The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

Defining Malta’s Great Siege

Malta Independent Monday, 21 November 2005, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Much, some say too much, has been written about the Muslim siege of Malta in 1565. In the 18th century, Voltaire too had remarked that nothing is better known than the siege of Malta. Many of us may also think that they may know all there is to know about the siege, but very often this is a knowledge based on barely-understood or even misunderstood myths created in the past to serve political uses.

The task of historians is to sift the chaff from the grain. To present a vision based on actual events and facts generally requires a general wide-ranging response which has become so popular following the revolution in history-writing brought about by the Annales school. Still, with his typical humility, Stephen Spiteri does not pretend that this is a histoire totale because “there remains much that needs to be discovered, studied, and understood” but still the breadth and detail of this work is outstanding.

Stephen Spiteri’s The Great Siege Knights vs Turks. MDLXV. Anatomy of a Hospitaller Victory is a magnificent volume that covers the events of the siege from, one might say, all possible aspects. In the process he has given us the definitive book of the siege, a book that oozes the expertise of the author from every page and illustration, many of them also drawn by Spiteri himself, and yet manages to remain accessible even to the general reader.

One might have a few small reservations about the book, such as the inordinate heaviness of the book (owing to the choice of heavy art paper) which makes it somewhat unwieldy and also reflect light. Also ill-judged was the placing of the long informative captions on the inside of the pages since the very hefty book does not open enough for them to be read completely. Moreover, the proofreading would have benefited from a further careful gentle dusting.

All one might wish for

Such a magnificent book so rich in detail also needed an index, which would have made the entire publication even bulkier. The author’s idea to include a CD with the full text that can then be used to search for specific information is interesting and extremely useful but ultimately no substitute for an index.

Still these are really most petty observations and in no way should they be interpreted as taking anything from the great merit and even the sheer aesthetic beauty of the book which all bibliophiles will definitely approach with reverence and wish to see on their bookshelves. Not only does the book delve into all the details one may imagine or wish to learn about – the events, the personalities, the armies, the navies, the fortifications, the weapons, strategies and tactics, medical practices, and so on – but it is accompanied with numerous excellent illustrations from contemporary sources and the author’s own masterly hand that serve to render visual descriptions which the ordinary reader may find it hard to “see”. The whole project becomes even more remarkable when one keeps in mind that it was all conceived, planned, written, illustrated, and produced by Spiteri himself – a five-year effort truly rewarded by success.

The end notes are very voluminous and contain enough material for another handful of books about the subject.

Naturally the backbone of the volume are the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the siege, including Balbi di Correggio’s day-by-day account, the eye-witness accounts in Fra Vincenzo Anastagi and Antonio Cirni, and in Giacomo Bosio and the numerous other available sources. But then there are also the original accounts, descriptions, and reports in the Order’s archives, not to say the great wealth of research that can be gleaned from modern historians. All of these provide tesserae, some large, some small, that will go on to make the full picture.

In many more ways than one, the siege was a watershed for Malta. It convinced the knights that they were now to stay in this island blessed with their brethren’s blood and not to seek a return to their beloved Rhodes, so much closer to the theatre of war against Islam that was their perpetual vocation. But it also served to bring little Malta to the attention of Europe where the famous defence was seen as (and definitely helped by the Order’s propaganda machinery) an invaluable check on the uncontrollable western expansion of the Ottoman hordes. The huge number of important visitors that kept flowing into the island after the event and writing reports of the island is a concrete example.

Signal achievement

Spiteri’s most signal achievement is to bring together the various sources and documents and weave them into a fascinating account seasoned by his own knowledge and expertise.

Spiteri describes the Ottoman armada that arrived off Marsaxlokk around midday on 18 Malta in May 1565 as “the biggest Ottoman naval effort ever assembled to date. It comprised 130 galleys, 30 galleots, nine barges, 10 large ships, and some 200 smaller ships” with 30,000 men on board, not to mention a spine-chilling array of armaments and munitions. Contrary to what Turkish sources may imply, this was far from being a small-scale skirmish on a little fortified position in a Mediterranean backwater.

It could not have been otherwise because this represented for Suleiman the last chance to rid the Middle Sea of these ‘unruly brethren’ to whom he had so magnanimously allowed full battle honours in 1523.

His great opponent was the redoubtable Jean de Valette, whom history and a dash of myth have tended to represent as a physically strong, sharp-witted, single-minded fighter, towering like a colossus over friend and foe. Spiteri argues that at the age of seventy, that inner fire was leaving him and he was described as “frail and tormented by doubt”. Even his handwriting of the time, Spiteri informs us, reveals “an unsteady if somewhat shaky hand”, with large letters implying a problem with his eyesight. All these may explain a few decisions taken before the actual investment which must have served as a transfusion of fresh gumption to the old soul.

One interesting point is the presentation in a comparative table of the differing assessments of the Ottoman forces presented by the various contemporary sources, with Balbi’s being the most sanguine at 48,000 and Anastagi (who spent the whole siege at Mdina) being perhaps more realistic with 22,000. To these Balbi adds a further 10,000 Barbary corsairs, Anastagi a “mere” 2,500.

