Friday, February 19, 2010

The Vandals as a Naval Power

Later Roman  Liburnian type galley
Geiseric (428–477) was certainly the most important of the Vandal kings, and indeed was among the most influential figures of the fifth century Mediterranean world. It was under his watch that the Vandals crossed into Africa, and secured the two imperial treaties of settlement in 435 and 442. He established the position of the Vandals as a major naval power by commandeering the Carthaginian merchant marine, and was able to spread Vandal authority into Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands.

Fall of Carthage to the Vandals aggrieved the western and eastern empire, as there was a large number of galleys and a great shipyards in Carthage, creating the Vandal fleet as the equal to the joint navy of the two empires. That the empire ever allowed for so many galleys to be left in Carthage's port while the Vandals were so close by, must be one of the most monumental blunders of its history. For the first time in nearly 6 centuries, Carthage became the greatest danger to Rome since the Punic Wars.


AD 468 witnessed the most ambitious campaign ever launched against the Vandal state in Africa, which deserves admiration for its logistical brilliance, if not its eventual result. A massive naval operation, under the command of the emperor’s brother-in-law Basiliscus, lay at the heart of this offensive, which was intended to strike directly at the Vandal capital. The statistics for this campaign given by sixth- and seventh-century historians are clearly grotesquely exaggerated, but even if we can reject Theophanes’ assertion that the fleet numbered 100,000 ships or even John the Lydian’s more modest (but still unlikely) figure of 10,000 ships, it is clear that the logistical operation was massive. Marcian ordered the extensive requisition of merchant shipping in eastern ports, including considerable numbers of Carthaginian vessels. Simultaneously, western troops were mustered under Anthemius or Ricimer, and Sicily was again taken by Marcellinus and his barbarian federates.

The mobilization of this campaign startled the inhabitants of Carthage into action. The Suevic and Gothic envoys in the city fled, and Geiseric rapidly deployed his own legates in an attempt to make peace. Quite what happened next is unclear, but Geiseric’s overtures apparently had some effect. In the early stages of the campaign, the imperial forces enjoyed some success, and may even have defeated Vandal ships sent out to intercept them. Crucially, however, Basiliscus delayed the crucial landing operations and kept his ships anchored at Mercurium off the African coast for five days. Various explanations for this delay circulated among later historians. Some suggested that Basiliscus had simply been bought off by Geiseric, others that Aspar had promised him the eastern throne if he agreed to sacrifice his fleet to the Vandal allies of the magister militum. Whatever the cause, the delay proved to be fatal. After a long stand-off, a shift in the wind allowed Geiseric to launch a fire-ship raid on the becalmed fleet. The effects were devastating. Basiliscus’ vast armada was scattered and the opportunity for a crippling blow at Carthage was lost.

As Basiliscus led his fleet towards the cataclysm of Mercurium, and Marcellinus occupied Sicily, a third front was opened up on the southern frontier of the Vandal kingdom. Drawing his army from the Byzantine troops and federates of Egypt, Heracleius led an expedition by sea against the Vandal coastal stronghold of Tripolis. Heracleius occupied the city, and then followed an overland route towards Byzacena, with the intention of uniting with Basiliscus in the Proconsular province. This expedition would have represented a considerable threat to the Vandal kingdom, but it seems to have been halted by news of Basiliscus’ defeat. Apparently demoralized, Heracleius led his army back to the relative safety of Tripolis. Tripolis remained in Byzantine hands until 470 when military pressures on the Balkan frontier, and political infighting at court, required that the troops in Africa be withdrawn. A formal peace treaty was probably signed in the same year.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Naval Power in the Renaissance Africa

In 1500, a number of dynamic powers were expanding. The conflicts involving Ottoman Turkey, Mameluke Egypt, Safavid Persia, the Mughals, and the Lodis were all important, although with hindsight Portuguese and Spanish naval activity may appear most important. China was less affected than other major Asian states by external challenges

The long-distance extension of power and influence by sea was scarcely novel: the Vikings had colonized Iceland and Greenland and reached Newfoundland; the Chinese had sent a number of major expeditions into the Indian Ocean in the early fifteenth century. Yet no state had hitherto dispatched and sustained major naval and amphibious forces across the Atlantic or the Pacific, let alone to the other side of the world.

Naval force was also important because it was easier to move men, munitions, and supplies by sea than by land. Such movement came to play a greater role in many struggles. The Turks, for example, learned in the late fifteenth century to move cannon by sea, and then land them for the sieges of coastal fortifications that played such a major role in the military system of their rival, Venice. The conflict in the Horn of Africa between Ethiopia and Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi of Adal (1506-43), known to the Ethiopians as Ahmad Gran (the left-handed), was affected by support received by sea from foreign powers. The war is indeed an instructive instance both of how such struggles could become aspects of wider conflicts and of the transforming role of firearms. Ahmad, a fiery imam, conquered Ada! in the mid-1520s and then launched a holy war against Ethiopia. He also trained his men in the new tactics and fIrearms introduced into the Red Sea region by the Ottomans, who conquered Egypt in 1517. Ahmad overran much of Ethiopia in 1527 and, thanks to better leadership and weapons, higher morale, a more effective command structure, greater mobility, and more flexible tactics, he was able to defeat the Ethiopian Emperor Lebna Dengel at Shimbra Kure in 1528. Ahmad then conquered much of Ethiopia, including the wealthy Amhara plateau, though Lebna Dengel continued to resist from the Christian highlands. In 1541, the Portuguese despatched 400 musketeers to the aid of Ethiopia. A joint Ethiopian and Portuguese army defeated Ahmad in 1541. He then turned to the Ottomans for help. They in turn provided him with 900 musketeers and 10 cannon, with which he defeated his opponents in August 1542, killing 200 Portuguese, including their commander Christopher da Gama. The conflict in Ethiopia, hitherto the land of the mythical Prester John for Europeans, had thus been integrated, at least partly, into global military relationships.

