Battle of Matapan

The famous and historic Battle of Matapão (or Matapan) was named after the cable located at the end of the central spike of Moreia, former Peloponnese in Greece, in the Gulf of Laconia and where the aforementioned combat took place, where the Portuguese naval forces met the armada of the Ottoman Empire. This cable is the southernmost point of the entire European continent.

Due to its geostrategic location, this cape has been the scene of countless activities and passages throughout history, giving rise to the name of two battles, one of them being more famous than the other. The first and historic Battle of Matapão was fought between the Portuguese squadron sent by D. João V and commanded by the Count of Rio Grande, and the Turkish Armada on July 19, 1717. The second occurred during World War II, on March 29, 1941, and was fought between the English squadron commanded by Admiral Cuningham and an Italian division of destroyers and cruisers who, curiously, never fired a single shot.

In the eighteenth century, Sultan Ahmed III was trying to recover what the Ottoman Empire had lost in the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1697. To this end, it sought to expand into the western Mediterranean by making the Turkish navy insistently ravage the Venetian coast in Italy. This led to Pope Clement XI asking the aid of King of Portugal, King John the Magnanimous. Portugal enjoyed a golden age of splendor and grandeur derived from the profits of the Portuguese Discoveries and its Overseas Provinces. In response to the Holy Father, D. João V sent a Portuguese fleet in 1716 to aid the Italians against the Turks who often roamed the Mediterranean waters.

Hing D. João V, against the background of the Battle of Matapão, at Museum MNAA, Lisbon

On the 5th of July 1716, a small fleet of nine ships set sail from Lisbon consisting of five ships (1), a frigate (2), a crotch (3), a tartan (4) and a transport vessel under the Command of the Division Chief Lopo Furtado de Mendoça, Count of Rio Grande to face this Turkish force that threatened the serenity and tranquility of the Venetians. This fleet made a stopover at Livorno, and then proceeded to the island of Corfu, then defended by an Austrian General who was blocked by the Turks. When the Turks received the news of the approach of the Portuguese squadron, they raised the siege and withdrew. This mission was not very successful because while at sea the Turkish naval forces had not been sighted, and the Portuguese squadron returned to Portugal witoout any clashes.

Due to the continuing threats under the Venetian possessions, and at the request of the Pope again in December 1716, in 1717 a new squadron of eleven ships was formed, consisting of five ships (1) and two frigates (2). They were accompanied by two brulots (3), a tartan (4) and a logistic transport vessel where the necessary supplies and materials were transported to this company. This squadron boasted a firepower strength of a 448-piece artillery.

The squadron was commanded by the Count of Rio Grande, Lopo Furtado de Mendoça, the Admiral of the fleet who boarded the ship “Nossa Senhora da Conceição” (Captaincy). The ship “Our Lady of the Pillar” (Almiranta) was under the command of the Count of S. Vicente, Manuel Carlos de Tavora, Sergeant Major of Batalha do Mar; the ship “Our Lady of the Assumption” (Fiscal) was commanded by the Colonel of the Royal and Fiscal Navy Regiment of the squadron, Pedro de Sousa Castelo Branco; the ship “Our Lady of Needs” was under the command of Sea-and-War Captain Gillet du Bocage and, lastly, the “Santa Rosa” Ship that was commanded by Sea-and-War Captain John the Baptist Tolhano. The frigates “Queen of Angels” and “S. Lourenço” were respectively under the command of Sea Captain João Pereira de Ávila and Sea Captain Bartolomeu Freire. The two brulots were named “Saint Anthony of Lisbon” and “Saint Anthony of Padua”. A support vessel named “São Tomás de Canterbury” served doubly as a logistical support for the transport of spare parts and as a hospital vessel.

The Admiral´s squadron was founded in the cove of Paço de Arcos on April 25, 1717, having raised anchor and left the bar of Lisbon on the following April 28 towards Corfú.  They set out to sea, passing the Strait of Gibraltar after four days, on May 2nd. On the 10th of May they spotted Alicante, having crossed the Mediterranean waters off the islands of Ibiza and Formentera, belonging to the archipelegic Balearic Islands, on the 12th of the same month. On the 19th of May they spotted Sardinia and on the 21st, Sicily. On May 24 they set sail in Palermo, Italy, in order to meet with the Armed Forces of the Pontifical States, Venice, Florence (Tuscany) and Malta. May 25th will celebrate the day of Corpus Christi. On the 28th of May they raised anchor in Palermo and passed through Messina, on the 30th of May, the islands of Zante, and finally Corfu where they met with the Christian Allied armed forces on June 10th. Thus, a force was formed which was capable of facing the Turkish armada. After gathering all the elements of the new fleet, aboard the flagship of Venice, the council was formed, and it was decided upon to pursue the enemy who was reportedly close by. Thus the squadron raised anchor, sailing in full pursuit hoping to confront the Turkish enemy. On July 4th, 1717, the Turkish Navy was sighted near Cape St. Angelo.

