• A. Jorge Aguilera López

A map for the “liberation” of Albania? (ca. 1568)

This is an excellent and beautiful map of the coasts of the strait (or channel) of Otranto, entrance of the Adriatic Sea. On the left coast, in the Apulia (kingdom of Naples), the cities of Santa Maria di Leuca, Castro and Otranto are depicted; on the other side are the Greek islands of Corfu, Ereikoussa, Othonoi and Mathraki under the control of the Most Serene Republic of Venice; on that same side, but in the mainland, is Shqipëri (meaning "Land of the eagles"), a place better known as Albania, under Ottoman rule.

The map is labelled in Italian, is not dated and is anonymous. I found this map at the General Archive of Simancas (AGS) and more precisely, in a file with documents concerning Flanders dated from 1568. Therefore, it is not entirely incorrect to suppose that the map was produced around 1568. The chart pays close attention to the province of Chimarra (in Albania). Among the many cities that appear, in the north stands out Valonia (current Vlorë) while in the south Cimara (Himarë) and Sopoto (Borsh). One of the reasons why I think the date we assign to the map may be correct is precisely because of what happened in Albania during those years.

Detail of the Chimarra coast and Corfu.

The Albanians were a proud people and that, at the time, led by –the father of the nation– Skanderberg, stood up to the Turkish occupation for twenty-five years. There were several occasions when the Albanians rose up against Ottoman rule, one of those occasions was in 1566. The great failure in Malta in 1565, the costly Turkish conquest of Szigetvár (Hungary) in 1566 and which was accompanied by the death of the great Sultan Suleiman, made it seem that the once undisputed Ottoman power began to falter. All this added to the famines that occurred throughout the Eastern Mediterranean due to the successive bad harvests and especially to the devshirme, the tax that non-Muslim peoples had to pay: hand over their children to the sultan so that they would be converted into Janissaries. Those were the main elements that made the Albanians take up arms in 1566. Numerous notices and reports arrived at Naples on the matter. The Spanish ambassador in Genoa wrote in August 1567 as a postscript in a letter:

Closed [this letter], on [day] 14, I received letters from Naples on the 3rd of this [month], and they tell me that the Chimarrotes [Albanians] had the Turks surrounded, giving them a good beating, more than 400 of them [Turks] have died and some have been arrested, and they [Albanians] were in the mountains with high morale ready to defend themselves. God help them.

The kingdom of Naples was important to the Albanians. The descendants of Skanderberg and many other Albanians had found refuge there, so there were numerous supporters, informants and collaborators for their cause. In addition, and even more relevant, it was that Naples was part of the other major power who –maybe– could stand up to the Ottomans: the Spanish Monarchy. That is why the Albanians –like other nations–, appealed to the Catholic King for help. Weapons, ammunition and supplies were shipped from Naples, but unfortunately for them, little else. The years 1566-1568 were not easy for Monarquía. The harvests had not been good in the Western Mediterranean either, in addition to the fact that the Monarchy had its own rebel subjects –supported by enemy powers– to take care. In the Netherlands, the Protestants sparked major riots that quickly turned into armed rebellion by 1568, kicking off the Eighty Years' War; at the same time, in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, in the kingdom of Granada, the Morisco unassimilated minority –supported by the Ottomans– took up arms and rebelled, initiating a bloody guerrilla war that lasted until 1571. The resources that perhaps could have been invested in a possible invasion of Albania were destined within the very borders of the Monarchy.

Venetian attack on Soppoto (Borsh). Anonymous, 1570. [Library of the University of Salzburg].

Seeing that Spain was not going to help them, the Albanians asked the Venetians for help. These, who were already afraid of going into conflict with the Turks again, decided to go ahead and support the revolt. Among other things, the Venetians occupied Borsh (1570). At the same time, the Ottomans conquered the island of Cyprus from the Venetians. A Christian alliance –Holy League– promoted by the pope and led by Spain and Venice took finally shape and was able to defeat the Ottoman armada in the great naval battle of Lepanto (1571). The Albanians continued their struggle and that Christian victory –more impressive than effective– gave hope to the peoples of the Balkans.

The reality is that soon after the battle, the Christian alliance disintegrated. Venice signed a separate peace with the Ottomans. This left the Albanians helpless, whose only hope was once again the Spanish Monarchy. The Albanians swore allegiance to the Catholic King and to continue the fight. However, and although they continued sending weapons and other warlike resources, the Monarchy decided to prioritize its efforts in the Western Mediterranean, conquering Tunisia (1573). Neither Philip II nor Selim II wanted to take extreme actions and for various reasons, the conflict was cooling. That allowed to both sovereigns to agree on a series of secret truces that permitted them to focus their resources into other fronts.

In Albania, the rebels were finally repressed. Although there were more attempts –like in 1596 when the Monarchy almost send its galley armada–, the Albanian people would not become independent from the Ottomans until the beginning of the 20th century. The weakness of the country and its geographical location made it fall in between and suffer the consequences of both World Wars. In 1946, it ended up becoming a socialist republic, first under the influence of Yugoslavia, then the USSR and later under China, to finally end up almost isolated internationally until 1991, when the socialist state was dissolved, becoming the parliamentary democracy that is nowadays.

For what is exposed here, I consider that the date associated with the anonymous map of the Otranto Strait (ca.1568) is correct. A beautifully crafted and accurate map that, as you can see, has nothing to envy of the satellite maps currently available.


Tags: #Albania #Balkans #Naples #OttomanEmpire #Turkey #Spain #revolt #16th

  • Aguilera López, A. J. (2020) "A map for the “liberation” of Albania? (ca. 1568)", in Rowing through History [online].

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