paid. The dispute continued and intensified. Two years later, French vessels joined an allied fleet (about 200 galleys), consisting mainly of Spanish and Venetian ships, with other vessels sent by the Pope and some Italian states. They defeated the Moslem fleet of Turkish and North African galleys.
In 1588, many Spanish veterans of Lepanto were aboard vessels of the Armada that Frances Drake destroyed off the coast of Britain. The Battle of the Armada ended Spanish control of the Atlantic and opened the way for English colonization of the New World.
Arthur Benveniste has been a member of SCJS since 1993 and is a former president of the society. He is co-editor of HaLapid, the publication of the society. His website can be seen at: home.earthlink.net/~benven
Society For Crypto Judaic Studies