|Siege of Malta|
|Part of the Ottoman wars in Europe and Ottoman-Habsburg wars|
The siege of Malta - Arrival of the Turkish fleet Matteo Perez d' Aleccio
|Ottoman Empire|| Knights Hospitaller
|Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha
Turgut Reis †
Uluç Ali Reis
|Jean de Valette|
|< 25,000 - 35,000
||2,500, plus 7,000 civilians, and 500 slaves|
The Siege of Malta (also known as the Great Siege of Malta) took place in 1565, when the Ottoman Empire invaded the island, then held by the Knights Hospitaller (also known as the Sovereign Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, Knights of Malta, Knights of Rhodes, and Chevaliers of Malta). The siege, one of the bloodiest and most fiercely contested in history, was won by the knights and became one of the most celebrated events of the sixteenth century. Voltaire may have exaggerated when he said, "Nothing is more well known than the siege of Malta," but it unquestionably put an end to the European perception of Ottoman invincibility and marked a new phase in Spanish domination of the Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, the siege should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, it was the climax of an escalating contest between the Spanish and Ottoman empires for control of the Mediterranean, a contest that included a previous attack on Malta in 1551, by the Turkish corsair Turgut Reis and which, in 1560, had resulted in the utter destruction of the Spanish armada by the Turks at the battle of Djerba. The failure of the siege did little to alter the balance of power and left the Hospitallers free to continue their self-assigned task of policing the Mediterranean of pirates, since the loss of the last Crusader state had made the task of defending Jerusalem redundant. On the one hand, this battle can be represented as an epochal episode in Christian-Muslim relations as conflict ebbed and flowed, in a wave-like motion, across the Mediterranean. It was, as fictional accounts re-tell, a dramatic event and one that can certainly be represented as an heroic defense of a Christian island against Muslim aggression. However, without setting aside the importance of the battles that did take place, such a telling of history should not omit examples of cooperation, scholarly exchange, and trade that also characterized relations between these two sides throughout the Medieval period.
This Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem had become known as the Knights of Malta since 1530, when on October 26 of that year, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle-Adam, Grand Master of the Knights, sailed into Malta's Grand Harbor with a number of his followers to take claim of the island, which had been granted to them by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
Seven years earlier, at the end of 1522, the Knights had been forced from their base on Rhodes by the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent after a siege of six months' duration. Between 1523 and 1530, the Knights lacked a permanent home, until Charles offered them Malta and Gozo in return for one falcon sent annually to the Viceroy of Sicily and a solemn mass to be celebrated on All Saints Day. As a proviso, Charles also required the Knights to garrison Tripoli on the North African coast, which was in territory controlled by an Ottoman ally, the Barbary corsairs.
The Knights accepted the offer reluctantly because compared to Rhodes, Malta was a small, desolate island, and for some time many of the Knights' leaders clung to the dream of recapturing Rhodes. Nevertheless, the Order soon turned Malta into a naval base, continuing to prey on Islamic shipping. The island's position in the center of the Mediterranean made it a strategically crucial gateway between East and West, especially as the Barbary corsairs increased their forays into the western Mediterranean throughout the 1540s and 1550s.
In particular, the corsair Turgut Reis was proving to be a major threat to the Christian nations of the central Mediterranean. Turgut and the Knights were continually at loggerheads. In 1551, Turgut and the Ottoman admiral Sinan decided to take Malta and invaded the island with a force of about 10,000 men. After only a few days, however, Turgut broke off the siege and moved to the neighboring island of Gozo, where he bombarded the citadel for several days. The Knights' governor on Gozo, Galatian de Sesse, having decided that resistance was futile, threw open the doors to the citadel, and the corsairs sacked the town.
Taking virtually the entire population of Gozo (approximately 5,000 people) into captivity, Turgut and Sinan sailed south to Tripoli, where they soon seized the Knights' garrison there. A local leader, Aga Morat, was initially installed as governor, but subsequently Turgut himself took control of the area.
Expecting another Ottoman invasion within a year, then Grand Master of the Knights, Juan de Homedes, ordered the strengthening of Fort Saint Angelo at the tip of Birgu (now Vittoriosa), as well as the construction of two new forts, Fort Saint Michael on the Senglea promontory and Fort Saint Elmo at the seaward end of Mount Sciberras (now Valletta). The two new forts were built in the remarkably short period of six months, in 1552. All three forts proved crucial during the Great Siege.