In Africa, firearms had most impact along the savanna belt, where European and Islamic 'foreign' influence was strongest, but the overall military situation was more complex. Towards the close of the century, the nomadic pagan Galla advanced from the Ogaden and overran both Ethiopia and Adal. Native fighting methods could be very effective. African coastal vessels, powered by paddles and carrying archers and javelinmen, were able to challenge Portuguese raiders on the West African coast. Although it was difficult for them to storm the larger, high-Sided Portuguese ships, they were nevertheless too fast and too small to present easy targets for the Portuguese cannon. In 1535, the Portuguese were once more repelled when they tried to conquer the Bissagos Islands. On land, the Portuguese cannon proved to have little impact on the African earthwork fortifications.

In Angola, the base of Portuguese operations in the 1570s, the slow rate of fire of their muskets and the openness of the African fighting formations reduced the effectiveness of firearms, and the Portuguese were successful only when supported by local troops. Initially, their position was saved by the intervention of an army from the kingdom of Kongo. The global range of the European maritime powers and the impact of gunpowder must be considered alongside the importance of the non-European users of firearms and the resilience of the peoples who lacked them. Both are themes throughout this period, and remind us of the dangers of adopting a teleological perspective in which the future is read back into the past, made to appear inevitable with the perspective of hindsight.

The fact that the Europeans dramatically increased the percentage of the world's surface that they controlled in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were to continue doing so in the eighteenth, does not mean that the process of European expansion was inevitable, although it would be foolish to discount its significance and interest. It is, however, important to .appreciate also the great complexities of this process, the many imbalances between the military and naval developments of the various regions, and the contrasting trajectories of European success in many different parts of the world.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


Excavations on the site of the Mainz Hilton discovered eleven fast patrol boats of the Roman navy, which must have been used for defending the Rhine frontier. Tree-ring dating of one boat shows that it was constructed in the 370s, and repaired with wood cut in 385 and again in 394.

The Roman version of a machine gun, mounted on a fast patrol boat in the Maritime Museum in Mainz. The picture above is of the weapon mounted in the bow of the larger one, a sort of automatic bolt firing ballista, the sort of thing that would spoil any invader's day. The iron tipped "bolts" were fed in from above, each descending in turn as the operators cranked the mechanism. As the drawstring reached its full draw, a trip mechanism allowed an bolt to fall into the firing groove and the action then tripped a release allowing the bolt to be discharged and the cycle started again.

These fast patrol boats were stationed at intervals along the Rhine and swept back and forth making sure the "barbarians" to the North didn't cross. All this came to nought in 407 AD when the Rhine froze during a severe winter and an estimated 100,000 barbarians swept into the Empire. Famine and destruction followed and the Empire began to crumble rapidly. By 410 AD Alaric, King of the Visigoths, reached Rome itself and sacked it.

In 400 the Rhine, patrolled by ships such as those found recently at Mainz, was still a major dividing line between Roman and barbarian. Certainly some Franks had been ceded land to the west of the mouths of the Rhine, while other Germans captured in the fighting, including Franks, were settled in small groups throughout northern Gaul to serve as recruiting pools for the Roman army. The Franks in particular were just as often allies as enemies: in the late fourth century a number of them rose to be commanders-in-chief of the Roman army and even consuls. But the defensive system in Gaul, set up after the serious inroads made by the Germans in the third century, still functioned well and most of Gaul, governed still from Trier, remained secure from attack. Even in Britain the Roman army and navy successfully repelled a number of attacks by Scotti (as Romans called the Irish), by Britons and Picts from north of Hadrian's Wall, and by sea-borne Germans. Each attack brought fresh refortification in its wake; in 399, Stilicho, the German general who commanded the Roman armies in the west, himself came to Britain to supervise operations.

The Museum of Ancient Shipping


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

James I of Aragon: The Barcelona Maritime Code of 1258

By the middle of the thirteenth century there was a well-established system of usages or maritime law at Barcelona and Tortosa in Spain, and at Marseilles in France, besides similar systems in northern Europe, the laws of Oleron and the laws of Wisby. As may be seen, these laws regulated lading and discharge of cargo, freight charges, contracts, arms, provisions, rescue, tolls, and relations between crew and merchants. The whole may be regarded as a codification of customs which had developed in the period of the Crusades. Sailing ships and vessels were used for the carrying trade and both ships and vessels had covered decks. 

Be it known to all that we, James, by the grace of God, King of Aragon, of Majorca, and of Valencia, Count of Barcelona and Urgell, and Lord of Montpellier, hearing the ordinances written below, which you, James Gruny, our faithful servant, have made at our wish and command and with our consent, and which you have drawn up with the advice of the honest water-men of Barcelona and based upon the ordinance of the same, having heard, seen, and understood that the said ordinances were to be made in our honor, and for the use and welfare of the water-men and the citizens of Barcelona, having confirmed the document by the authentic application of our seal, we grant, approve, and confirm all and each of the undermentioned ordinances, made by you and the said honest men on our authority. Wishing that the said ordinances may endure and be observed as long as it shall please us and the said honest water-men of Barcelona, by commanding our mayors, and bailiffs, both present and future, that they observe each and all of the undermentioned regulations, firmly and strictly, if they hope confidently for our grace and affection, and that they see that they are observed inviolably, so that they do not allow them to be disturbed by any one.