Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Siege of Malta

Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Siege of Malta. This battle was pivotal in the war between the Christian and Islamic faiths in their struggle to control the Mediterranean. It was the beginning of the end of a 50 year tug of war between the two cultures, a struggle which continues even now, over half a millennium later.

The island of Malta is literally the point at which the East meets the West. And it was at this place where the two cultures came to a violent confrontation during the final years of a war that waged between the Ottomans and Western Europe from 1521 to about 1571. The Siege of Malta is one of the defining battles of that war. It bears examination if we are to learn anything at all from history.

The Knights Hospitallers of Saint John – who were originally based in Jerusalem, ended up in Malta when they lost Rhodes to the Ottomans in 1522. This was the beginning of a long and brutal period of tension between the East and the West, which remains unresolved, even today.

The island of Malta became a Christian fortress, as well as a barrier against the further spread of Islam. The Knights of Malta, during these years, essentially became bandits and adventurers in their own right. They were also anti-Semitic, disallowing the Maltese from joining their order. At the same time as the Maltese endured these insults from the Knights, they were also mindful of the crimes committed against them in the past by the Turks, regardless of their common Semitic ancestry.

In 1530 the Grand Master Villiers de I’lsle Adam returned from his tour of Europe, during which he had persuaded Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to make a gift to him of the Maltese Islands. (You may recognize this part from the Dashiell Hammett novel “The Maltese Falcon”,or from the Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name, but it is true nonetheless.) Charles granted the gift of the islands, with one stipulation; that each year a falcon would be sent from the island of Malta to the Viceroy of Sicily, and that a mass be held in Charles honor by the Pope on All Saints Day.

Malta's sister island Gozo fell to the Ottomans in 1551, with all of her inhabitants becoming slaves to her conquerors. This was a lesson not lost on the Maltese, who realized that they must ally with the Knights, or suffer the same fate as their fellow brethren on Gozo. In short, the Maltese were caught between a rock, and the proverbial “hard place.”

The Siege itself was the inevitable conclusion, which arose out of decades of conflict between the Christian Alliance and the Ottomans. This conflict was largely about trade, and control of the Mediterranean Sea for that purpose. In the decades leading up to the Siege, Turkish Corsair Turgut Reis led the first, unsuccessful assault on Malta in late 1551.

By 1559 Turgut Reis had reached the shores of Spain, which prompted Philip the Second to assemble the largest fleet of the time, in order to reclaim the conquered territory. With 54 ships, all galleys, and 14,000 men, the fleet set out to confront Turgut off the coast of Tunisia. The battle took place just offshore, at the island of Djerba, where over half of the Christian fleet was lost, or captured.

The Knights, too, were busy during this time. They had become pirates, preying upon non-Christian shipping vessels, while taking over 5,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves in the bargain. In 1564, Romegas, the Order’s most brutal pirate, captured several ships from the Ottomans, taking prisoners of rank, such as the governor of Cairo, as well as the governor of Alexandria. These actions lead to the Ottomans, under the rule of Suleiman, to vow and wipe the face of the earth with the Knights of Malta. The stage for all out war was set, and Peace was a long way off.

The Turks set forth from Istanbul with a fleet 193 vessels carrying 48,000 in all. The Knights numbered all of 6,100, half of whom had to be enscripted from the Maltese population.

To prepare for the battle, Grand Master Vallete ordered all crops to be brought in from the fields, ready or not. There was a twofold purpose to this; the first was to ensure there was enough food for the siege; secondly, anything outside of the walls could be used to aid the invaders. With no crops left growing on the island, the invaders would have much less time to conquer Malta. In addition to this precaution, all wells were poisoned in order to deprive the enemy of drinking water.

The Turks arrived on about May 18th, but did not begin the siege immediately. A disagreement between commanders would keep the Ottomans aboard their ships for another week, while the commanders decided upon a strategy. Had they attacked Malta, the battle would have been shortened. Instead the Turks decided to split their troops 3 ways, with the first force attacking the fortifications at St. Elmo, which guarded the harbor at Malta. The other plan was to attack the old and undefended capital Mdina, in the center of the island, and then branch out from there.

The plan to take Fort St. Elmo first was the beginning of the end for the Ottomans, as they were unable to place their guns effectively, relying instead on a bombardment by sea. But, by the end of June, Fort Elmo was in Ottoman hands, though much time had been lost, and supplies were growing short for the invaders, while the Christian forces had resupplied their remaining garrisons.

The brutality of the invaders was matched by the Knights in every regard. When Mustafa Pasha captured Fort Elmo, he decapitated the bodies, floating them across the bay on wooden crucifixes. Not to be outdone, the Maltese Commander, de Valette, decapitated all of the Ottoman prisoners and fired their heads into the Turkish camp using cannon.

The fighting went on through August, when the Christians were ready to retreat. But, by September they had been reinforced by Don Garcia from Spain, with 8,000 men and supplies, allowing them to continue the battle. By this time, and due to the timely intervention of the Spanish, the Turks packed up and left, leaving one third of their men dead on the field. By September 11th, that’s right, September 11th, the Turks had fled the island, and the Siege of Malta would turn out to be the last epic battle of the Crusades, which finally came to a halt in 1571.

The victory was so important, that money began to pour into Malta from all corners of Europe, in order that a more secure and fortified garrison be constructed. The aim was to deny, for all eternity, the island of Malta to any future enemies. Had Malta fallen, the Ottoman Empire would have penetrated the underbelly of Europe, forever changing the world in which we find ourselves today.

No comments:

Post a Comment