The next several years were relatively calm, although the guerre de course, or running battle, between Muslims and Christians continued unabated. In 1557, Jean Parisot de Valette was elected Grand Master of the Order. He continued his raids on non-Christian shipping, and his private vessels are known to have taken some 3,000 Muslim and Jewish slaves during his tenure as Grand Master.
By 1559, however, Turgut was causing the Christian powers such distress, even having raided the coasts of Spain, that Philip II organized the largest naval expedition in fifty years to evict the corsair from Tripoli. The Knights joined the expedition, which consisted of about 54 galleys and 14,000 men. This ill-fated campaign climaxed in the battle of Djerba in May 1560, when Ottoman admiral Piyale Pasha surprised the Christian fleet off the Tunisian island of Djerba, capturing or sinking about half the enemy ships. For the Christians, it was a complete disaster and it marked the high point of Ottoman domination of the Mediterranean.
After Djerba, there could be little doubt that the Turks would eventually attack Malta again. In August 1560, Jean de Valette sent out an order to all the Order's priories for the knights to be prepared to return to Malta as soon a citazione (summons) was issued. The Turks, in fact, made a strategic error in not attacking at once, while the Spanish fleet lay in ruins, and the five year wait allowed Spain to rebuild her forces.
Heedless of the danger, the Knights continued to prey on Turkish shipping. In mid 1564, Romegas, the Order's most notorious seafarer, captured several large merchantmen, including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of the Seraglio, and took numerous high-ranking prisoners, including the governor of Cairo, the governor of Alexandria, and the former nurse of Suleiman's daughter. Romegas' exploits gave the Turks a casus belli, and by the end of 1564, Suleiman had resolved to wipe the Knights of Malta off the face of the earth.
By early 1565, Grand Master de Valette's network of spies in Constantinople had informed him that the invasion was imminent. Valette set about raising troops in Italy, laying in stores and finishing repairs on Fort Saint Angelo, Fort Saint Michael, and Fort Saint Elmo.
The Turkish armada, which set sail from Constantinople at the end of March was, by all accounts, one of the largest assembled since antiquity. According to one of the earliest and most complete histories of the siege, that of the Order's official historian Giacomo Bosio, the fleet consisted of 193 vessels, which included 131 galleys, 7 galliots (small galleys), and 4 galleasses (large galleys), the remainder being transport vessels, etc. Contemporary letters from Don Garcia, the Viceroy of Sicily, give similar numbers."
The forces as given by the Italian-Spanish mercenary Francisco Balbi di Correggio in his famous siege diary are:
Balbi's figures, however, must be treated with a great deal of skepticism. The Knight Hipolito Sans, in a lesser-known account, also lists about 48,000 invaders, although it is not clear how independent his work is from Balbi's. Other contemporary authors give much lower figures. In a letter written to Philip II only four days after the siege began, de Valette himself says that "the number of soldiers that will make land is between 15,000 and 16,000, including seven thousand arquebusiers or more, that is four thousand janissaries and three thousand spahis." On the other hand, in a letter to the Prior of Germany a month after the siege, de Valette writes, "This fleet consisted of two hundred and fifty ships, triremes, biremes and other vessels; the nearest estimate we could make of the enemy's force was 40,000 fighting men." That de Valette gives the enemy fleet as 250 vessels, a number much above any one else's, shows that the Grand Master himself was not above exaggeration.
Indeed, a letter written during the siege by the liaison with Sicily, Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, states the enemy force was only 22,000 and several other letters of the time give similar numbers. However, Bosio arrives at a total of about 30,000, that is, consistent with Balbi's "named troops." Another early history gives essentially the same figure.
Considering the capacity of sixteenth-century galleys, whose usual contingent of soldiers was between 70 and 150 men, it seems clear that Balbi's figure is an exaggeration, whereas Anastagi, who was attempting to convince the Viceroy of Sicily to send a relief as soon as possible, conceivably "lowballed" the numbers. We will probably never know the true size of the Turkish force, but given that several historians came up with specific—but not identical—lists totaling slightly under 30,000 (exclusive of the corsairs, who may have added another 6,000 upon arrival), that is a reasonable guess.
On the side of the defenders, Balbi's numbers may be somewhat low; there were indeed apparently only about 550 Knights on the island, but Bosio gives the total number of defenders as 8,500. Most of these, though, would have been Maltese irregulars, unschooled in the use of arms.
De Vallette, prior to the arrival of the Turks, ordered that all the crops be harvested, including unripened grain, thus depriving the Turks of any local food supplies. Furthermore all the wells were poisoned, with bitter herbs and dead animals. The Turkish armada arrived at dawn on Friday May 18, but did not at once make land. Rather, the fleet sailed up the southern coast of the island, turned around and finally anchored at Marsaxlokk (Marsa Sirocco) harbor, nearly 10 kilometers from the Great Port, as the Grand Harbor was then known.
