Oct. 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, it marked the end of Turkish ascendancy in the Mediterranean and opened the door to Christian dominance of that sea, and 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 us, 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 Salim II had conquered the Island of Naxos and appointed his close friend, Joseph Nasi, as Duke. Nasi had been born in Portugal to a family that had been forcibly converted to Catholicism. Joseph was baptized in the church and raised under the name João Migues. His aunt was the well known, Doña Gracia. When Joseph grew up he married his cousin, Brianda, the daughter of Doña Gracia and his famous aunt was now his mother-in-law. His uncle, who died when Joseph was very young, had been born Francisco Benveniste and took the name Mendes when he was forced to convert. In time, Joseph became a principal in the House of Mendes, a major trading and banking company of the age. The ships of Mendes often assisted crypto Jews in fleeing Iberia sometimes even escaping with their possessions.
As a financier, João/Joseph often dealt with the royal houses of Europe and the loan to the king of France was made while he was still openly a Catholic. For their own safety, the family had to leave 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 Salim, the son of Suleiman the Magnificent. When Salim ascended to 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 Salim II gave the Mendes/Nasi banking family permission to seize merchandise from French flagged ships in the port of Alexandria. The French protested to Istanbul and Sultan Salim notified King Charles that once the loan had been paid the merchandise would be returned. The dispute continued and grew. Two years later French vessels joined an allied fleet (about 200 galleys,) consisting mainly of Spanish, Venetian, and ships sent by the pope and a number of 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 was destroyed by Francis Drake 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.