The Papal fleet was divided, as usual, into three squadrons, and was made up of the vanguard, center and rear. According to the Papal orders, the supreme command of the entire armada was in charge of Pisani, who went separately, aboard the rowing armada.

By Papal decision and appointment, the commander-in-chief of the entire Allied fleet where the Portuguese ships were dispatched, was Lieutenant General of the French navy Jacques-Auguste Maynard, Knight of Belfontaine, who was sailing in the Maltese ship under the name of “Santa Catarina”. This caused some discomfort to the Portuguese who resolutely refused to fall under French Maynard, as well as vehemently refused to replace the Royal Flag of Portugal with the Papal flag on their ships, thus the Knight of Bellefontaine was alerted that they would only obey Pisani. The Portuguese were told to stay behind.

For days, the Allied squadron tried to chase and reach the Turkish ships, but to no avail. After a few days they lost sight of the Turks. For logistical reasons, such as lack of water and firewood, the Allied force convened for refueling in Passavia Cove. On July 18th, news arrived that the Turkish fleet was approaching. On the 19th the Allied armada raised anchor, hoisted the sails, and sighted the Turks. Due to the lack of wind, they could not get out of the cove. The strength of the Turkish fleet consisted of 54 ships against the Christian fleet of a total of 35 ships and frigates. The low wind was highly favorable to the Turks, who positioned themselves creating a wide offensive line, closing the cornering bay and forcing the Allied forces to remain within the cove encumbered by the lack of wind, which made much of the maneuvers of allied ships and frigates impossible. Thus the Christian fleet was at a great disadvantage and in a very complicated situation. The Allied fleet takes a position in the first line of confrontation with the Turks, leaving the smaller ships inside the cove, seeking their protection with the ships and frigates on the first battlefront. The Portuguese ships, commanded by the Count of Rio Grande, were positioned at the rear end of the battle line. A bloody and relentlessly violent battle ensued where artillery fire was shown to be brutal. After a while Italian ships, with the exception of the “Fortuna Guerreira”, retreated into the inlet, engaging the Portuguese ships, the ships of Malta, and a Venetian ship, into combat. After a short time Lieutenant General Belfontaine and the ships of Malta followed the example of the Venetian ships, retreating into the interior of the bay and cowardly abandoning the Portuguese fleet and the “Fortuna Guerreira”. Thus, abandoned to their fate, the Portuguese were forced to withstand and face the wrath and attacks of the Turks, in a precarious and disadvantageous situation of ten ships pitted against one, a total unbalanced combat for the Lusitanians. The Count of Rio Grande, Admiral of the Portuguese armada, decided, at all costs, to remain in combat despite the delicate situation in which they were placed. The Turks launched a fierce attack on the ship “Our Lady of the Pillar”, the most assaulted by the ten Turkish ships. The Admiral of the Portuguese Armada, decided to place himself between “Nossa Senhora do Pilar” and the enemy, trying to save the Portuguese ship and unleashing intensive fire on the Turks. This position was so effective and the Portuguese fire so intense that Ibrahim-Pasha, Admiral of the Turkish Armada, signalled to his armada to retreat, according the victory of such a difficult and unequal battle to the Portuguese. At the request of Pope Clement XI and the Venetian Admiral, the Count of Rio Grande decided to keep the Portuguese fleet for some time in those Mediterranean waters as a protection for them, to remain until the 15th of August 1717, when the Portuguese fleet withdrew. They arrived in Messina on the 24th of August and were greeted with great enthusiasm by the population. The Count of Rio Grande (5) was asked by the inhabitants of Messina for aid, which was promptly given. The victorious Armada returns to Portugal, having entered the Tagus and anchored in Lisbon on November 6th, 1717.

This important naval battle is of extreme and singular importance because it was the last Turkish attempt to expand into the western Mediterranean, becoming an indelible landmark in the history of Europe, keeping it true to its foundational matrix until the present day.

By Alfredo Côrte-Real, D. João VI Institute