According to most accounts, in particular Balbi's, a dispute arose between the leader of the land forces, Vizier Lala Mustafa Pasha, and the supreme naval commander, Piyale Pasha, about where to anchor the fleet. Piyale wished to shelter it at Marsamxett bay, just north of the Grand Harbor, in order to avoid the sirocco and be nearer the action, but Mustafa disagreed, because to anchor the fleet there would require first reducing Fort St. Elmo, which guarded the entrance to the harbor. Mustafa intended, according to these accounts, to attack the unprotected old capital Mdina, which stood in the center of the island, then attack Forts St. Angelo and Michael by land. If so, an attack on Fort St. Elmo would have been entirely unnecessary. Nevertheless, Mustafa relented, apparently believing only a few days would be necessary to destroy St. Elmo, and after guns were placed, a bombardment opened at the end of May.
It certainly seems true that Suleiman had seriously blundered in splitting the command three ways—not only between Piyale and Mustafa, but ordering both of them to defer to Turgut when he arrived from Tripoli. Contemporary letters from spies in Constantinople, however, suggest that the plan had always been to take Fort St. Elmo first. In any case, for the Turks to concentrate their efforts on it proved a crucial mistake.
Fort St. Elmo was manned by only 100 or so knights and 500 soldiers, but de Valette had ordered them to fight to the last, intending them to hold out for a relief promised by Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily. The unremitting bombardment from three dozen guns on Mt. Sciberras reduced the fort to rubble within a week, but de Valette evacuated the wounded nightly and resupplied the fort from across the harbor. Still, by June 8, the Knights were on the verge of mutiny and sent a message to the Grand Master asking to be allowed a sortie to die with sword in hand. This was the last thing that De Valette wanted. A heroic sortie would be futile, de Valette was winning time. St Elmo delayed the main assault. De Valette's response was to pay the soldiers and send a commission across the harbor to investigate the state of the fort. When the commissioners returned with differing opinions, de Valette said he would send replacements if the Knights were too afraid to die as he had ordered them to.
Thus shamed, the garrison held on, repulsing numerous assaults by the enemy. Turgut eventually interdicted the traffic across the harbor and finally, on June 23, the Turks were able to take what was left of Fort St. Elmo, killing all the defenders but for nine Knights, who were captured by the Corsairs, and a few others who managed to escape. Turgut himself, however, died without savoring the victory. He was mortally wounded on June 17, according to Bosio by a lucky shot from Fort St. Angelo, according to Balbi and Sans by an instance of "friendly fire" from Turkish cannons. Balbi says Turgut died before the day was out, while others have him languishing on until the day that St. Elmo was captured. Although the Turks did succeed in their objective in capturing St. Elmo, and Piyale's fleet was soon anchored in Marsamxett, the siege of Fort St. Elmo had cost the Turks over 4,000 men, including half of their best troops, the Janissaries. In that sense, it was certainly a pyrrhic victory, but Mustafa had no intention of giving up. The bodies of the knights were decapitated and their bodies floated across the bay on mock crucifixes. In response, de Valette, had all his Turkish prisoners massacred and their heads fired into the Turkish camp. This was a deliberate ploy, not a crude vengeance, as it sent the signal that no quarter would be given nor could the knights expect any, so it was imperative to hold out.
By this time, word of the siege was spreading. As soldiers and adventurers gathered in Sicily for Don Garcia's relief, panic spread as well. There can be little doubt that the stakes were high, perhaps higher than at any other time in the contest between the Ottoman Empire and Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England is said to have remarked:
If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.
All contemporary sources indicate the Turks intended to proceed to the Tunisian fortress of La Goletta and wrest it from the Spaniards, and Suleiman had also spoken of invading Europe through Italy.
Although Don Garcia did not at once send the promised relief (troops were still being levied), he was persuaded to release an advance force of some 600 men. After several attempts, this piccolo soccorso managed to land on Malta in early July and sneak into Birgu, raising the spirits of the besieged garrison immensely.
