Statue dedicated to Dragut in Istanbul

Statue dedicated to Dragut in Istanbul

Popular sentiment has it the world is now wiser because it can look back on history and avoid the errors of the past by espousing its experiences and lessons, thus moving forward from them. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The truth is that humanity never learns because each generation cocoons itself in a false knowledge bubble that it is better and knows more than past generations.

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Queen Elizabeth I of England

Four hundred and fifty years have elapsed and in 2015 Europe is in exactly the same position as it was in 1565 but with a vast increase in population and of course a vast transformation of developments that have taken place over the period. The sinister implications however remain today as they were then.

Malta: Valletta - the Great Master Palace portrait of the Grand Master Jean de la Vallette-Parisot (1557-1568), founder of Valletta  Photo by Giulio Andreini

Malta: Valletta – the Great Master Palace
portrait of the Grand Master Jean de la Vallette-Parisot (1557-1568), founder of Valletta
Photo by Giulio Andreini

I will restrict circumstances to what is currently happening in Europe. It is now estimated that during the last 12 months over 240,000 immigrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean after fleeing their homeland for various reasons, and have made their way to Europe in a non-military invasion but, nevertheless, an invasion that is predominantly Islamic.

The corsair Romegas

The corsair Romegas

Europe has done little or nothing about it. Italy, Greece and Malta have borne the brunt of this invasion. Their shores were similarly under threat 450 years ago by the powerful Ottoman forces hell-bent on inflicting their domination not only around the Mediterranean, but into mainland Europe.

The vast Ottoman Empire in 1565 stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean

The vast Ottoman Empire in 1565 stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean

Indeed, Ottoman imperialism extended throughout the North African shore and had grabbed substantial parts of Greece and a great number of Greek Islands. They had also substantially infiltrated Europe and dominated large parts of what are now Albania, Bosnia, Serbia and what are now the Balkan States and extended north to Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary and were knocking at Austria’s frontiers.

However, the real lust for thrust was domination of the Italian peninsula, an advance north to France and Germany and west to Spain and Portugal.

A vast Ottoman armada on the way to Malta

A vast Ottoman armada on the way to Malta

The key to this, the Ottomans believed, lay in capturing Malta at the foot of Italy, settling old scores with the Christian Knights who had already been expelled from Rhodes and using Malta as a marine and supply base for the great push north. To further increase their wrath in the name of Spain, the notorious corsair Romegas had continued to prey on Turkish shipping causing them tremendous losses.

In 1564 Romegas reached his peak when he captured a number of large merchant vessels including one that belonged to the Chief Eunuch of Seraglio, taking several high-ranking prisoners including the governors of Cairo and Alexandria and the former nurse of Emperor Suleiman’s daughter.

Feared Admiral Dragut described as a pirate corsair

Feared Admiral Dragut described as a pirate corsair

The die was cast. For Suleiman this was the last straw. Now, not only did he want revenge, he wanted to wipe out the Order of St John of Jerusalem, colonise Malta and conquer mainland Europe. Grandmaster La Valette’s spies in early 1565 reported the Turks were preparing an enormous fleet. The signs were ominous.

The Order’s vessels tracked the huge armada and reported everything indicated it was heading for Malta. La Valette continued to bolster Malta’s defences as well as strictly controlling and rationing food and water. He sent off numerous letters to Europe’s royal houses asking for military help, armaments and supplies.

Preparing defences in Malta

Preparing defences in Malta

The letters were mostly ignored on the basis that Malta “was a long way away” and that the threat was the Order’s problem and therefore they should deal with it. These are the same parallels as today with immigrant invasions deemed to be a Mediterranean problem and therefore the Mediterranean countries should deal with it.

On 18th May 1565, the fleet of 193 ships including 131 war galleys with a force of 50,000 men, mostly mariners and trained Ottoman soldiers, was seen from Malta’s shores. The fleet headed towards the south of Malta in the area of what today is Marsaxlokk (in Arabic “Marsa” means port and “xlokk” means south) and at one point appeared to be sailing on, perhaps towards Spain.

Ottomans approach and conquor Fort St Elmo - a great blow for the Knights

Ottomans approach and conquor Fort St Elmo – a great blow for the Knights

The armada halted and a vast number of troops disembarked and quickly swept through the south of the island. The invasion had begun and with it, the Great Siege of Malta. To counter these vast numbers La Valette had a total force of 6,000 men, Knights from Europe’s royal houses, a great number of Spanish soldiers and able-bodied Maltese.

For the next three-and-a-half months Malta was a blood-bath of death and atrocities on and by both sides. The Ottoman force occupied the marshland of what today is Marsa, to be within striking distance of the three cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea, Fort St Elmo and the Grand Harbour. St Elmo eventually fell but resistance in the other areas was tenacious and resilient.

 Battles at sea

Battles at sea

Today one shudders to hear of executions and beheadings. In 1565 it was par for the course. In one horrendous incident, the Ottomans captured a number of Knights, executed them, nailed the bodies to wooden crosses and floated them in the Grand Harbour.

Enraged, La Valette ordered a number of Turkish prisoners to be beheaded; the heads were loaded into cannons and fired towards the Ottoman forces.

 Fierce land battles

Fierce land battles

Strategically, the Ottomans’ plans were miscalculated and mistaken. The force of resistance had been greatly under-estimated. Yet, the greatest complication was the weather. The feared Ottoman Admiral Dragut had estimated a short and sharp victorious invasion. Yet, May spilled into June, June into July and July into August.

In mid-August, the Maltese weather changed to its annual “xlokk” (south) status, with breathtakingly hot and clammy winds and extremely high humidity, bereft of the cooling “tramuntana” (north) winds descending on Malta via The Alps and Italy.

Bogged down in the marshy Marsa area, the remaining Turkish troops suffered terribly and to worsen matters the marshy water bred vast swarms of mosquitoes and malaria and general sickness became paramount.

 Valiant defence by the Knights

Valiant defence by the Knights

The month changed to even more clammier September and the Ottomans suffered their greatest blow when their Admiral Dragut was struck on the chest by a cannon ball in what today is Tigne’ and died. News began to reach the islands that relief forces from Italy and Spain were on the way.

The Ottomans had suffered a crushing defeat and by September 8th 1565 the Armada had departed, much decimalised and depleted. The Great Siege was over and Malta had survived.

During the course of the siege, Queen Elizabeth I of England had written “if the Turks should prevail against the isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom”. She deemed that Italy, France and Spain would be wide open to a mass invasion.

When the siege ended, Elizabeth wrote to Grandmaster la Valette to state “Malta has saved Christendom in Europe”.

A painting by Cali of the death of Admiral Dragut

A painting by Cali of the death of Admiral Dragut

 

ALBERT FENECH

 

 

 

 

About Albert Fenech

Born in 1946, Albert Fenech’s family took up UK residence in 1954 where he spent his boyhood and youth before temporarily returning to Malta between 1957 and 1959 and then coming back to Malta permanently in 1965. He spent eight years as a full-time journalist with “The Times of Malta” before taking up a career in HR Management but still retained his roots by actively pursuing freelance journalism and broadcasting for various media outlets covering social issues, current affairs, sports and travel.