The Malta Independent 21 September 2021, Tuesday

The last Turkish razzia

Noel Grima Sunday, 29 August 2021, 09:05 Last update: about 22 days ago

The Turkish Raid of 1614. Edited by Ruben Abela. Publisher: Wirt iz-Zejtun / 2014. Pages: 104pp

Two hours before sunrise on Sunday, 6 July 1614, a group of 52 galleys and six galliots were seen approaching the eastern shore of Malta.

This was to be the last time the Turks tried to land in Malta. Under the Knights, as early as 1533, the small and uninhabited island of Comino was used by the corsairs to shelter their galleys as they lay in ambush of unsuspecting vessels sailing to and from Sicily.

Then came the notorious razzia of 1551 when the entire population of Gozo was taken into slavery. Then came the Great Siege of 1565 but the huge Ottoman armada was repulsed at a great cost.

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Undaunted, the Turks tried again. In 1574, some 300 Turkish vessels sheltered in the Comino channel for four days before moving on. And in 1582 a large Turkish fleet was sighted sailing off Malta. The next year four galliots from Bizerte raided Gozo, sacked Rabat and carried off 70 of its inhabitants into slavery.

Things were changing: in 1598 the corsair Cicala attacked Gozo with 40 galleys and 2,000 men but was repulsed by the island's garrison.

Then, as a memorial tablet on the wall of the old St Catherine church in Zejtun, known by one and all as San Girgor church, says: "On the 6th July 1614, on a Sunday morning, the Turkish fleet consisting of 60 galleys, entered St Thomas Bay and about 6,000 men came ashore. They came to the villages and arrived up to the land of Bulebel. They killed a lot of livestock; they ransacked the villages and burned the crop. They vandalised St Catherine's and all its altars, but a lot of them were killed and they ran away to the bay and no one of the Christians was captured and from the Christians about 20 were wounded and up to 11 September 1614 the children born in the parish were baptized in other parishes. (Extract from the second book of baptisms of this parish)."

This book contains the speeches made at a symposium organised by the NGO Wirt iz-Zejtun in 2014 to commemorate the fourth centenary of the attack.

As pointed out by Giulia Privitelli, the account as found on the commemorative slab in San Girgor does not tell the whole story. Nor do, to be sure, the accounts found in Turkish sources nor those found in the Order's official books which disregard almost all the heroic actions by the Maltese.

The Ottoman fleet tried to enter Marsaxlokk Bay to disembark but was hampered by cannon shots from Fort San Lucian. The fleet then entered unopposed St Thomas Bay.

Once the alarm was raised, most of the civilian population immediately sought shelter behind the fortifications of Vittoriosa and Senglea. For some reason, the Turks did not attack Santa Caterina, as Zejtun was then called, and thus were unable to carry off people as slaves.

Meanwhile, alerted by the fighting, knights and soldiers rushed to the area. Here however they were beaten back by the Turks - they were heavily outnumbered, the reinforcements did not arrive on time and so the military edge offered by the cavalry was lost.

Then came the second phase. The odds slowly turned against the Turks, more knights and soldiers arrived and the Turks were forced into a humiliating rout.

Meanwhile, however, the invading army set fire to San Girgor and to private homes, pillaged the poor, butchered livestock, burned the aniseed and cumin harvests, cut down olives and citrus trees and abducted cattle and sheep.

The Order's chronicles mention only one Maltese as having distinguished himself by bravery, Clemente Tabone, while from other sources we learn there were victims, such as Mario Ellun from Zurrieq. There were also knights who were killed and Turkish sources speak of many Maltese who were taken as slaves.

Having fled from the south, the Turkish fleet turned north and tried to carry out a similar raid in the north of the country. Here, however, they found the knights ready for them. Then, possibly influenced by considerations of internal politics due to a weak Sultan Ahmed, they went home.

It does not seem, Privitelli concludes, this was a premeditated vengeful attack on Malta as it is many times described. Later on, a planned attack by some 50,000 soldiers was diverted to Crete. One of the reasons for this change of plan seems to have been the construction of coastal forts on Malta's shores which were found to be particularly effective.

Apart from Privitelli, the other speakers at the symposium included Charles Debono from Heritage Malta, senior curator Sandro Debono who pointed out a reference to the razzia in a painting that used to be the titular painting in San Girgor (now in the parish museum); independent researcher Anton Bugeja who focused on Clemente Tabone, the doughty fighter who built the San Klement chapel near the spot where the tide turned; Fiona Vella, who focused on the bones found in a secret passage in San Girgor (put back after forensic examination in the past days); Godwin Vella, also from Heritage Malta, who writes about what it meant for Zejtun to be a rural community on the frontier in those days; Professor Stanley Fiorini who wrote on the south-east of Malta and its defence up to 1614 and lastly Stephen C. Spiteri who spoke about how the Hospitaller defensive strategy in the 17th century led to the development of so many coastal defensive forts we still see around Malta's shores.

Four centuries after the events, much has been forgotten. The names of the defenders, Maltese or knights, are mostly forgotten but can perhaps be retrieved and honoured. Historical investigation never stops.

 

 


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