On July 15, Mustafa ordered a double attack against the Senglea peninsula. He had ported 100 small vessels across Mt. Sciberras to the Grand Harbor, intending to launch a sea attack against the promontory using about 1,000 Janissaries, while the Corsairs attacked Fort St. Michael on the landward end.[[Image:Malta StAngelo two.jpg|thumb|left|West face of the seaward bastion at Fort St Angelo. Luckily for the Maltese, a defector from the Turkish side warned de Valette about the impending tactics and the Grand Master had time to construct a palisade along the Senglea promontory, which successfully helped to deflect the attack. Nevertheless, the assault probably would have succeeded had not the Turkish boats come into point-blank range (less than 200 yards) of a sea-level battery of five cannons that had been constructed by Commander Chevalier de Guiral at the base of Fort St. Angelo which sole purpose was to stop such an amphibious attack. Just two salvos sank all but one of the vessels, killing or drowning over 800 of the attackers. The land attack failed simultaneously when relief forces were able to cross to Ft. St. Michael across a floating bridge, with the result that Malta was saved for the day.
The Turks, by then, had ringed Birgu and Senglea with some 65 siege guns and subjected the town to what was probably the most sustained bombardment in history up to that time. (Balbi claims that 130,000 cannonballs were fired during the course of the siege.) Having largely destroyed one of the town's crucial bastions, Mustafa ordered another massive double assault on August 7, this time against Fort St. Michael and Birgu itself. On this occasion, the Turks breached the town walls and it seemed that the siege was over, but unexpectedly the invaders retreated. As it happened, the cavalry Commander Captain Vincenzo Anastagi, on his daily sortie from Mdina, had attacked the unprotected Turkish field hospital, massacring the sick and wounded. The Turks, thinking the Christian relief had arrived from Sicily, broke off their assault.
After the attack of August 7, the Turks resumed their bombardment of St. Michael and Birgu, mounting at least one other major assault against the town on August 19-21. What actually happened during those days of intense fighting is not entirely clear.
Bradford (in the climax of the siege) has a Turkish mine opening the town walls and the Grand Master saving the day by running into the breach. Balbi, in his diary entry for August 20, says only that de Valette was told the Turks were within the walls; the Grand Master ran to "the threatened post where his presence worked wonders. Sword in hand, he remained at the most dangerous place until the Turks retired." Neither does Bosio mention a successful detonation of a mine. Rather, a panic ensues when the townspeople spy the Turkish standards outside the walls, the Grand Master runs thither, but finds no Turks. In the meantime, a cannoneer atop Ft. St. Angelo, stricken by the same panic, kills a number of townsfolk by "friendly fire."
The situation was sufficiently dire that, at some point in August, the Council of Elders decided to abandon the town and retreat to Fort St. Angelo. De Valette, however, vetoed this proposal. If he guessed that the Turks were losing their will, he was correct. Although the bombardment and minor assaults continued, the invaders were stricken by an increasing desperation. Towards the end of August, the Turks attempted to take Fort St. Michael, first with the help of a manta (similar to a Testudo formation), a small siege engine covered with shields, then by use of a full-blown siege tower. In both cases, Maltese engineers tunneled out through the rubble and destroyed the constructions with point-blank salvoes of chain shot.
At the beginning of September, the weather was turning and Mustafa ordered a march on Mdina, intending to winter there. However, his troops by then hadn't the stomach for another assault and the attack failed to occur. By September 8, coincidentally the feast of the Birth of the Virgin, the Turks had embarked their artillery and were preparing to leave the island, having lost perhaps a third of their men to fighting and disease.
The previous day, however, Don Garcia had at last landed about 8,000 men at St. Paul's bay on the north end of the island. They engaged the dispirited Turks once more on September 11, after which the surviving invaders hurriedly departed.
The number of casualties is in as much dispute as the number of invaders. Balbi gives 35,000 Turkish deaths, which seems implausible, Bosio 30,000 casualties (including sailors). Several other sources give about 25,000. Malta had lost a third of the knights and a third of its inhabitants. Birgu and Senglea were essentially leveled. But such was the gratitude of Europe for the knights' heroic defense that money soon began pouring into the island, allowing de Valette to construct a fortified city, La Valetta, on Mt. Sciberras, which was designed so as never to allow the Turks to occupy the position again.
The Siege of Malta did little, if anything, to alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean, but it was the first true defeat of the Ottoman Empire in a century and lifted European morale immeasurably.
Modern authors have attempted to capture the desperation and ferocity of the siege with varying degrees of success.
scholars, translators, merchants and clerics wandered about the world and contributed to its halcyon moments of cultural exchange. A continuum of cooperation, audible as a kind of ground tone upon which the more martial music of narrative history must be played, convivencia informed the entire medieval millennium, even those epochs that opened or closed with battle ... by combing the epochal battles with the eras of convivencia, a clearer picture of the complex encounter of Christianity and Islam emerges.
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