Spiteri carefully explains the strategies and tactics of both sides with the help of his excellently-drawn diagrams and figures and graphically-reconstructed dioramas. This is most important for all of us who have much less knowledge of Ottoman military matters.

Un popolazo di poco animo?

The Hospitallers’ defence force was much, much smaller. Gelled together by 500 knights, it consisted of a collection of about 6,000 of adventurers, mercenaries, convicts, locals, and anybody else who could be drawn up to swell the meagre force. The author makes full use of his military knowledge in desiring the organisation and the armaments that the knights could call upon. The 3,000 (Balbi) or 4560 (Bosio) local men supplied just about half the force.

An unknown factor was how the Maltese would react during a protracted siege. In Rhodes a substantial number of Rhodiots had shown that they were not ready to keep fighting and had no special love for the Hospitallers, due, no doubt, to the military service on their galleys that the knights exacted. The Maltese would rise to the occasion, even though de Valette had described them as “un popolazo di poco animo”.

The central aspects of the siege were the fortifications, for without them there would have been no siege at all. Here Spiteri is even more on familiar ground. It is crucial to remember that the present magnificent fortifications have very little to do with the realities of 1565. For one obvious thing, Valletta then did, of course, not exist at all, while the fortifications of Vittoriosa and Senglea were much changed in consonance with later Baroque trends. Spiteri’s illustrations make it all so clear.

The stiff of legend

The decision to attack Fort St Elmo first was the important choice that would lead to an explanation of the Ottomans’ ultimate lack of success. Spiteri points out that no records exist as to the circumstances leading to this decision, although western historians have easily supplied a heated argument and power struggle between Mustapha and Piali, with the latter having his way.

The defence of Fort St Elmo, the stuff of legend, was a pivotal event in the larger framework of the siege. The Ottomans had brought over considerable firepower and well-trained gunners which Spiteri illustrates most clearly, as he does with the artillery at the disposal of the Hospitallers.

The fort managed to survive so long owing to a mixture of inordinate bravery but also moments of vacillations by the besieged and wrong strategies (especially the failure to realise early the importance of regular reinforcements received by sea from St Angelo) and lack of resolve at crucial moments by the besiegers. Spiteri also points the inherent difficulties in motivating mercenary troops enough – a problem that was quite central for the defenders of St Elmo who “in the end had to be bribed with cash, barrels of wine, and gaming tables – the money required being advanced by the Bishop of Malta”. Yet every hour of its survival meant an increased chance for Malta to hold out.

Fort St Elmo cost the defenders 1,500 men, including 89 knights. But the cost to the Ottomans was far higher for they might have lost up to 6,000 men and, following a very lucky shot or perhaps “friendly fire”, Dragut, the wiliest of the besiegers’ leaders, was killed on the eve of its fall.

Excellent illustrations help the reader to visualise how different Senglea, the site that the Ottomans next turned their attention to, looked in 1565 from the present. Indeed the whole topography of the area is so changed that, without such visual help, one cannot really imagine the events as they took place. Such ignorance only leads to wrong conclusions.

Several Maltese men too managed to make into the archival records by means of their skills or bravery. Gerolamo Cassar, who would later oversee the transformation of Sciberras promontory into “the most humble city of Valletta”; Toni Bajada, the messenger who led the Piccolo Soccorso to Vittoriosa; and fighters like Luca; Pietru Bola; Martin; Gianni tal-pont; Frangiscu; Ceilo Tonna; Nicola Xuereb (said to have had the best and fastest horse in Malta) and a good number of others all nudge their way into the account.

The defence of Fort St Michael and Vittoriosa were other periods of supreme effort, made worse by the conditions under which the besieged had to fight and to be continuously on the alert. Physical and nervous exhaustion were all too common. Pietro del Monte, one of the future grand masters to have fought in the siege, seems to have suffered such a condition when he was in charge of the defence of Senglea, and was retired to Vittoriosa.

Dates reconsidered

A whole section is dedicated to the small but crucial roles played by Mdina and Gozo during the siege. Excellent graphic reconstructions and diagrams are vital in helping us to visualise the city and its fortifications then and before extensive changes were carried out in later centuries.

One very important feature pointed out by Spiteri is that dates in the siege do not coincide with modern ones. The Gregorian reform of 1582 had not taken place and so dates were 10 days “out of synch”. Thus, for example, the heavy rains of 26 August which would be quite remarkable today would be more expected around 5 September. It also explains the “haste” by which the Turks left on 8 September which would in reality have been our 18 September, right in the heart of the unpredictable winter season. This feature, first pointed out by Anton Quintano, provides a vital dimension in our study of the siege.

No less interesting is the account of the aftermath of the siege, both on the limited scale where, for example, several common people ended in debt and in the debtors’ prison, and also on the larger European scale. Also impressive is Spiteri’s final assessment of the various aspects and strategic decisions taken during the siege, of course with the benefit of hindsight but above all also his great technical knowledge.

  • don't miss